Just minutes before the 5 pm deadline, Vajpayee rounded off a rally in Ameenabad, soliciting votes for himself and endorsement for his National Democratic Alliance. Barely a two-minute drive away, Sonia was demanding his defeat and a return to Congress rule. ?BJP rule has created a situation,? Sonia said, ?where the Prime Minister has to face an angry vote boycott in his own constituency. You have to change all this, the power is with you.?
Sonia?s meeting venue was the tactically well-appointed Jyotiba Phule Park in west Lucknow?s Muslim enclave; they had turned out in enough numbers to fill the park and more. They were beating drums and waving flags and banners and shouting slogans the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh haven?t shouted in a decade: ?Congress party zindabad , Sonia Gandhi zindabad.?
State Congressmen, reduced to minnows by the triumphal politics of mandir and mandal, were pleased they had something to genuinely exult about. ?You can see the Congress rising again,? remarked Pradesh Congress president Salman Khurshid, ?you can see all the signs of revival.? He was waving to a packed park and he was begging attention to the charge in the crowd. ?This is such an electric response,? he said, ?we are on our way.?
Revival, yes, but victory? That is still a long way away. It was a self-driven crowd that turned out to see Sonia this afternoon, but just as one swallow does not make a summer, one good rally doesn?t turn fortunes overnight. ?If the Congress had worked longer and harder, they could have made the going for Vajpayee difficult,? remarked a face in the crowd, ?they seem to be doing well but it is too late now for this election.?
Sonia, who came on stage barely half-an-hour before the campaign deadline ran out, held her guns trained on what she called the BJP?s misrule. ?In 13 months of BJP rule, the nation has just gone downhill. Communal and casteist forces are ruling the roost, the minorities are afraid, the youth face darkness, women and children are suffering, is this what you want?? Going back to her favourite campaign theme, she again charged the Vajpayee government with sacrificing the security interests of the country. ?They allowed Pakistan to infiltrate our territory for months and during that time they were importing sugar from Pakistan. Such people give us lectures on patriotism. They import foodgrain while the produce of our farmers rots. Such people give us lectures on patriotism. They make thousands of crores in dubious deals and then give us lectures on honesty and morality.?
On the dais for the final meeting of the campaign was a pantheon of Congress leaders: N.D. Tiwari, Arjun Singh, Khurshid and, of course, the Congress candidate from Lucknow, Karan Singh. Rahul Gandhi, too, was beside his mother, waving animatedly but rarely able to generate the response his sister does.
As several speakers before her had done, Sonia harped at length on the stability theme and reminded her audience that the Congress was the only party in independent India?s history to have always completed its term in office. ?The Prime Minister keeps repeating the same tune in his campaign, that it was the Congress that toppled him. Today I want to reply to him. I want to remind him that we did not topple him, it was he who failed to keep his alliance together. Of course, he will never accept his faults but the politics of coalitions does not work, the results are before you to see,? Sonia said. And then she departed from her script to take a familiar jibe at the NDA. ?This Prime Minister cannot control 18 parties and now he is before you with a 24-party alliance, do you really think it is going to work? How long are you going to allow yourselves to be fooled??
As Sonia finished, barely a minute before 5 pm, and the sun set on Campaign ?99, the crowds from the two rallies ? the Prime Minister?s and his challenger?s ? mingled in the bustle of Lucknow?s Chowk area, turning it into a quaint medley of BJP and Congress flags. The leaders were gone, it was over to the people.
He stood wearing a golden turban in Ameenabad where the Hindu trading community rubs shoulders with the city?s Shias and Sunnis. The evening azaan began unannounced in the middle of his speech. A respectful Vajpayee waited patiently as the strains of the prayer gradually faded out.
The Prime Minister spoke of an Ameenabad where candles threw up shadows of Laila and Majnu; where his Jansanghi speeches drew a satisfying 100-strong crowd a decade ago; and of a West Asian Sultan who did not discriminate between the clanging bells at a Krishna temple and recitations from the Quran.
