Last Monday I spent a day with Vasundhara Raje on her ‘yatra’ through Rajasthan. It began in April and she has already covered a distance of more than 8,000 kilometres in her ‘rath’ in earlier phases. But before writing another word, I feel bound to disclose that Vasundhara is an old friend of mine. If you think that because of this, my account of her travels cannot be trusted, please do not hesitate to stop reading now. If you want details of how far this friendship goes back, trot off to your nearest book shop and buy my latest book Durbar in which you will find the whole story and more. Now having made this disclosure fully and thrown in a plug for my book, I shall proceed with telling you about Vasundhara’s ‘su-raaj yatra’ which translated into English means a journey for good governance.
We set off from Jaipur in a cavalcade of cars on a morning of such intense heat that the light was almost too white to bear and I found myself doubting whether people would come out to listen to her in such unpleasant weather. Vasundhara’s ‘rath’ awaited us outside the Triveni Dham temple in the constituency of Shahpura an hour’s drive away. When we arrived at the temple there was a large, noisy reception party who greeted her with drums and slogans. There were so many people eager to get close to their leader that I lost her in the enthusiastic, jostling crowd and next caught up with her as she sat in the temple’s sanctum having her forehead smeared with sandalwood paste by priests who sat at the feet of gods of gold and silver. Then another battle through jostling crowds followed before I managed to get onto the ‘rath’ — a bus painted in BJP colours.
The first public meeting of the day was in Ajeetgarh, a small, unremarkable town whose only attractive building is a magnificent old fort on a rocky outcrop. The crowds at this meeting spilled out of the shamiana onto rooftops and high trees. Inside the shamiana, women had been given a place of honour close to the stage. Women have been among Vasundhara’s staunchest supporters and when she began her speech, I noticed a look on wonder come over their faces. Rajasthan remains one of the States in which women remain mostly illiterate to this day and are mostly still bound by primitive rules of honour and marriage that oblige little girls to live adult lives because of child marriage being socially acceptable.
In her speech, Vasundhara talked of the importance of improving the lot of women and although I got the impression that the women did not fully understand what she said, whenever she mentioned the word ‘mahila’ they cheered. Her speech was an aggressive attack on the Congress. “In this State,” she said, “if you count out my five years and the ten years you gave Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, you have given Congress 53 years in Government since 1947. And, you still do not have drinking water, electricity, roads or decent schools… if you had given the BJP 53 years, we would have made Rajasthan into a garden.”
This led to loud cheering from her audience that reached a frenzied crescendo when she reminded them of how Narendra Modi in fifteen years had made Gujarat into a development model that the world was impressed by. The mention of Modi’s name was a trigger for slogans demanding that he become prime minister. A demand I had heard repeatedly on my travels through Rajasthani villages but I will tell you about that next week.
From Ajeetgarh we traveled down broken, rural roads towards Neem ka Thana where her next public meeting was scheduled for late afternoon. But, we traveled at the pace of a bullock cart because of the huge crowds that lined the route. They were so fervent and so large that every fifteen minutes the ‘rath’ had to stop for Vasundhara to be able to say a few words. Whenever she stopped she asked the same litany of questions and the crowds shouted back answers. Do you have electricity? No. Drinking Water? No. Are there teachers in the school? No. Doctors in the hospital? No. In the middle of one such question answer session a man shouted that water had now ‘arrived’ and pointed to the skies as the first few drops of rain fell. By the time of her next public meeting it had begun to pour but still people gathered along the side of the streets of squalid, ugly towns and on the edge of drenched fields and everywhere in answer to the litany of questions the answer was always: no.
The last meeting of the day was in Khetri. Darkness had fallen by then and she was greeted by fireworks that lit up the dark sky and momentarily drowned out the excited voices that rose from the vast crowd that had gathered to listen to her. From a stage wet with rain she exhorted them once more to throw out a government that had not been able to provide them with their most basic needs and that was now trying to ‘buy their votes’ by throwing charity at them. In the past two months the government of Ashok Gehlot has spent a fortune on handouts like cheap food grain, housing, clothing, pensions and bicycles for the rural poor. Vasundhara urged her audience to take what was being given to them because it was their money that was being spent on this ‘khairaat’. But, remember not to vote for Congress.
By the end of this day on Vasundhara’s ‘yatra’ I found myself arriving at two conclusions. One that if this is the level of spontaneous anger in the people then there is little chance of the Congress Party winning Rajasthan in November. And, two that there seems to be a real hunger in the people for a strong lead at the top and this is translating already into a demand for Narendra Modi to become Prime Minister. But, I will tell you more about it in this space next week when I write about my own ‘yatra’ through the villages of Rajasthan.
There are things about India that only become evident when you travel outside the environs of cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. Such very important things that it should be compulsory for our elected representatives to go on regular, monthly travels of the ‘yatra’ kind through their constituencies.