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The Rediff Special/Syed Firdaus Ashraf

"It is the people who have to bring the change, and not individuals"

As the Devnagari Express steamed out of Bombay on the night of May 31, I had this strange sensation of not knowing precisely what I was I was headed for.

Officially, of course, I was en route to join Bharatiya Janata Party president Lal Kishinchand Advaniís rath through a part of Maharashtra state -- the BJP boss in his latest yatra having already covered some 4,400 kms in the four southern states besides Goa and Andaman and Nicobar Islands was the other.

But what precisely did I expect to see? Frankly, I had no idea -- I was there, I guess, to see what the experience would bring.

Nanded, in honour of the VVIP visitor, was coloured a vibrant saffronÖ and the draught from the fleet of Premier 118 NE air conditioned cars that wafted us journos to the hotel five kilometers from the station set all the flags to fluttering.

Unwilling to kick back in our hotel rooms when we could as easily be touring the countryside, we set out again. And first crack out of the box, discovered in course of conversation with the inhabitants of rural Nanded -- known as kheda gaon -- that a good proportion of the locals were totally unaware of who Advani was. "Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, yes sir -- but Advani, who?" What concerned the locals more than the BJP bossís Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra was the problem of drinking water shortage which was hitting them where it hurt.

A quick detour that took us to the famous gurdwara built by Guru Gobind Singh later, we proceeded to Bokhar to catch up with Advani. The BJP boss had, however, been delayed by a couple of hours and so we again got into conversation with the locals -- only to find, again, that the impending arrival of the BJP rath left them pretty cold. The reason was not hard to find -- the area is a hardcore Sena stronghold, and the BJP's Maharashtra-based poll ally was not supporting Advaniís yatra.

The chief of the BJPís local unit is, interestingly enough, a Muslim. "People are amused that I am with the BJP," smiled Mohammed Ilyas Bhojani. "But what is there to wonder about in that? I have always liked the BJPís sincerity and honesty, I have been with the party for the last seven years and I havenít found one thing to complain about in its policies and programmes."

When you talk to a Muslim who supports the Hindutva party, the question is automatic: How does he view the demolition of the Babri Masjid? The answer is immediate, and unequivocal: "Firstly, it was not the BJP workers who demolished the mosque. And secondly, I donít find anything wrong in it. After all, there are so many mosques all over the world which have been demolished to construct roads and bridges. If the BJP demands the site for the construction of the Ram Mandir, then where is the harm in the Muslim community giving up their title to the mosque? It is not as if the BJP wants to construct a temple in Pakistan -- all they are asking for is that they be allowed to build one in Ayodhya, and no one disputes that it is the birthplace of Lord Ram..."

Bhojaniís train of thought is interrupted by a dust cloud on the horizon, heralding the arrival of a cavalcade of police jeeps and cars, streaming in ahead of the rath with the smiling Advani standing erect and waving to the people watching curiously from both sides of the road. Flanking the BJP boss is party general secretary Pramod Mahajan and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde.

Advani had just crossed the Adilabad district, the border of Andhra Pradesh, to enter Maharashtra. Visibly tired, his voice cracking under the strain, he delivered himself of a quick speech to the 1,500-odd people milling around, about the mission he was on.

"It has been fifty years of our freedom but till today we have not progressed by an inch," Advani said. "There is no drinking water available in our villages. More than 40 per cent of our population is below the poverty line. There is no health care system. Medicines are so expensive that poor people cannot even afford to fall illÖ"

Familiar words, echoing with an angry resonance in the night air. The crowd responds, shaken out of its apathy and saluting Advaniís speech with patented slogans.

From there to Nanded, and an encore of the speech to an audience of around 5,000 -- the medium, I realise, is the rath, the message one of despair, the subliminal undercurrent that it is only the BJP that can kick start the stalled progress of Independent India -- only the faces change with each pit stop.

Advani rested from his labours at the government rest house in Nanded. Meanwhile, curiosity had some of us milling around the rath -- a converted Tata truck model 709 which, according to its driver, gives an average of eight kms per litre -- and that is around Rs 42,000 worth of fuel to cover the 15,000 kms on Advaniís itinerary.

In front, the truck carries the bold ĎOmí -- Hinduismís governing mantra. In the back, is that concession to the comforts made possible by progress (a progress, ironically, that is denied in Advaniís speeches), namely a generator that supplies air-conditioning and electricity to the rath. Inside the rath is a small room with a sofa for Advani, and two chairs for his VIP fellow travellers. And if there is any irony in speaking of lack of electricity while standing on the back of a truck that carries its own supply of that commodity, it passes unnoticed by speaker and audiences alike.

Oh yes, the innards of the rath also contain a bathroom, washbasin, mirror and refrigerator -- the last named stocked with bottles of mineral water and soft drinks.

The right panel of the truck is embellished with paintings of Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, Sardar Patel and Dr Ambedkar. And the bold slogan: "Aaon inke Bharat Ka Sapna Saakar Baneye (Let us build the Bharat of their dreams)." On the left panel are paintings of Rani Laxmibai, Veerpandyan Kattaboman, Subhas Chandra Bose, Veer Savarkar, Ashfaquella Khan, Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and -- of course -- the RSS's founder Dr Hedgewar. The pantheon has one conspicous exception -- Jawaharlal Nehru.