It was a summing-up speech. It was a consummate performance. It was in Lucknow almost a month ago that he had elaborated on the ?tragedy? and ?chaos? that had befallen the country when a single controversial vote went the other way. Again in Lucknow, he emphasised the significance of every vote, not just within Parliament, but also outside.
There was no Congress-bashing, no personal attack on Sonia, not even a reference to her ?foreign origin?. Vajpayee deplored ?mud-slinging? politics that revelled in language of the gutter. He brushed aside ?sugargate? as an ill-fabricated allegation.
He did not forget that Kargil remained an election plank. He questioned the ethics of those who belittled the sacrifice of the jawans.
As the minute hand marched on and the deadline of 5 pm was drawing close, Vajpayee the dignified statesman took over. ?Whoever wins, it is a victory for democracy. In the process, India wins as a mature nation.? He wondered why several contentious issues had not been debated during this campaign. Why was the issue of secularism banished from the purview of electoral cross-talk? Why did the Opposition avoid shedding any light on their vision of India in the new millennium?
The Prime Minister insisted he was only the captain of a team ? a team which was still groping to chart out a united path which would lead to a resolution of a diverse India?s myriad problems. The BJP had enough experience to lead coalitions. The Congress did not want to share the responsibility of governance with its electoral allies.
The speech touched all major issues raised during the month-long campaign. Only the eligibility of Sonia as a prime ministerial candidate had been carefully omitted. Vajpayee said the exit polls and news filtering through from the states were giving a strong indication that countrymen were giving him a positive vote. It was certain Lucknow would do the same.
Even Vajpayee knows it is not that simple. Sharing the dais with him today was a galaxy of BJP leaders ? Sahib Singh Verma, Madan Lal Khurana, Lalji Tandon, Narendra Modi. But Kalyan Singh was not there.
CPM Lok Sabha candidate
I am told that is the way you are addressed, you like to be addressed, like to be introduced. I am told that wherever you go to campaign, you are preceded by a group from the Ashutosh College Alumni Association which tells voters: Sir aashchhen, Sir is coming.
So, sir, I beg to inform you that you shall have cause to rejoice after all the trouble you have taken. Why? I will be coming to the point.
First, a word on the man even you probably call sir ? or comrade ? ok, we?ll settle for Comrade Sir: Jyoti Basu.
Comrade Sir was in our constituency day before yesterday, Thursday ? how can you not know since you were sitting next to him in the meeting at Bijoygarh Maidan. Bijoygarh, I recall, used to be a CPM pocketborough. It isn?t anymore but I guess the 80-plus must relive old-world delusions.
I regard that election meeting in fading light as historic. At one point in his speech ? which was a diatribe against me ? Comrade Sir put me on a pedestal that even many in my fledgling Trinamul Congress think is a pipedream.
?There must be some morality in politics,? said Basu. ?First she (I?) lied about her education and now she is lying about the state?s industrialisation. If that woman (I?) becomes chief minister, it will be disastrous for Bengal.? Me? Chief Minister of Bengal? And Basu daring even to think about it? Come, come, sir, what has happened to your party boss who is known to weigh every word before making a public statement?
Now you see why I regard the Bijoygarh meeting as historic. It was for the first time that a man of the stature of Jyoti Basu was acknowledging that I might one day become chief minister ? I will be making this point today in my last public meeting near Garia Railway Station.
But right now I am only contesting the Lok Sabha elections ? I want to be MP, enter the Cabinet and wrangle from an NDA government of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee all the projects that your government has failed to get in 23 years.
And then the question of morality. Basu has raised the issue of my educational qualifications again. ?This time,? he said, ?We have put up a real doctorate? ? meaning you, of course. I don?t have to be taught moral values from the man who has given the state only two successes in his long tenure: Nandan and Chandan.
They rhyme well, don?t they? And it is so ribtickling to my constituents that they double up with laughter.
That is the way I am, sir. I speak their language, I use their words. You do not need a doctorate for that. I am told that the other day, I think it was on September 18, the day I could actually start campaigning in my constituency after scouring the state for my candidates, two gentlemen from a French newspaper ? I think it was called L?Express ? were quite impressed with my form.
