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Namaskar tells the difference

Guwahati, April 24: Tapan Kochari was not in Varanasi today. Over 1,000km away in Guwahati, he may have unwittingly — and effortlessly — captured the clash of two Indias that the Congress is finding so difficult to get across to voters.

“Normally, big leaders wave at us but our Prime Minister and his wife folded their hands and said ‘namaskar’ to us,” said Kochari, who teaches physics at the Assam Engineering Institute in Guwahati and was today standing in as the presiding officer at a polling booth.

Three polling officers — Kishore Kumar Das, Robin Chandra Rajbongshi and Biplob Fauzdar — nodded.

Manmohan Singh and Gursharan Kaur had just cast their votes — he for the second and probably the last time as Prime Minister.

In Varanasi, Narendra Modi, too, folded his hands and executed a series of namaskars, first to a towering statue of Madan Mohan Malviya, the Congress leader and freedom fighter identified with the Hindu Mahasabha, and then to a tumultuous and heaving multitude.

It was nothing short of a victory parade although the occasion was the mere filing of nomination papers — a bureaucratic requirement that can be showcased as a “mammoth event”, depending on the temperament.

Such a temperament was missing in Guwahati today — in fact, the very presence of Singh in Assam was necessitated by a reluctance to play to the gallery.

Singh took that disposition to the extreme of not contesting elections after becoming Prime Minister, becoming a “domiciliary addressee” of Guwahati and remaining a Rajya Sabha member from Assam. The failure to contest popular elections has stayed on as a big blot on his otherwise sterling resume.

The “understated” idea that Singh represents allowed itself only four minutes in the limelight today.

After casting votes in two minutes, Singh and Kaur came close to the barricaded enclosure and repeatedly held up the inked fingers for photographs. “I have come to Guwahati to exercise my right as a citizen of this great country. I am confident that the democratic process of the country is firmly established,” Singh said.

Asked if the Congress was losing its ground, Singh said something completely in tune with his persona and possibly wholly inadequate in front of the blitzkrieg in Varanasi. “Well, I don’t think the Congress is losing ground,” Singh said, opting for the decorous but less definitive “I don’t think”.

Fielding another question on the so-called Modi “wave”, the Prime Minister made what is possibly the most impartial statement yet by an Indian politician. “The wave is a creation of the media. I don’t think that the country as a whole is swept by any Modi wave,” Singh said, not entirely discounting the possibility of some hysteria around Modi but pointing out that it need not be a pan-India phenomenon.

The Prime Minister walked away as soon as he was asked about former aide Sanjaya Baru’s book on him. Kaur had already entered the car parked about five metres away.

Responding to appeals by photographers, the Prime Minister looked back and posed for one more round. An SPG officer conveyed to Kaur the photographers’ request and she joined Singh.

If the voter was bidding farewell as Prime Minister — as one photographer suggested — the almost imperceptible gesture was no match for the in-your-face vaudeville in Varanasi.

Not that the Congress was too eager but even if it wanted to, the party could not have done a Varanasi at the Guwahati booth as assembly of groups is prohibited on polling premises. Even if it is not illegal, Singh is unlikely to lead a heaving army through the multicultural streets of India in the middle of a polarised election.

As television channels carpet-bombed drawing rooms with scenes from Varanasi, it was difficult not to recall what Singh had said at the January media conference while announcing he would not seek a fresh term as Prime Minister. “I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media,” he had said.

History will take its time but kindness did come from elsewhere.

Karima Rahman, 62, who voted minutes before Singh and Kaur had done so, said: “I waited for a while but it feels good to have a glimpse of the Prime Minister and his wife from so close today.”


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