April 11, 2005

On the march

Memories from a walk in Gujarat last week.


Sure, it was political theatre, even grandstanding. Sure, there were hundreds of obsequious yahoos in every direction, fawning as only they can. Sure, it was a far cry from what it must have been like when a namesake trod the same ground, 75 years earlier. Yet with all that granted, this woman still did this much: she walked the 6 km from Matwad to Dandi, the last leg of the famous Dandi Salt March. Not only that, she walked it in 70 minutes, including a stop to pay tributes at a memorial on the way. Say 10 or 11 minutes per km: by any standards, that's a brisk pace. And she did it in the blazing heat of the afternoon sun; when we followed, marching the same 6 km about 45 minutes later, I still felt the heat weighing my shoulders down.

A friend on the press truck who watched her march marvelled at how she shut out the heat and dust, as well as the shouting, gesticulating, attention-seeking hangers-on who walked with her. How she focused tightly on the march and just did it.

Yes, you can, as all of us did, scorn the Congress tamasha that this last leg of the 75th anniversary Dandi march turned into. But Sonia Gandhi did this much: she shut out the distractions and actually walked those 6 km. I've been wondering since, which other Indian politician would have done the same? AB Vajpayee? Lalu Yadav? Sheila Dixit? LK Advani? Vilasrao Deshmukh? J Jayalalithaa with the double "a"? Bal Thackeray? Deve Gowda? Mayawati?


In Dandi later that evening, I saw her stride, brisk and smiling, from photo op to photo op with unknown groups of marchers, without one complaint. Must have been three dozen groups. That same ability to shut out the distractions.

Seems to me, there's more to this woman than her critics allow. And the more they underestimate her, the more they undermine themselves. Which, if you think about it, is not a bad lesson to take home from Dandi, not at all.


At least two men dressed as Gandhi did the march. They invariably drew smiles, even some tears, and "Gandhi-ji ki jai!" shouts, from the people who lined the route. One walked that last leg alongside Sonia. The same witness from the press truck reported that her security men regularly shoved him aside as he strayed, they thought, in front of her. These shoves prompted outraged cries from the press people: "Gandhi ko chalne do!" ("Let Gandhi walk!")

Not likely to have happened 75 years ago, I don't think.

I caught up with one of these Gandhi figures later that evening, at the memorial in Dandi. He climbed onto the low platform there and struck the famous Gandhi marching pose: stick out, torso leaning slightly forward, legs in mid-stride. In the dimming dusk, he held the pose for a good 20 minutes as newcomers wondered: was this a statue? Or a real fake Gandhi?


The tired peace in the marchers' camp was summarily shattered the evening we caught up with them. Not by us, but by one of the marchers. He came storming out of his tent, roaring in anger, and this is what he was roaring: "My motherfucking phone got stolen! I left it there for ten motherfucking minutes, ten motherfucking minutes, and it's gone! You better run, motherfucker! If I find you I'm going to slice your motherfucking balls off, you hear motherfucker?"

A speech not likely to have aired here 75 years ago, I don't think.

Turns out the man had good reason to feel irate. Earlier in the march, someone had stolen his sandals. Earlier still, his mini-disc player. He finished the march -- that same six km to Dandi -- holding a hand-lettered sign that said, simply, "The Truth Matters." That wasn't stolen.


On the last morning, the foreign participants call a press conference to offer some of their reflections on the march. Several have prepared short speeches for the occasion.

Greg Eckart from Honolulu calls this the "most enriching experience of his life", and says he can never now "return to idleness." He observes that if people can come in droves to Honolulu to look at Pearl Harbour, people should come here to celebrate this march for peace.

Abdul Hamid from Peshawar leads a 92-member Pakistani delegation. He says he's here following the path of Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the "Frontier Gandhi"), their message of brotherhood and peace.

Sheena Worrell from Australia repeats what a lot of people here have said, more than once: that Gandhi's most resonant message was to "be the change you want to see." Living like that needs courage, says Sheena, but Gandhi showed a way.

And through all these reflections, and many more, there's a reporter in the audience who keeps getting calls on his cellphone. Annoying enough by itself, but his ringtone is, of all things, a baby crying. I do not make this stuff up.

I'm not sure which question I am most interested in an answer to: Why won't he turn the damned thing off? Why would a man get his phone to weep like a baby? Why not hammer this fellow, even on this march of peace?


Suhail said...

Feels like I was walking besides you.

".. LK Advani? .." :o
Hello Mr.. I strongly object to the insult meted out to Shri Advani by putting his name amongst the lowly fellows. When he means yatra(pad or rath), it invariably means *over wheels(with power steering & A/C)*. Don't you watch news channels, eh ?

