Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com attended the Congress president's rally in Mumbai on Friday, and explains why people who came with high hopes left disappointed.
Before arriving at the venue of Congress President Rahul Gandhi's public meeting in Mumbai, I got a message from a friend stating: 'Today Mumbai Congress has called a rally at Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai. Any one working in and around that area or travelling there avoid it today around 5 pm.'
'It is possible that since the ground will be empty they might catch you and ask you to attend the rally and listen to Rahul Gandhi.'
The joke in the message was that since nobody wants to attend Gandhi's meeting, one should avoid going near the venue.
I too expected the same. But when I arrived at the ground, I thought of Anupam Kher's play Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai (Anything Can Happen).
People were coming in hordes. Not in the hundreds, but in the thousands.
The turnout was impressive as the Congress has been out of power in the Mumbai city municipality for more than three decades.
The party was humiliated by Mumbai voters in the 2014 parliamentary election and in that year's Maharashtra assembly poll too.
The Congress lost all six Mumbai Lok Sabha seats in 2014 to Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena candidates, seats it had won in 2009.
"I cannot believe that so many people turned up for a Rahul Gandhi rally," a police constable on duty told his colleague. "I am telling people to go back because there is no place to sit in the front rows. This is a big surprise for me."
Interacting with people, one got a sense that they were gung ho about Rahul's speech. Many of them believe he is going to be prime minister in 2019.
Asked if he felt Rahul would become PM in 2019, Mukhtar Ahmad said, "Why would I be here at this rally if he was not becoming the PM in 2019?"
"Jeet bhi sakte hain. Aisi umeed hai (he may win, that's the hope)," his brother Jalil Ahmad added.
Mukhtar intervened to say, "Ab ke aana hi aana hai (they will certainly come to power this time)."
Jalil interrupted his brother to add, "Sadly, only Muslims vote for the Congress mostly. Hindus have dumped them."
Asked how many Lok Sabha seats the Congress would win in Mumbai, Nitin Patil, general secretary, Mumbai Regional Congress Committee, without batting an eyelid, predicted, "All six seats. There are no jobs in Mumbai city."
"Demonetisation and GST have added to the problems. People are fed up with the (Narendra Damodardas) Modi government."
Asked what gave him such confidence, Patil said, "Don't go by what is written and shown in the media about the Congress. You visit slums and talk to poor people. You will come to know they are all with the Congress."
Pushpa Gosavai, a slum dweller from Mulund, north east Mumbai, had come to Rahul's rally because she is very upset with Prime Minister Modi and believes it is time he is ousted from office.
She vents her anger at Modi, saying, "For the last two years, Modi has stopped subsidies on food and kerosene to poor people. Therefore, I want him to lose the election."
"During Congress rule," she explained, "each member of my family of five got two litres of kerosene, two kilogrammes of rice, 3 kg wheat, 1 kg sugar and 1 litre palm oil per month. Modi has stopped this."
"Now, only two people in my family can get this. And only when my biometrics is matched with the Aadhar at the ration shop. Half the time that biometric machine does not work and I have to buy essential food items from the market."
"If 1 kg wheat costs Rs 3 at a government ration shop, in the open market you get it for Rs 25. Similarly, 1 kilo rice that costs Rs 2 at the ration shop costs Rs 30 outside. Since I get subsidy for only two people in the family, I have to buy these essential food grains in the open market."
"And the Modi government is so heartless that it has stopped supplying sugar in ration shops and kerosene too."
Ashok Sardar, another slum-dweller, listening to our conversation, chips in, "Gas cylinders are now Rs 870 and that too is not subsidised."
"When Rahul Gandhi becomes prime minister," Gosavai adds, "he will reverse Modi's decisions that are making poor people's lives miserable."
Adds Sardar, "According to Modi a poor person in Mumbai is someone whose family earns less than Rs 60,000 per year. Modi has no idea that a room in a slum in Mumbai has a rent of more than Rs 5,000. How can the living standards of a poor man in Mumbai and in a village be the same? What are his yardsticks in calling a man like me a rich man when my family earns Rs 2 lakh a year?"
Asked what should then be the definition of a poor man in Mumbai, he says, "I feel any family which earns less than Rs 2.5 lakh in Mumbai city is a poor family. Please tell this to Modiji if you can."
At 6.34 pm, an announcement is made that Rahul Gandhi has arrived. The crowd starts shouting "Rahul Gandhi Zindabad!"
But before Rahul can speak, there are several Congress leaders who want to speak before him. The Congress president finally begins his speech at 7.20 pm.
He is greeted by a jubilant crowd which hopes he will utter some magic words to change their destinies.
Sadly, this is Rahul Gandhi and you don't get anything new from him apart from his "chowkidar chor hai" riff.
Modi, he says, is industrialist friendly and against the poor, especially farmers whose loans he refuses to waive.
Rahul cites a roster of bank defaulters and absconders -- Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi, Vijay Mallya -- among others -- telling the audience that Modi is in cahoots with these men.
Twenty minutes into his speech, he returns to his "chowkidar chor hai" riff.
Many start walking out of the venue, disappointment written on their faces.
Kamal Ansari, who walked out even as Rahul's speech is on, said, "Rahul accha bolta hai par masaledar nahi bolta. Public ko masala chahiye jo Modiji bolte hai (Rahul speaks well, but his speeches are not spicy enough like Modi)."
"Nobody wants to hear the truth in today's world. Rahul must understand it by now. People want masaledar talk. And therefore they listen to Modiji so attentively."
Sanjay Kamble, who took a half day off from his job in Thane which is about 30 km away from the venue, just to hear Rahul speak felt the same way.
"Rahul is repeating the same things in his speeches. This chowkidar chor hai is becoming very repetitive. I came to hear something new. Some new idea on how he is going to change India, but he repeats the same old tape."
"It is very disappointing. I wasted my day by coming here."
Asked if he would vote for the Congress in 2019, Kamble said, "After hearing Rahul's speech no way will I vote for the Congress. I voted for the Congress in 2014, but this time it is a strict no."
"I had come with great expectations to this rally and I am going back very disappointed."
Asked why people were leaving mid-way through Rahul's speech, Devendra Bharati, an office-goer, felt, "Rahul is not able to get the nation's pulse. The nation at this moment is in a different mood post the air strikes on Pakistan and the Pulwama attack and here he is going on with the same chowkidar chor hai statement."
"He has to give answers and not just criticise Modi. He did not show how he will take our country in a new direction. I am disillusioned with him."
"After hearing his speech today I felt Rahul is immature," said Bharati. "He must counter Modi on his every move, be it Pakistan or any other issue. He is not doing it."
"The speech was thanda (cold), very cold," Sanjay Tiwari, a taxi driver, felt. "And you look at the people who have come. They are mostly oldies and middle-aged people. Young people are missing from Rahul's rally."
So will Gandhi become prime minister in 2019?
"No way!" said Tiwari. "Modiji is coming back in 2019, yeh pandit ki zubaan hai (this is a Brahmin's word)."