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Wake Up To A Brand New Yawn

This is L.K. Advani's quadrilateral. But backstage on Ranchi's big day, ribaldry rules.

Wake Up To A Brand New Yawn
Swapan Nayak
Wake Up To A Brand New Yawn
"Feel good, ji?"

Traditional greetings like "hello" will soon be out of date. At least at the BJP office in Ranchi, Jharkhand. As party workers scurry about, making last-minute arrangements for L.K. Advani’s public meeting—a part of his massive cross-country road show, the Bharat uday yatra—the feelgood question is on everyone’s lips.

April 8, 3 PM: In the media room, spin doctors have been arranging press conferences and sweet-talking TV crews since morning. But now an air of levity is seeping in—a big moustachioed man in his fifties calls the Congress office and asks how ‘Madam’ is doing and then calls the Election Commission—pretending, in a high-pitched nasal whine, to be Advani’s PA. Soon, yells of mirth rock the largely empty office.

Elsewhere, party spokesman Uma Shankar Kedia describes with relish the process of mobilising people for the rally, arranging everything from waterproofing to drinking water, and publicising the yatra. For two days, trucks and autorickshaws laden with posters and playing a mixture of tapes and live speeches about the event have criss-crossed the state of Jharkhand.

6 PM: C.P. Singh, the local MLA, sits in his office surrounded by tea-sipping acolytes, as earnest young men plant saffron flags on motorbikes outside. His room is gaudy, complete with plastic flowers, a huge orange painted-glass lotus and coasters that feature, bizarrely, the Egyptian empress Nefertiti. Advani and Vajpayee beam benevolently from posters behind him. "We’re spending about Rs 75,000 on this meeting, employing about 100 workers. There will be 150 security guards apart from Advani’s personal security and he’ll be reaching the huge crowd through 36 loudspeakers," says Singh. His henchmen nod enthusiastically.

8 PM: If Singh’s office is intelligence HQ for tomorrow’s campaign, Jaipal Singh Stadium is the battlefield. In the fading light, the 10th and final truckload of bright red plastic chairs has just reached the unkempt field. Niranjan Sahu, the foreman, bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor playing the lead in Birsaa ‘The Black Iron Man’, the movie about Jharkhand’s tribal hero Birsa Munda—its posters are competing with Advani’s for wall space all over the city. Sahu is a field commander who knows the value of keeping troop morale high—he sings and recites couplets as he carries piles of chairs around with his men, distracting them from the fact that they’ve been working for two days with very little food or sleep. And they still need to work all night.

April 9, 8 AM: The city rises to blaring loudspeakers. At the stadium, the tent, podium and sound system have been set up, senior party officials are arranging flowers and large plastic posters ordered from Delhi are everywhere. The mighty forces of the law are present too—a dozen policemen snooze in the stands, magnificent bellies soaking in the morning sunshine.

Sahu, who slept for an hour last night, is grappling with the tricky matter of sticking a derelict red carpet to dust-covered stairs with weak cellotape on a windy day. Not far away, a bright red Enfield Bullet bike bears a plate embossed with the intriguing phrase ‘India Wrestling’—an abandoned election slogan?

10 AM: There’s a sudden flurry of announcements on the mike—three bullocks have wandered into the tent and are grazing placidly amidst the chairs. Repeated announcements seeking their owners echo across Ranchi’s streets. Meanwhile, the bovine gatecrashers keep eating and eventually have to be shooed away by party workers.

1 PM: Like warm-up acts before the star artiste, local BJP leaders are trying to keep the few people present entertained with lengthy speeches about Hindu-Muslim unity, but no one’s clapping. There are sporadic bursts of noise outside when drummers turn up and dance maniacally outside the entrance. Chhotu, 12, and Vasudev, 14, have been drumming for four hours and are tired and hungry. Why are they still playing, then? "Because we won’t get lunch otherwise."

Six tribal drummers from a village called Paramdis file past, grumbling—they’ve travelled 75 km and want food and money, neither of which seems forthcoming.