The top of the rath boasts a dais with three chairs fixed in place -- the chair in the middle boasting a fixed mike connected to the loudspeakers stuck, like elephant ears, to the sides of the vehicle.

Two drivers take turns to play charioteer. Bhagwan Patankar, 38, and Sagar Vidwan, 24. Patankar is a veteran with two Advani yatras in his cv, but Vidwan is on his debut run at the helm of Hindutvaís chariot.

An early morning press conference kicked off day two. I managed to buttonhole Advani for a private moment, in course of which he agreed to appear -- his second innings, actually, as it was he who was our inaugural guest -- on the Rediff Chat. And to talk in depth about the Muslims of India, provided I went to Delhi to meet him after the yatra was over.

Advani moved on. We scribes, with impatient editors to cater for, went off to file our dispatches before racing on to catch up with the rath at Jalna. New crowdÖ pretty much the same speech, with the odd barb aimed at the Congress and the Janata Dal thrown in by way of seasoning.

It was in Jalna that I met former Marxist, former executive editor of Blitz and now Advaniís biographer, Sudheendra Kulkarni. And from this point on, I accompanied the erstwhile journo in his car.

How, I asked during our unimpeded drive to Aurangabad, could Kulkarni with his Marxist leanings now support the BJP? "People like me were living in an illusory land. I realised very late in my life that the Marxist ideology is not suitable in India -- in fact, I would say it is unsuitable for any corner of the world. Besides, you donít have to be a Marxist to be concerned about poverty -- Swami Vivekananda was no Marxist, yet his words on the poor can serve as our guiding principle."

And so on to Aurangabad, where approximately 20,000 people had turned out to welcome the BJP leader. However, it was the acerbic, witty Mahajan who stole the show with a speech laced with barbs at political opponents. When Advani began speaking, it triggered a mini exodus -- the reason being simply that his brand of Hindi was not as easily understood by the locals as Mahajanís Marathi had been.

Funnily enough, a short while earlier when Mahajan was speaking, Advaniís secretary Deepak Chopra pressed me to play translator. I asked Chopra how Advani managed in the southern states, and was told that a translator had been provided to link speaker and audiences.

Argues Jitendra Sanshedi, a commerce graduate and a resident of Aurangabad, "The problem is that Advani is not a popular leader in Aurangabad when compared to say Bal Thackeray and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. If either of these two leaders had come, there would have been a minimum of 100,000 people gathered here."

Again, Advani was whisked off to the government rest house -- while we journos relaxed in three star ambience. How come, I wondered -- after all, this was costing someone a small fortune "The hotel is owned by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member," the receptionist kindly informed me. "And he has provided 12 rooms for you journalists and some political leaders who have come here from other places."

Another morning, another press conference. And sitting in the airconditioned car made me wonder whether the fleet provided for our use too was owned by a generous RSS sympathiser. Not quite, I learnt -- the cars came courtesy a close associate of Pramod Mahajan. Mahajan, of course, made haste to clarify that the owner had always been reimbursed for the use of his vehicles.

At the press conference in Aurangabad, Advani deviated a bit from the script, to rope in the issue of Kashmiri Pandits. "It is a shame that even after 50 years of independence, Hindus in this country have been thrown out of their state. It is seven years since the insurgency started in Kashmir, and the central government has done nothing about it."

That done, the rath took off again, trailing us in its wake like a cometís tail, and made for Nashik -- this time, to the accompaniment of heavy rain. And by way of change, we journos got to travel with Advani himself, in his famous vehicle.

I took the opportunity to ask him why he kept harping on Indiaís Muslims not being part of the mainstream, and he countered that by saying that he himself had never used that phrase, that it was a concoction of the media, and that he was totally against any attempt to divide the population on the lines of community or caste, that he carried the logic further to even oppose reservations -- the latest example being the reservation of some seats for Sindhis in Parliament.

So okay, will this yatra trigger a change in the system? "No, this yatra is to remind the people of our country the importance of independence. It is the people who have to bring the change, and not individuals."

A brief interruption, with Chopra requesting Advani to climb to the rooftop dais and say a few words to a small crowd gathered in a roadside village, and the BJP boss returned to pick up the threads of conversation. "I learnt a long time ago that it is very difficult to change an individualís mindset. And since then I have accepted this as a fact of life. This yatra will help people in a way, though, since I will be carrying their requests, petitions and memoranda direct to the prime minister and the respective chief ministers."

Kulkarni -- who on this trip was playing liaison between Advani and the journos -- at this point herded us out so the next batch of journos could have the privilege of travelling with Advani in his rath.

A night halt at Nashik, an early morning press conference, and back we were in our cars -- this time, driving back to Bombay.

Where will you go after you drop us off, I asked our driver. Back to Aurangabad, came the response. So you are driving all this way just to drop us off? Sure, came the reply, we have been instructed to "take care of you journalists".

The thought is perhaps inappropriate -- but I couldnít keep it from cropping up, all the same. Nearly seventy years ago, a frail old man had walked barefoot to Dandi. The media was not invited to this junket -- and yet the waves raised by that march forced a mighty empire to release its hold on this country.

Another day, another yatraÖ with duly "taken care of" journalists recording the saga for posterityÖ

Progress, I guess, comes in many guises!

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