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Quite A Nice Man To Know
It had the touch of a finicky hostess whose arrangements are perfect to the T. Placard-bearing volunteers, smartly turned out in creased black trousers and starched white shirts, guided the guests to the venue right from the main road down the circuitous route to the B-block park in south Delhi’s posh Anand Niketan. No khadi, no Gandhi topis if you please. You couldn’t, even if you tried, get lost finding your way to the Volunteers for Manmohan show of strength on August 30.
The invitation said 5.30 pm. At 5.30, celebrity economist Isher Ahluwalia was still rushing around adding the last touches to what was expected to be a gathering of the city’s intelligentsia, some of the country’s best brains and talent, to express solidarity with former finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s candidature for the prestigious South Delhi constituency. Apart from the door-to-door canvassing all of them had been carrying out for their candidate.
Said Ahluwalia between putting up posters on the trees lining the park: "It’s a coming together of like-minded people to increase the people’s participation. When we heard he was contesting, our immediate reaction was ‘it’s time we did something’, specially for a deserving candidate like Dr Singh." Does she vote? "No. But this time I will. It’s time that the disillusioned residents of South Delhi made their choice clear. We need people like him for people like us." Declaiming thus in her no-nonsense manner, she hurried away in a flurry of white dupatta to check on the soft drinks.
Economic analyst Bibek Debroy of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation looked a trifle out of depth. There was no confusion in his mind though. Did he really think Singh was politician material? "If the option is V. K . Malhotra, I don’t think this question deserves to be answered," he shot back. "What you see here is a spontaneous show of support for a clean person." Would he still vote for Singh if he belonged to another party ? "It has nothing to do with the party, every-thing to do with the individual."
A sentiment voiced in chorus by Delhi’s who’s who— designers, artists, poets, writers, economists, policymakers, social workers, industrialists and academics— who had started arriving by then. It was 6.30 pm, the sun still beating down hard and strong on a hot, humid Delhi. The atmosphere was one of bonhomie and easy camaraderie. They could have been meeting in the airconditioned comfort of the India International Centre for all they cared. Sunita Kohli, Layla Tyebji, Gurcharan Das, Raunaq Singh, Dr Surjeet Bhalla, Mala Singh, Vidyun Singh, Nafisa Ali, Javed Akhtar, Krishen Khanna, Prof Kiran Walia, Kiran Chowdhury, Anil Aggarwal... you name them, they were there. Artist Anjolie Ela Menon, an ardent supporter, was missing though.
WHAT are you doing here? Do you actually vote?" yelled out one well-known economist to an equally well-known publisher. "Oh dear, I'm just here to see Manjit Bawa's paintings," pat came the reply. Sure enough, there was a large Bawa canvas, hanging precariously from a tree right behind the dais. An oddity in a poll meeting? "In the India of the future we must count," said the artist. "We need professionally sound people to carve out a composite culture and governance. I swear if we can make 10 people like Dr Singh come together, I'll leave painting and get full time into party canvassing." The laughter that followed was tinged with respect for the sentiment.
Most of those present there, including the residents of Anand Niketan, had no qualms about admitting that they'd almost never voted in the past few elections. "We've never had such a highly educated candidate, a living image of honesty, decency and integrity, " said an Anand Niketan housewife. The wise crowd nodded. The candidate had assumed a stature larger than the party itself.
Six-forty pm and a parting in the crowd like the Red Sea announced the arrival of none other than octogenarian writer Khushwant Singh. "I felt honour-bound to campaign for him. I've been so disgusted that I'd stopped voting. Once in protest I voted for Phoolan Devi!" said he. "In ability, experience and integrity he has much to be immodest about. I go out every evening with the campaigners and say my piece. I was hoping that when Dr Singh's name came up, Vijay Kr Malhotra would have the good sense and decency to withdraw!"
It was close to 6.50 pm when the good doctor finally arrived to the wailing of sirens. The light had faded and the chatterati ensconced in their seats. The speakers—Anand Niketan residents, former Union minister Rameswar Thakur, Isher Ahluwa-lia, Khushwant Singh, Manjit Bawa, TERI chief Dr R.K. Pachauri, environmentalist and publisher Anil Aggarwal — apart from showering accolades on 'Dr Singh, the finance minister', 'Dr Singh, the candidate', also pointed out to the about 300-strong crowd that the effort was sincere. So what if it was by an unprofessional bunch come together for a feeling rather than an agenda. It was because one needed a role model, not only for themselves but their children. What marked the speeches was the complete absence of any mudslinging. Was it indicative of the genesis of a refined political movement, one wondered .
" You've become a star, Javed," quipped someone good-naturedly from the crowd as the poet waxed tongue-in-cheek in his inimitable lyrical style. "There are only two points of view today, Manmohan's point of view and the wrong point of view," said Akhtar to a round of vigorous applause. It was now Dr Singh's turn to finally take his place behind the podium, his speech short and sweet. "I've earned my pension but I thought it would be cowardice not to offer myself to the people of this enlightened constituency. I assure you that when I go to Parliament I will keep the faith, for ideas are more powerful than vested interests," he said. It was then that the only slo-ganeering during the entire show was heard—" Manmohan Singh ki jai."
Chairs were pushed back, the people rose . It was 7.45 pm. Emotions ran high and a certain sombreness had taken over the crowd. As if they were awed at themselves for having had the gumption to take on the political system, however small their effort . They spoke in hushed whispers. The issue was serious and they were ready to do the job. But that didn't mean they had to lose their sense of humour—" My help's learnt how to make wonderful paté," shot one glitterati to another, "drop in any time".