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|October 10, 2002|
The Rediff Special/M D Riti
The group of women trudging along stoically stopped very gratefully at the sight of trays bearing glasses of sugarcane juice. Most of them reached out eagerly for the glasses. But Prema, wife of Karnataka's Chief Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna, dug into her big brown handbag, looking for her purse.
"No, no, please, Prema akka (elder sister)," said an eager Congress party official. "The party will pay for this."
Prema nodded her thanks as more waiters from the restaurant attached to the folk museum Janapada Loka, at Ramanagaram, southwest of Bangalore, converged on the walkers, who happily took a short break before resuming the long walk.
Krishna, 70, was on the third day of his padayatra from Bangalore to Mandya, which began on October 7. "I am just a small man trying to find some comfort in conveying a message to the people that they should be peaceful and tolerant," he had said. So he set off on his first ever walkathon in what he describes as an endeavour to "draw the attention of the people to the fact that the Cauvery problem has assumed such serious proportions".
Krishna's padayatra comes in the wake of the Supreme Court rejecting Karnataka's plea and insisting that it release water to Tamil Nadu from its upstream reservoirs. With Karnataka's farmers issuing various threats in defiance of the court's order, Krishna declared that he would walk from Bangalore to Mandya, near Mysore, southwest of Bangalore, a distance of 98km. Mandya town and district, from where Krishna hails, are at the centre of the Cauvery water agitation in Karnataka.
The padayatra began at an extremely brisk pace, with the entourage covering almost half the distance in the first two days itself. By the end of the second day, Krishna had reached Ramanagaram town, 49 kilometres from Bangalore. But the pace slowed down thereafter, with the chief minister scheduled to reach Mandya on October 12, where he will address a public meeting.
On day three, October 9, the destination was Channapatnam town, which is about 60km from Bangalore. Krishna began the day dressed in white trousers and full-sleeved white shirt, a white peaked cap perched jauntily on his immaculate crop of white hair. What started off as a crisply starched white angavastram (a small shawl) with a deeply yellow border, slung around his neck, wilted slowly in the heat and humidity.
Krishna's spotless white Nike air shoes had by then acquired the grime of the national highway along which he is walking. The long white sports socks were clearly visible. A few grains of saffron rice, with which the priest of a wayside temple had blessed him, clung stubbornly to his hair.
In contrast to his comfortable walking shoes were Prema's old, worn leather slippers. But she walked at a better pace, usually slightly ahead of Krishna, not waylaid by eager villagers along the highway like her husband. A group of women ministers and party workers walked briskly with her, debating the merits of slippers versus walking shoes. Minister Nafisa Fazal, dressed in a crisp white sari, wore new Nike shoes. Minister Rani Satish, who had started the padayatra in a bullock cart, now walked with them.
Traffic policemen accompanying the mini-procession obviously had no doubts on this issue. Many of them merrily abandoned even their regulation brown leather shoes for various kinds of sneakers. Very few of the walkers actually stayed overnight in Krishna's campsites, though. "We all go home to Bangalore every day by car, rest our aching feet in hot water basins in our own homes, and catch up with the chief minister at his guest house every morning," confided R Karthyayini, a party worker.
The group containing Krishna and his closest associates is cordoned off by two strands of yellow nylon rope held on both sides by party workers to make a corridor of sorts for the chief minister. Traffic remains undisturbed with the police making sure vehicles have enough space to drive past the walking Krishna and his entourage.
By midday, the walkers arrived at Kengal village en route to Channapatnam. Everyone was more than ready to take a long break. Krishna was greeted ceremonially at the temple at the town's entrance. Then he walked off to the nearby Kuvempu College, where the headmaster's chambers had been converted into an air-conditioned room for the chief minister. A brand-new double bed covered by brand-new white bedsheets occupied a corner. But Krishna got barely half an hour to enjoy the comfort as an endless stream of ministerial colleagues, supporters, and friends began to besiege him.