1.30 PM: The Bombay Maharaja Band arrives amid fanfare. Bandmasters Suleiman and Tahir lead a motley crowd of people in an improvised jig around the entrance. The steady trickle of people leaving suddenly stops; there’s laughter and a little excitement. In the centre of the scrum is Ravindra, who’s been waving a huge BJP flag around since 9 am—his body is covered in sweat and his face beetroot red, but he says he’d happily bear this flag all his life. Once the cameras move on, though, he flings the flag down and pants for a good 10 minutes.

2.30 PM: Like pebbles presaging a landslide, a few police jeeps appear, heralding the arrival of the Bharat uday cavalcade. Out of nowhere, a crowd materialises on either side of the street—for the first time, there’s a palpable air of energy in the street. The people inside don’t realise this, though—they sit and watch, bemused, as the speakers try to rouse them into a passion. Cries of "BJP ki jai!" are met with bored silence.

Outside, Arihant Jain, a student, can barely contain his excitement. "I’m not a BJP supporter. I’ve just come to see Advani," he says. "India is doing so well abroad, in business and sports, because of him and Vajpayee." He breaks into a cheer as drums, gongs and conches announce Advani’s arrival. Advani’s bus heads a 40-car parade; he sits in the front seat, waving and smiling. Hundreds of people run into the stadium as he passes. Metal detectors are cast aside in the rush.

3 PM: Advani enters to rousing cheers and is garlanded by everyone present. To the crowd’s disappointment, he sits and local leaders take off again. At the gate, five youths in saffron bandannas are leaving. "We came to see him. We’ve seen him. He looks as he does on TV. Who cares what he says? They all say the same things."

3.30 PM: Advani’s in the middle of his speech. The band punctuates his every point, accompanied by cheers.Far behind the crowd, S.P. Tiwari, a retired government official, stands gaunt and proud in the open, in a spotless white dhoti, umbrella in hand, beatific smile on face. "No one here wants to hear our Ranchi leaders; Advani tells us what’s happening in the country. These leaders have international stature."

Advani’s non-local character is a double-edged sword, though. There’s a long pause while he tries to recall the name of Ram Tahal Chowdhury, the MP the people of Ranchi are supposed to vote for. A queue has formed at the gates; reasons for leaving range from "He’s not giving any filmi quote" to "I’ve had enough of the sun".

3.45 PM: Advani’s still speaking. But the trickle at the exit gate has turned into a flood; "His speech isn’t exciting and we’re hungry," says Pramod, a student. His friend Rajesh, an engineer, is still inside, trying to find the exact spot in the field where sound from different speakers hits you at the same time. The only people still entering have come to sell food.

4 PM: The meeting’s over; Advani has a quick lunch and whizzes off. Hundreds rush into the stadium as soon as he’s gone; one of them explains on the way that they’re party workers who’ve been waiting for food. The BJP’s media cell is still trying to convince journalists that 20,000 people came to the meeting, but the crowd was 4,000-odd at best. The tribal drummers are there too; they don’t get food, but they’ve got Rs 100 between the six of them. They collect scores of empty water bottles and start off on the trip back.

4.30 PM: Backstage after a concert is where you meet the interesting people. And the BJP workers who’re cleaning up are colourful characters. The mikes are off and their mock speeches feature their leaders’ sexual organs, matters not commonly raised vocally on poll platforms.

Behind them, Suman, Rajendra and Prasun, Ranchi University students, are arranging flowers. But they’re not BJP members; they’re election groupies. Like obsessive rock fans, they attend every rally in east India; calendars in their bedrooms have rally dates for every major politician, of any party, circled in red. A Sonia Gandhi rally on the 12th is next on their tour list. Will they arrange flowers there too? "We’ll find something to do. We love politics and elections are just crazy."

7 PM: On the field, the bullocks are back, reclaiming their own and it’s all over, bar the cleaning up. Sahu is back in command. "We’ll be done by 11 tonight," he says. Does he feel good? He hasn’t eaten all day, but his smile hasn’t faded. "It’s alright, really," he says. "The party looks after its own. I take care of myself. And that’s something I feel good about."

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