Friday, September 13, 2013
In that year that Indira Gandhi was defeated because of the ‘excesses’ of the Emergency there were political rallies by the Janata Party that were infused with that curious mixture of hope and anger that only comes when people believe that their active support is needed to change a political reality. This was the atmosphere in Jaipur.
People started to arrive at the romantically named Amroodon ka Bagh grounds from distant villages and desert districts from the early hours of the morning, so by the time I got there, around 11 a.m., there was already an impressive crowd gathered under the white ‘shamiana’ decorated with BJP flags and pictures of Vasundhara Raje. This was her show essentially since Narendra Modi was here to celebrate with her the end of the 78-day ‘yatra’ that took her through every district in Rajasthan. That was the ostensible purpose of this rally, but it was also a chance for Modi to begin his campaign for the 2014 general election and the people who gathered on that afternoon of white, burning heat seemed to know this.
Restless and noisy
The heat was of the kind that is so hard to describe that us hacks scrabble for words in trying to portray it. The white ‘shamiana’ with frilly saffron borders was huge but it offered little protection from the burning sun and as more and more people came the atmosphere became more airless and the heat more intense. People fainted but nobody left. And, the people continued to come and come so that from where I sat next to the stage, I saw an unending mass of humanity that spilled out of the tent in all directions.
They were restless and noisy but sat through long boring speeches by lesser leaders. The only time they showed signs of enthusiasm was when Narendra Modi’s name was mentioned. When someone announced from the stage that Modi had landed in Jaipur the crowd started chanting, ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’, but even this did not prepare me for what happened when the Chief Minister of Gujarat appeared in person. It was as if the vast crowd were suddenly gripped by a collective hysteria. The chants of ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’ grew frenzied and young men pushed forward as if they were about to break the barricades and come up on to the stage. Signs of the situation becoming uncontrollable were so clear that he himself had to appeal to the crowd to calm down.
When Vasundhara Raje began her speech they listened and cheered at the right points. She made a succinct, passionate speech about the betrayal of Rajasthan by successive Congress governments who have ruled the state for 53 years. She emphasised that Rajasthan would not have been left behind by Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh had there been BJP governments ruling in those 53 years. Then the national president of the BJP, Rajnath Singh, made a dull, forgettable speech but hurried through it because it was hard not to sense the crowd’s impatience to listen to the man they had really come to hear.
No sooner did Modi begin his address than the crowd started to go wild shouting, ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’, so loudly that he could not make himself heard over the chanting. A police cordon formed below the stage to keep this human wave from surging forward and swamping the leaders on the stage. There was something unnerving, almost scary, about the emotions he excited in the people and although Modi made an aggressive speech that targeted the Nehru-Gandhi family as much as it did Congress he had to make it in bits and pieces because the chanting of his name did not stop despite his pleas. The crowd seemed more interested in his presence than anything he had to say. It was as if they had made up their minds that this was the man they wanted as their leader.
Those who listened to what he had to say applauded enthusiastically when he said that the Congress Party before India got freedom was very different to the Congress Party after India became free. He said the main difference was that the old Congress had directed their devotion (bhakti) to Bharat Mata and the post-Independence Congress Party directed its ‘bhakti’ to one family.
Anti-thesis of Vajpayee
Modi said, “The Prime Minister has just come back from the G20 summit but instead of telling us what he did for India at this meeting, he came back to tell us that he would be happy to work for a new boss (Rahul).” The crowd cheered even louder when he listed the corruption scandals of the past five years.
Adding that, “Congress key paas na neta hai, na naitikta, na neeti, na neeyat.” An alliteration that went down well in Hindi and does not work so well in English. Congress has neither a leader, nor morality, nor policies nor good intentions. He made jokes about how the rupee was in hospital while the government was busy trying to save itself. But, it was not what he said that was important. What was important was the reaction of the people to him.
Then he was gone as quickly as he appeared. On my way home from the rally, I found myself sorting out the impressions he had left with his words and his presence. I concluded that the speech he made was not extraordinary, he has made many that were better, but the effect he had on the people who came to listen to him was truly extraordinary. I tried to remember another leader who had this kind of effect at a political rally and only Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee came to mind from my own experience of covering political rallies.
Speaking of Vajpayee, I should say that those who believe that Modi models himself on Vajpayee are wrong. He is the anti-thesis of Vajpayee but perhaps what people want in this troubled time when nothing seems to go right and when hopelessness prevails is that anti-thesis.