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Tandoored Legs
COMMENTS PRINT
Tandoored Legs
"The outside temperature is thirty-eight degrees," intones the British Airways pilot, as the plane descends into Delhi's International Airport. Thirty-eight degrees at almost midnight? What will it be like in the heat of the noonday sun? I am about to be thrown into five hectic days of election fever, broadcasting from a specially-built studio on the roof of the BBC's Delhi office. Hope the aircon copes. Outside the airport, I'm distracted by several pairs of legs sashaying past in shorts, one pair even in a mini-skirt. Legs on display in Delhi! Things must have changed a lot since my last trip, seven years ago to cover India's 50th anniversary of Independence.

D-day minus one, loads of press interviews lined up, back-to-back. Thankfully, most of the questions are work-related. Why is the bbc sending in a special team to cover the elections? (Because, as the world's biggest democracy votes, our international audience want to follow every twist and turn of the story.) How do I feel about being back in India doing a big story? (Thrilled, hope my Indian background will make a difference when things get complicated.) What do I think will be the result? (Don't want to hazard a guess.) What's the toughest story I've done? (Live coverage of 9/11 attacks; the first couple of hours fell right in the middle of my shift.) The only question that has me stumped is, "What are your strengths?" Funnily, the obvious follow-up question—"What are your weaknesses?"—never comes.

Sofa, So Good
London postscript: I have a few days at home, catching up with my babies, and what an eventful few days they are. All the Sonia assumptions prove as pie-eyed as the election predictions had been. This time I watch the drama unfold from my sofa, feeling a little cheated at not being in the sweltering Delhi sun, reporting on the pre-coronation abdication of Queen Sonia.


(Nisha Pillai is a newsanchor for the BBC in London.)

To Market, To Market
Saturday, my last day in Delhi, dawns late. Up at 7.30 am, on air at 9.30. My fellow anchors at TV Centre in London are still chewing over the Sonia question, what kind of leader will she be, why hasn’t she been to see the President yet? At last I manage to sneak off from the studio to shop a bit at Khan Market. Books and story tapes for the kids, a couple of khadi shirts for my husband. Looking around, all seems normal, no signs of the political upheaval elsewhere in the city. But what do I know? Virtually all I’ve seen of Delhi in the last five days is the studio and my hotel room.
Indian By Berth
Early evening I get into a heated discussion with another colleague, Sanjoy. "Can an Italian really become the next prime minister?" I ask, incredulous. "Oh, you live in London," was his reply. "You don’t understand. Sonia Gandhi’s origins are only an issue for the middle classes. To a South Indian, Hindi is a foreign language." Hmmm.

At around 11.30 pm, shattered, but still high on adrenaline, I return to the Imperial. When the room service dinner arrives, I can’t switch off. "What do you think of the elections?" I ask Vijay, the waiter. "I don’t know, Ma’am," he replies, anxious to get away; it’s almost midnight after all. "Sonia Gandhi, she’s a foreigner, isn’t she?" I continue. "No, Madam, she is an Indian," he mumbles, trying to edge out of the room. "Well the BJP says she is," I persist. "The BJPis a party of rich people," comes the reply, sharp. And then he wouldn’t stop talking.

Friday morning, another 5 am start. This time all eyes are on the Left Front—will they, won’t they join the government? Sitaram Yechury comes into the studio. No more privatisation of the state jewels, he opines, the stockmarket will have to get used to it. My jaw drops, the markets plummet. Off air I get the distinct impression he really wants to join the government.

Still a huge international appetite for the news from Delhi. My colleagues in the London newsroom keep asking about Sonia, the Italian connection, and the Left spooking the markets. Half-way through the day I find myself repeating Sanjoy’s line from the day before—to a South Indian, Hindi is indeed a foreign language....

Superlotto Gals
D-day. The alarm goes off at 5 am. On air at 7 am. The count’s expected to go snappily, even so we are astonished by the speed of the results roller-coaster. By 9 am Congressman Salman Khursheed bounds into the studio. On air he is cautious, but off-camera is a different matter. The BJP and its allies are being routed not just in the South but suffering setbacks in strongholds like Gujarat too. Where are the BJP’s leaders, though? Only a few brave souls like Pramod Mahajan and Prakash Javadekar put their heads above the parapet. Other politicians and pundits whirl in and out of the studio. Natwar Singh strides up. "I knew your grandfather, N.R. Pillai," he says. "Was your father the one who won the lottery?" I’m amazed he should recall such niceties in the thick of the count.

By mid-afternoon it is all over bar the shouting. What a triumph for the Election Commission. Forget call centres, election knowhow is what India should be exporting. Hope our American audience takes note. The office is high with the buzz of a good story. And what do you know? The winnings in the BBC’s election sweepstakes are picked up by our receptionist Landrain. She is the only person in an organisation swimming with scribes to have bet on a Congress-led victory. Even my colleague, Sanjeev Srivastava, who had come close to predicting the outcome the previous night, had not put his money on it!

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