The days’s programme for Jaswant Singh, the BJP candidate from Chhittorgarh, Rajasthan, began with a numeric ‘0755 hours’.
At the appointed hour Singh, dressed in trademark safari suit, came out of his room at Chittor’s government circuit house to start the days’s election campaign.
In the veranda only five of us were there. Me, a photographer, a driver and two party workers.
“Where are others”, asked Singh.
“They are on their way,” mumbled the embarrassed workers.
“But we were supposed to start at 7.55. Let us go,” said the candidate.
Jaswant Singh, who would later become India’s Defence, Foreign and Finance Minister, had left Army a quarter century ago. But the Army never left him. He used to fight his political battles with military precision.
The desperate workers tried to plead with him. “We don’t know the way to the villages. The contact man for those villages will be coming shortly. Let us wait for them.”
Jaswant Singh was new to Chittorgarh. He was a Lok Sabha member from Jodhpur, where he had earned his spurs by defeating chief minister Ashok Gehlot. Chittorgarh was far from his home territory. But the wily Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had great faith in his ability to make way through unchartered territories. (Subsequently, Singh would contest and won even from Remote Darjeeling.)
In 1991 Lok Sabha election, Shekhawat had fielded the fellow Thakur from Chittorgarh against Congress party’s Mahendra Singh, the former Maharana of Mewar, making it a Thakur versus Thakur contest. Shekhawat wanted to teach the Maharana a lesson because he had ditched the BJP to join the Congress.
Jaswant Singh might have been new to the area. But that did not deter him from ignoring the local workers and going ahead with his campaign alone because “we must learn to be punctual”. The aghast workers meekly followed him.
It was quite comical. The candidate was alone in his car with the driver. The two workers followed on a rickety scooter. A security vehicle followed them. And following this strange convoy was our car.
Not a soul was in sight when we reached the village square from where the campaigning was supposed to start. We had to wait for a good half an hour before the workers could assemble a few persons from the village. By that time the team of workers that was supposed to accompany Jaswant Singh for the campaign had also arrived.
Wheels have turned full circle in 2018. This time Jaswant Singh’s son, Manvendra Singh, a former BJP MP, has joined the Congress to challenge Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje from Jhalrapatan. A former defence correspondent with Indian Express who had also fought in Kargil as an armyman, Manvendra is apparently trying to avenge his father who was refused a BJP ticket in 2014 elections.
The man with the mysterious suitcase
Every election is a learning experience for political correspondents. It is a time when they get to see the underbelly of Indian politics from close quarters. In the pre-TN Seshan era one often came across shocking examples of violations of democratic norms.
During the 1980 Lok Sabha election Bhopal found a high-flying AICC office bearer, Choudhary Ramsewak, striding the corridors of power. He emerged as one of the key figures in the run up to elections in the fund-starved Congress party, out of power for the past three years. Grapevine had it that he was the man who had brought in election funds for the party candidates.
I was planning to visit Chhindwara for election coverage. Chhindwara’s significance was that it was the only seat in MP which had returned a Congress candidate even at the height of anti-Congress wave sweeping north India in 1977. Choudhary Saheb offered to take me along on the trip.
On the appointed day when I reached his room in the circuit house – the lakeside CM House at Bhopal used to be the circuit house then – I knocked at his door and then entered. The doors were open.
A visibly confused Choudhary saheb hurriedly closed the flap of a huge suitcase lying on the floor in the middle of the room. Then he proceeded to lock it meticulously. The huge, bulging, heavy suitcase occupied the pride of the place in the room. The briefcase and other luggage containing his clothes and personal effects were lying in the dressing room.
Throughout that journey Choudhary Ramsewak never allowed the suitcase to leave his sight. Around dinner time we reached Tamia rest house, where a top Congress leader of his times, Nitiraj Singh, a former MP, was staying. All the luggage was brought from the car and disappeared in a room in the rest house.
An hour later, as we started for Chhindwara the luggage was loaded back – minus that mysterious suitcase.
Untold Stories, my column in First Print, 25 Nov 18
Updated 2 Dec & 7 Dec 2018