The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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How to connect, the contrasts

Guwahati, April 14: Western politicians always scan the crowd for an eye to catch, a hand to pump or a baby to kiss; their Indian counterparts stride imperiously past people with unseeing eyes, seemingly the lordís anointed.

So it was at Adabari on Guwahatiís A.T. Road where traffic was halted because a VIP ó no one knew who ó was coming from the opposite direction.

Four pilot jeeps raced past, an abundance of red flags fluttering, then on the distant rise of the road hove into view a veritable sea of white Ambassadors tearing down. There were only a few of us by the roadside but the few were enough. The Ambassadors screeched to a halt, khaki-uniformed flunkeys rushed out, the lead carís front offside door swung open, and, lo and behold, out popped a buxom and beaming Sonia Gandhi, red tilak on her forehead, looking for all the world like a joyous backpacker as she waved and smiled and folded her hands in a namaskar and smiled and waved again.

As the convoy crept slowly past, there she was hanging dangerously from the open doorway like an excited child thoroughly enjoying herself on a daring escapade. Gone was the austere and unsmiling Sonia of formal occasions in New Delhi during her husbandís prime ministership. This was a comfortable genial Italian momma. However much one disapproves of her in principle, the transformation and her communication skills command admiration.

Less than two hours earlier at Calcutta airport, senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, also bound for Guwahati, strode grimly through the airport with quick short steps, looking neither to right nor to left, though responding warmly to my voice as I called out. It was the particular for him, for her the general.

Perhaps the contrast explains why a crowd of more than 10,000 waited several hours for Mrs Gandhi in the rain at Golaghat yesterday.

Itís not only the inclement weather she has to contend with; itís also the annual Rongali Bihu festival that keeps crowds entranced with song and flute and rhythmic dancing all through the day and night, celebrating harvest and spring and new year rolled into one.

Bihu has been Assamís national festival ever since the greatest of the Ahom kings, still fondly recalled Rudra Singh, elevated it into a palace ceremony in the late 17th century.

The celebration is both modern and political.

Some of the steps at the Mukuli Bihu ó open Bihu ó that I watched in a fine drizzle at Judgeís Field would have done a disco floor proud.

The most fervent applause was reserved for a burly bearded balding man round whom the clapping, stomping dancers formed a cordon, and who turned out to be Sammujal Bhattacharrya, immediate past president and now adviser of the still all-important though, perhaps, not quite so powerful All Assam Students Union.

Shades of the old AASU campaign, there is talk again of central neglect, of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and of the communal balance.

Through it runs the wistful thought that Assam is a land of minorities in which no community, not even the proud Ahoms, can lay claim to a lead role.

Also, that one election more or less will make little difference to this battlefield of ancient ó one almost said lost ó causes.

So itís the Sonia wave all the way across the Saraighat Bridge ó a bridge too far for the Mughal general whom an ailing Lachit Barphukan (an Ahom general), keeping watch today in graven stone, repulsed, to Mongoldoi, 75 kilometres away ó and another rapturous crowd.

Across the political divide, Assamís prodigal but still absent son, Bhupen Hazarika, may have placed himself, but his old songs welcoming and eulogising migrants from the banks of the Padma to the shores of the Brahmaputra give succour to the Congress.

Campaigning for him, Shatrughan Sinha joked that the election would be Fancy Bazaar (a market here) for the Bharatiya Janata Party but Phansi Bazaar for the Congress.

Does the Bihari Babu know, I wondered, that the two words and concepts have rolled into one in Calcutta where Fancy Lane commemorates Nandakumarís (the aristocrat hanged under Warren Hastingsí rule) phansi'

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