Sunday, November 25, 2012


Courtesy: http://bharatkalyan97

When Vajpayee rocked Ramlila Maidan

By Tavleen Singh on November 25, 2012
Veteran journalist and Niti Central columnist Tavleen Singh’s latest book, Durbar, has just been published by Hachette. For those interested in the individuals and events that shaped India’s politics from the 1970s to the closing years of the last century, Durbar is a must read. Tavleen Singh’s style makes it a gripping read, a veritable page-turner. Durbar also shows how politics is influenced by factors that have little or nothing to do with vacuous opeds written by pompous commentators!
Mrs Indira Gandhi’s sudden announcement of fresh elections took everyone by surprise. The country had settled into an Emergency groove. The rage over compulsory sterilisations and forcible ‘resettlement’ that had caused more than seven lakh citizens of Delhi to be moved had waned…
Why then had Mrs Gandhi decided that elections were necessary? The consensus in Delhi’s newsrooms was that she was deeply hurt that the Western media had taken to calling her a dictator. Mrs Gandhi rarely gave interviews to Indian journalists and treated the Indian Press with disdain but was sensitive to what the Western media said about her.
It became clear that Mrs Gandhi wanted to restore her image as a democratic leader and this could only happen if the coming elections were seen to be fair. Within days of the elections being announced most of the opposition leaders who were still in jail were released. They were no longer worth keeping in jail since nobody, not even the opposition leaders themselves, thought in January 1977 that Mrs Gandhi had the slightest chance of losing this election. Every report, even from her own intelligence agencies, indicated that she might lose a few seats but that there was no chance of a total defeat.
When the first posters appeared on Delhi’s walls announcing that a rally was to be held at the Ram Lila Maidan that would be addressed by the major Opposition leaders all of us thought it was a joke. How could they possibly hope to fill the city’s largest public park when the organisational capacities of their disparate political parties had not been tested in months? There were still six weeks to go before the election but the Opposition leaders had come out of jail demoralised and defeated. Some were recovering from the ordeal of long months of solitary confinement. Others from ailments caused by age and prison life…
In the Statesman reporters’ room the feeling was that even if the posters were genuine the rally would be a flop because people would be too scared to attend it. The Emergency was still in effect and the atmosphere of fear that the past eighteen months had created had not dissipated.
On the day of the rally even the elements seemed to be on Mrs Gandhi’s side. A thick pall of clouds hung over the city and by late afternoon it started to rain. In the reporters’ room we sat huddled gloomily around heaters debating whether there was any chance of the opposition parties being able to hold a successful political rally with so much going against them. Those of us who felt we needed to do our bit to help the Opposition parties rang everyone we knew and urged them to go to the Ram Lila grounds to show our solidarity…
On the short drive from the Statesman office to Ram Lila Maidan the only thing that brought some cheer was that the thin drizzle stopped and a weak sun appeared in the sky. Neither my colleagues nor I thought that this would encourage more people to come to the Opposition rally. So when we saw large crowds of people walking towards the Ram Lila grounds we were taken aback. Someone said that it could be because there were committed Jana Sangh supporters in Delhi who would have been mobilised.
When we got to the grounds we noticed that people were streaming in from all sides and, beyond Turkman Gate, people were even sitting on rooftops. But not even this prepared us for what we saw when we got inside. There were more people than I had ever seen at a political rally. The crowd stretched all the way to the end of the Ram Lila grounds and beyond. But, unlike at public meetings in normal times, when there is always a carnival atmosphere, there was a seriousness about this rally. People talked to each other softly and sat under umbrellas or in flimsy raincoats in orderly lines on black plastic sheets that covered the wet ground. They looked like they had been waiting a long time…
It was past 9 pm and the night had got colder although the rain had stopped. I said to a colleague from theHindustan Times that I thought people might start to leave unless somebody said something more inspirational. “Don’t worry,” he replied with a smile, “nobody will leave until Atalji speaks. Everyone here has come just to hear him.” He pointed to a small man with steel-grey hair, the last speaker that evening.
“Because he is the best orator in India. Have you never heard him speak?”
“No. I’ve only been in journalism since he went to jail.”
“Well, you’re in for a treat. And to hear him for the first time today will really be something.”
It was well past 9.30 pm when Atalji’s turn finally came and as he rose to speak the huge crowd stood up and started to clap. Softly, hesitantly at first, then more excitedly, they shouted, “Indira Gandhi murdabad! Atal Bihari zindabad!” He acknowledged the slogans with hands joined in a namaste and a faint smile. Then, raising both arms to silence the crowd and closing his eyes in the manner of a practiced actor, he said, “Baad muddat ke mile hain deewane.” (It has been an age since we whom they call mad have had the courage to meet.) He paused. The crowd went wild.
When the applause died he closed his eyes again and allowed himself another long pause before saying, “Kehne sunne ko bahut hain afsane.” (There are tales to tell and tales to hear.) The cheering was more prolonged, and when it stopped he paused again with his eyes closed before delivering the last line of a verse that he told me later he had composed on the spur of the moment. “Khuli hawa mein zara saans to le lein, kab tak rahegi aazadi kaun jaane?” (But first let us breathe deeply of the free air for we know not how long our freedom will last.)
The crowd was now hysterical. The clapping and shouting went on for many minutes. Atalji smiled with one hand resting on the podium, the other raised above his head and perfectly still. When he thought the applause had gone on long enough he raised both arms in the air and silence fell over the vast gathering. Yellow bulbs on long, drooping wires provided some light in the front but most of the ground was in darkness. Despite the night being so chilly, and a thin drizzle starting again, nobody left. They listened to Atalji in complete silence.
Eloquently, in simple Hindi, Atalji told them why they must not vote for Indira Gandhi. I no longer have a copy of the speech he made that night, and he spoke extempore, but I paraphrase here what I remember of it.
Freedom, he began, democratic rights, the fundamental right to disagree with those who rule us, these things mean nothing until they are taken away. In the past two years they were not just taken away but those who dared to protest were punished… The India that her citizens loved no longer existed, he said, it became a vast prison camp, a prison camp in which human beings were no longer treated as human. They were treated with such contempt that they could be forced against their will to do things that should never be done against a human being’s free will.
The Opposition leaders (he said “we”) knew that something needed to be done about India’s expanding population; they did not oppose family planning, but they did not believe that human beings could be bundled into trucks like animals, sterilised against their will and sent back. The clapping this remark evoked went on and on and on and it would be only on election day that I would understand why.
Long after Atalji finished speaking and the Opposition leaders got back into their white Ambassadors and drove off the crowds stayed as if they had collectively decided that they needed to do more than applaud a stirring speech. So when party workers appeared carrying soggy sheets in which they collected donations everyone gave something.
On that cold January night as I watched rickshaw-wallas and those who lived on a pittance from manual labour on Delhi’s streets donate what they could I got my first inkling that there was a chance Indira Gandhi could lose the election.
(Durbar by Tavleen Singh is published by Hachette India. Rs 599.)

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