..Vilasrao Deshmukh? Bal Thackeray?..
Why walk when you might as well build 50 highways and zip through them.

The only one frm yr list is Deve Gowda. He can literally "sleep-walk" through HELL and you wouldn't know :-) And the best candidate that now comes to my mind would ofcourse be Shankar Dayal Sharma. Remember him? All he has to do is walk 3 steps, and you'd feel he's been walking for years.
[Sorry for the joke Mr. Sharma, I just couldn't resist my evil side]

"Why would a man get his phone to weep like a baby?"
Too many wrong questions Dilip, too many. The question instead is
"ladka hua ya ladki (boy or girl)?"

Now pass on the sweets please :-)

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sriram commented on this post in my next one. I'll reply here in context.

This is what he said:
Now, I am not one of those who scream that Sonia should never become the PM, but I haven't found anything impressive about her either. She just seems like any other person.

Underestimate her? What exactly are her accomplishments? Winning elections? Hmm, Jayalalithaa, Laloo and Bal Thackerey did it too! And they weren't anyone's wife or daughter-in-law either!

Granted, she is healthy enough to walk many miles, unlike the others you mentioned. Good for her; is there really a meaning to it?

When Jayalalithaa first came to power, she underwent a hunger fast over the Kaveri issue for days, a la you know who. However, thankfully, no one was enamoured enough to compare her with Gandhi.

Is there a meaning to it, you ask about her walking on the Dandi route. It's what I said about underestimating her. You can pooh-pooh her all you want, and it doesn't really matter. Least of all to her. What does matter is that hundreds of folks who stood on the sidelines and watched the marchers go by saw her walking, in the sun, keeping up that brisk pace. They were visibly impressed, and some commented on it to me later. To them, it seemed like an accomplishment that no other politician cares to achieve.

Yes, that's what I meant about underestimating her.

As for JJ's fast, please: "days" is something of an exaggeration. On the first afternoon she had doctors coming in to pronounce her weak; on the second day she wound it up, proclaiming that her demands were fulfilled.

Yeah right: don't we know? The Kaveri issue was solved right there.

wise donkey said...

:)JJ not related to a politicain?? but to give the lady credit, whatever she is now is coze of herself and not due to MGR.

and similarly I think Sonia has her own identity now, even if the reason for her getting it r wrong. She didnt walk away from being Leader of Opposi. and be only PM.

Just because she walked doesnt mean we have to worship her, or vote for Congress, but doesnt mean we dont have to give credit where its due.

If Modi had done the same, wouldnt a section, praised him for it?

:) on what didnt get stolen

The baby crying ringtone, guess thats 2 show the importance the owner gives 2 his callers:) but still weird and irritating

Sourin Rao said...

Fascinating stuff. You truly detail the event very well with lucid narration and interesting anecdotes. Thank you for your posts.

Except for the part about Sonia. Stop this Madam glorification because it certainly isn't warranted. Some of the other politiciants have at least demonstrated that they are skilled administrators. Sonia is just a product of the spineless sycophants around her. A brand image they cling to to justify their own survival.

I hope Jharkhand and Goa are not harbinger of things to come under her stewardship. And the last thing that we need is her glorification. Why, she walked a measly 6 kms. Big Deal !

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thank you chappan. But "Madam glorification"? "Big deal"? Like Sriram, you entirely missed the point about underestimating her. It hardly matters whether you think it is a big deal or not. The people who saw her walking like that that day, a not insignificant distance in fierce heat, smiling and speaking to some of them -- those people thought it was some kind of achievement.

She already proved last year that she is a cannier politician than most in this country, cannier than any of her opponents give her credit for. And the more people like you like to pretend she is some wisp of air instead of a formidable political figure, the more strength she'll gain where it counts most -- among the people who vote.

Anonymous said...

To Sriram. Winning an election IS an accomplishment. And yes, Jayalalithaa, Laloo and Bal Thackerey all of them have a great list of accomplishments. The difference between them and Sonia is that their politics is despicable but not Sonias.

The greatest certificate of achievement for Sonia is that the only thing her detractors have to say against her is this - what are her credentials. Inspite of the fact that she led the Congress to victory in the world's largest democracy. Funny, noone ever asked the same question about Rajiv Gandhi.

wise donkey said...

Well said annon.
I have more respect for Sonia as a person and as a politician then for Rajiv,Indhira and even Nehru. And Rahul hopefully will be like his mother and not like his father.