The most visible person in the gathering was yesteryear's Kannada superstar Ambarish, who hails from Mandya and is back in the Congress after much party hopping. Less noticeable were award-winning Kannada film director S V Rajendra Singh and another ageing character actor, Jai Jagadeesh. Unlike in their heyday, the crowds today were not interested in them. Only legislator C P Yogeshwar, who has scripted, directed, and acted in two Kannada films featuring the Cauvery dispute and drought, had some appeal with the waiting crowds.
Deputy Chief Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, wearing walking shoes too, turned up to meet Krishna with Minister for Public Works Dharam Singh. The three were closeted for a while. Helping the chief minister schedule his meetings was Krishna's personal secretary, Sridhar, dressed in black jeans and a white T-shirt, with a Nike cap turned backwards.
Prema sat outside the air-conditioned room on an uncomfortable red plastic chair with the other women party workers, organising and dealing with the endless stream of visitors. "I do not take an afternoon nap even at home," she said.
Suddenly, everyone noticed that one of her big white-stone earrings was missing. "Madam, your ear stud has fallen off," whispers a woman police constable, who had been posted to protect the chief minister's wife. "I removed my ear stud because my left ear was beginning to hurt," Prema told me before waving away the sari-clad constable saying, "I don't need protection, don't be silly."
Hovering around unobtrusively in the gathering was Krishna's older son-in-law, business tycoon Siddhartha Hegde. Dressed soberly in black trousers and a long-sleeved blue shirt, he stayed on the fringes, quietly taking care of problems like the shortage of food. Krishna had provided lunch for 5,000 people, but found that almost twice the number had turned up. A few in the crowd recognised the man who is probably the biggest individual coffee planter in Karnataka now, owning about 2,000 hectares of plantations. Hegde is also founder of the cyber café chain Coffee Day, and as a venture capital investor he owns sizeable chunks of some of Bangalore's leading information technology firms.
Suddenly, there was a light shower. The crowds were galvanised. "We are just praying that a good monsoon should come now," sighed Prema. But the shower passed quickly, without so much as wetting the heavy red carpet spread outside the room in which Krishna was resting.
Coincidentally, considering that Krishna was walking to demand more water for Karnataka, there was a water shortage among the waiting walkers. A few bottles of bottled mineral water were quickly gulped, passed from one thirsty mouth to another. A large cauldron of tender coconut water was also finished in five minutes flat. Inside Krishna's room, though, there was drinking water in plenty as well as packets of raisins and other dried fruits to energize the weary chief minister.
"This journey has been very strenuous and taxing," Krishna admitted tiredly. "I am just enduring it. I am halfway through. I hope I can complete my journey. I have also done a lot of useful introspection since I started this padayatra." The fact that he is about to enter his fourth year as chief minister in a couple of days went almost unnoticed.
The conversation outside his room was about matters far more mundane. The walkers stretched their aching legs and discussed the merits of various painkillers. Some promised themselves the treat of a pain-relieving injection at the end of the day from any one of the three ambulances following the walkathon: one from a government hospital, another from a well-known cardiac care centre, and the third from a prominent private hospital.
As the evening began, the marchers prepared for the second part of the walk. Party workers held up ropes on either side of the door from Krishna's room, thus creating a corridor for him. The other waiting walkers eased their sore feet into their footwear and talked longingly about steaming cups of coffee. "I am quite used to not eating or drinking anything between lunch and dinner, but we'll try and get something for all of you on the way," said the slim and still very attractive Prema with a smile, as she waited with her supporters and police guards for her husband to emerge from his room.
Krishna came out of his restroom looking rejuvenated. He waved to the assembled crowd and set off at a brisk pace again with his followers walking behind with all the energy they could muster. Their cars followed a little distance behind.
The chief minister ends his walkathon at Mandya with a huge public rally on October 12. As he headed for Channapatnam, it began raining again. Police officers offered the chief minister a vehicle, but he politely refused. He also accepts an umbrella from an aide and continued walking into the rain and the sunset, for he still has miles to go!
Image: Dominic Xavier
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