28 August 1999

Elections 1999: Field notes from a (middle class) campaign meeting

28 August 1999
The Times of India

Field notes from a (middle class) campaign meeting in South Delhi

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

NEW DELHI: The BJP leader had spoken for more than half-an-hour when the
first interruption occurred. Belligerent and stout, Poornima Sethi, a
one-time MLA, had been berating the local Congress candidate, Manmohan
Singh, for selling the country to foreign companies, and Sonia Gandhi for
being a foreigner who harboured dreams of ruling over one billion Indians.

The audience in the Nilgiri Apartments community centre in Alaknanda, south
Delhi, listened impassively as she made a case for them to return Vijay
Kumar Malhotra as their representative. ``If you marry a Maharashtrian
man'', she said pointing to a woman in the audience, ``you will learn his
language, no? But Sonia. She still can't speak Hindi. On the other hand,
look at your behan, Sushmaji. In less than a week, she has learnt the
Kannada language of the people in Bellary.''

At this point, a woman in the front stood up. ``All this is very well. But
we have not received a drop of water for the past week. I haven't bathed
since yesterday and I am sitting in the front row so that my stink can reach
politicians like you.'' Caught off guard, Ms Sethi replied that water was a
local issue and since there was a Congress government in Delhi, she was not
responsible. ``Go to your councillor, not me.'' ``We like you personally,
Poornimaji'' said another woman. ``But BJP was in power for so long. What
did you do?.'' Ms Sethi changed tack. ``I know you support me but when the
time comes, you all don't vote. Only they vote,'' she said, pointing in the
direction of a slum cluster nearby.

``Who are they?'', asked a man in the audience. ``You know, the people in
the jhuggi-jhopris'', she replied. ``But aren't they also Indians? Don't
they have rights? Why are you dividing voters into `us' and `them'? he
asked. The BJP workers in the hall started stirring restlessly. ``The people
in the slums, they are keede-makaude (filthy insects)'', said a party
supporter angrily. He got up from his seat and tried to make his way towards
the questioner before others restrained him. When pressed, Ms Sethi said she
did not think slum- dwellers were insects. ``That is his private view''.

Ms Sethi resumed her speech but she had clearly lost her balance. ``The BJP
respects women,'' she said, apropos of nothing in particular. Up went the
hand of the same man who had questioned her earlier. ``But then why did
Vijayraje Scindia, Shekhawat and other senior leaders support sati in
Deorala?'' At this point, the BJP workers asked the man to leave. ``This
meeting has been called for Poornimaji to ask you all to vote for BJP. No
questions are allowed,'' said one. The man wouldn't leave but the party
activists managed to hustle him to the back of the room. ``I am not afraid
of any questions,'' Poornimaji bellowed from the front. ``BJP is opposed to
sati. If Vijayraje Scindia said something, that is her personal view.''

``Yes madam, but please lower the volume of the speakers,'' said an old man
from the side. ``OK, OK. I have finished anyway. On September 5, please vote
for BJP.'' The man at the back raised his hand to ask another question but
the BJP workers had had enough. ``We have no time'', said one. ``Let us have
a vote of thanks for Poornimaji.''

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