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BHARAT MATA BOOMS
Heard on the hallowed grounds: ‘Modi, Modi, Modi, Modi’ and the light clap of Sonia Gandhi

Narendra Modi signs the register after taking oath of office as Prime Minister on Monday on the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Picture by Rajesh Kumar

New Delhi, May 26: At 10 minutes to six, the fireball sun clipped itself behind the triple-tone dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan and a kindly umbra fell upon the heaving hubbub of the building’s forecourt: twilight, or “godhuli”, the appointed lagna for Narendra Modi’s tryst with power, was close.

A sample plate in which dignitaries were served snacks. These plates carry “Made in China” markings. Picture by Sankarshan Thakur

The final minutes of the Republic’s most elaborate inauguration of government began to tick away.

UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s Mian Nawaz Sharif, the star of the invited Saarc constellation, had just been announced and seated. The rest of the stellar protocol-heavy list were being ushered in on whispers to the front rows of what had become a many-tiered amphitheatre.

But all eyes were riveted elsewhere, towards the north court from where would emerge the central actor of the stage. When the attendance began to ripple and someone on the fringe cried out “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!” everybody knew he had arrived.

“Modi! Modi! Modi! Modi!!” Then, a shriller chant: “Modi! Modi! Modi! Modi!!”

At the back of the forecourt, where the cry rose loudest, plainclothesmen gestured silence. Not in Rashtrapati Bhavan, they seemed to plead, this is neither the place nor the occasion for rabble-rousing.

Amit Shah leads Mulayam Singh Yadav by the hand (in PTI picture) at the swearing-in ceremony

“Bharat Mata Ki!” screamed someone from another end, and then, unbidden, the hush of the occasion fell upon the proceedings.

President Pranab Mukherjee stepped down the colonnaded steps of the fašade — rendered indelible on memory by the shot of Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten in guffaw beside the last Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten — almost lost amongst his strapping bodyguards.

Six jawans from the military band sounded a fanfare silhouetted on the high terrace overhead, dropping notes off their tinsel bugles like they were shedding petals.

Called upon as soon as President Mukherjee assumed his seat, Narendra Damodardas Modi took the last steps of what has been a stunning and quite unprecedented run to India’s highest executive office. He wore a beige Nehru jacket over a fawn kurta, by now his trademark attire.

He began to read out the oath of office and secrecy at 12 minutes past six; at 14 past, he was the 15th Prime Minister of India. The first sitting chief minister to fly straight into the power rooms of South Block. The first from a non-Congress party to do so with a majority of his own. The first from among classified Other Backward Classes. The first to get there on a publicly stated dare.

Sonia Gandhi shares a light moment with senior BJP leader LK Advani during the oath-taking ceremony
at Rashtrapati Bhavan. (Reuters)

Sonia Gandhi, who was the cynosure at Manmohan Singh’s swearing-in 10 years ago, was a forlorn spectator on Monday as her family’s most bitter critic, Narendra Modi, took over the reins of the country.

Rahul at the swearing-in. Picture by Rajesh Kumar

While the ostentatious political spectacle was unique for a swearing-in, the erstwhile UPA’s custodians appeared to be in a daze as the presence of leaders from neighbouring countries pushed them away from the media glare. Manmohan remained in the ring seated alongside the most important guest, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but Sonia must have felt the first sting of the power shift.

Sonia entered the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt along with a smiling Rahul, but he could not take a seat in the front row as an ordinary MP. Sonia, besides heading the largest Opposition party, is the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and hence got a front row seat. She walked past guests with a stiff countenance but stopped by to greet LK Advani with whom she has developed some rapport over the last two decades.

She exchanged a few words with Advani before taking her seat beside former President Pratibha Patil. Among the foreign dignitaries, only Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai walked up to her and shook hands. Even BJP president Rajnath Singh did not go to meet her though he was greeting other guests. Rahul was forgotten in the melee and the
cameras did not focus on him much.

“India is going to give its strongest mandate to a party since the verdict for Rajiv Gandhi in 1984,” Modi had said in an interview 10 days ahead of the outcome of Election 2014. “The people of India want strong, decisive leadership and they will give it to themselves.”

Among those who applauded the victory of that dare this evening was the head of the party Modi has promised to rid India of — Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who sat composed in foremost row and lightly clapped Modi’s accession.

The two never met, at least not in the public eye, not until the ceremonies were over and the high-table guests had receded into Rashtrapati Bhavan.

This wasn’t the first forecourt swearing-in of government: Chandra Shekhar in 1990 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 had chosen to bring the event out of the grand confines of Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Ashoka Hall.

But even for being the third such, today’s ceremony had a lot to call itself singular for. Not least because it brought an international frill to what has traditionally, and always, been a domestic event.

To clockwork pageantry, it brought the tizzy of protocol. To the hectic last-minute rites of government formation all day ran the parallel drama of receiving and conducting top leaders from the neighbourhood — Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, Nepal’s Sushil Koirala, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom from the Maldives, Navinchandra Ramgoolam of Mauritius, Tshering Tobgay of Bhutan and Shirin Chaudhury, the Bangladesh Speaker who came representing Hasina Wajed, the only one not to be able to make it personally.

Their presence here overnight promises to make it another first for Prime Minister Modi — it could well be he begins his innings engaging with foreign rather than domestic affairs. Seven bilateral sessions are set for him back-to-back tomorrow at Hyderabad House. There would probably have been no time tonight for even the thought of a break from what was a frenetic first evening in office.

The guests, a fair few more than the seats could accommodate, had had a taste of the churn around the new government. They were there, most of them, for more than four hours, nearly half the time sweltering and sweating. It was an unremittingly hot evening, the apprehended summer evening squall had played truant.

Bats criss-crossed the skies overhead. Beneath, the invitees milled along to their appointed seats, many of them having had to walk from security posts at Vijay Chowk at the bottom of Raisina Hill.

Ambassadors and multinational entrepreneurs, film stars and family members, media barons and admen, retired and serving officials, high appointees of government and captains of industry, godmen and mere mortals.

Among them the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, with their wives and mother, Kokilaben. They sat rows apart, though, and went out meeting dignitaries separately.

Salman Khan and father Salim made part of the front. There was Sunil Gavaskar and Saadhvi Ritambhara, Adi Godrej and Prahlad Kakkar, Morari Bapu and Sri Sri Ravishankar, Viveik Oberoi and Anupam Kher.

Reserve Bank governor Raghuram Rajan appeared just ahead of the start of the swearing-in, alone and apparently lost on where he should head to find a seat for himself.

At a quarter to seven, darkness had begun to sweep the forecourt. Four banks of floodlights, planted north and south, came on — almost like they do in a day-night sporting arena — and picked out anew the council of ministers, seating alongside the presidential podium in Burgundy chairs.

Several of them were yet to be sworn in. Night would fully fall before the last among them was inducted in burnished lamplight, and Modi would gather his new team for the formality of a photograph.

Beyond the VVIP eddy of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Lutyens Delhi lay sterilised by securitymen, their shadows loping in the orange glow of sodium-vapour street lighting.

Somewhere in the distance, in the direction of the headquarters of the BJP, celebratory crackers had begun to burst. Godhuli was over; the cows, whose trudge through twilight dust gives the lagna its name, had come home.

WHO DID NOT GO

Chief ministers who skipped Modi’s swearing-in