I had just entered K P Roy Road off Tollygunge Circular Road ? I had such a harrowing time, I had to jostle through the crowd ? and I saw the young men coming to greet me but the women ? some of them with children ? just stood in front of their houses and watched the spectacle. I broke through the crowd and just as I was to enter a small house, I saw a young boy running ahead to inform his mother. I called him, tousled his hair, and asked him if he had flown kites ? it was the day of Vishwakarma Puja, you see ? and I asked him to be careful on the roof.
I am told that around the same time you were campaigning in localities along the E M Bypass ? where your police committed another atrocity this week by firing on innocent people who demanded relief from the waterlogging . As usual, that alumni group went ahead of you announcing ?Sir aashchhen?, as if Lord Vishwakarma himself was making an appearance in Tiljala on the day he was worshipped.
As luck would have it, it is also from Tiljala that realisation has dawned on you and your party that however much you agonise through the campaign, it is an impossible task. So impossible, in fact, that even a zonal committee leader of your party, who has an encylopaedic knowledge of the constituency, says if you can reduce my margin of victory, you will have redeemed yourself.
Now, sir, I come to why you will have cause to rejoice.
Last year, I won by a margin of more than 2.26 lakh votes against Prasanta Sur, former state health minister who was also an MLA from Tollygunge in our constituency. In 1996, my margin of victory was more than 1.06 lakh votes against your party?s nominee, the former pro-Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University ? Bharati Mukherjee. In 1991, my margin of victory from this seat was narrowest at 93,000 ? against Biplab Dasgupta.
Within your party, there is a ripple of black humour on the south Calcutta seat. It is said that those who Alimuddin Street wants to send to oblivion, it first sends to south Calcutta. Look at Biplab Dasgupta: he is a central committee member but he does not have the clout that should go with the position. Bharati Mukherjee has faded away as has Prasanta Sur.
With each election I have increased my margin of victory. When Prasanta Sur was given the ticket, the party experimented by pitting an apparatchiki against me. Before him and after him, the party has chosen ?intellectuals?. It just doesn?t work.
The zonal committee leader I referred to earlier said the party was banking on you to narrow the margin in the hope that the 20 per cent or so Muslim votes in the constituency would go to you. It looks highly unlikely. My margin has increased not only as a whole but in each of the seven assembly segments. I have trailed once only in the Sonarpur segment in 1991 ? by 2,842 votes. Last year, my margin of victory from there was 38,442 votes. In Chowringhee, the margin increased by nearly 10,000 votes last year. In Alipur, by over 14,000 votes.
The arithmetic is simple and clear. You may have won the graffiti war, sir, but you have also read the writing on the wall.
Moreover, this time, in the aftermath of last Friday?s deluge, the possibility that you might somehow close the gap has vanished.
Very early in this election campaign, I thought I would make a point by moving about one day in a salwar kameez ? the dress you found obscene as principal of Ashutosh College years ago. It would have been a great photo-op ? you have always said I am a creation of the media ? but it would make the point in urbane south Calcutta that the prudery you practice of Marxist fundamentalists is a misfit in the liberalised era.
I have since given up the idea because I wasn?t feeling threatened enough to indulge in some more rabble rousing.
Even without the effort, I guess my margin this time should be nearabout 3 lakh in our constituency of 12 lakh plus.
Now you know why you will rejoice: south Calcutta will be your deliverance.
P.S: Saugata Roy, who lost his deposit last year, has cried off to be replaced by a Partha somebody (Congress). Know of him?
The police said the victim was riding a cycle when a speeding bus rammed into him. Witnesses said the bus was trying to overtake another vehicle.
Doctors at NRS Hospital, where the victim was taken 30 minutes after the accident, said he could have been saved had he been brought immediately.
Within minutes of the mishap, over 1,000 people gathered at the spot, baying for the driver?s blood. They showed little concern for the victim and, instead, directed their ire at the policemen.
Police officers present at the spot said four policemen put the victim in an autorickshaw and tried to take him to BR Singh Hospital, closer to the site. But the mob refused to let them go.
Instead, it started pelting stones at passing vehicles and heckled the police. Three vehicles were damaged.