Bang opposite the two heavily fortified bungalows of the Bahujan Samaj Party, 15 Gurudwara Rakabganj Road goes virtually unnoticed. But behind its quiet exterior, the house is buzzing with activity, with senior Congress leaders whizzing in and out to coordinate and fine-tune their party’s election strategies, and shield the campaign from prying eyes.
The high point of the day is the evening stock-taking meeting of the core group of about 17 senior leaders whom Congress president Sonia Gandhi has tasked with the operation. “We take up different issues,’’ says a leader who does not wish to be named. The emergence of the third front, for instance, had figured at one such meeting. And the Congress, in an effort to demolish the front’s viability, fielded for the media its senior-most leader — Pranab Mukherjee.
As coordinator for election-related affairs, former Union minister Jairam Ramesh operates from the freshly-painted, well-appointed office that almost has a corporate sheen to it.
The only other leader who is a daily fixture there is Motilal Vora, the man who holds the key to the party’s treasury, puts donations into the party’s coffers, doles out cash to candidates and watches hawk-eyed over party expenses. As the Congress president’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel is ubiquitious at all important meetings.
What is missing, perhaps, is the ambience of 99 South Avenue, the war room of the 2004 elections when the Congress was in the opposition. Manned then by Ramesh and Salman Khurshid, the place was plastered with graphics and colourful posters of ‘Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath’, the slogan that hoisted the party to power.
The EC’s restriction on putting up posters in public and private properties has clearly taken a toll on this. So, when this reporter went around the rooms one day, there was nothing on the walls to show of the party’s campaign or of its latest slogan— aam aadmi ke badhte kadam, har kadam par Bharat buland (India gets stronger with the forward march of the common man).
But there is another vital difference between then and now. In 2004, the party had kept an open door, with policy planning experts and celeb inductees happily rubbing shoulders with the swarm of media persons who routinely dropped in. That vibrancy is absent. And though there is nothing to show for it, mediapersons are taboo here as we discovered, to our discomfiture.
Walking into the complex, we went around the empty rooms and found that most of the occupants had gathered under a shamiana in the backlawns where Mukherjee was expounding on the finer points of the campaign to a group of spokespersons from across the country.
While we waited, a well-placed leader entered, saw us and hit the ceiling. “You are trespassing,” he needled. But to soften the blow, he offered us tea. We trudged out with the uncomfortable feeling of having intruded into the war room. Outside waiting near the gate were media managers looking for advertisements to come from JWT, Crayon and Percept who handle the Congress’s campaigns for the print and electronic media and for radio and hoardings.
Besides Ramesh, the Congress leaders who meet at 15 Gurudwara Rakabganj Road in the evenings include — depending on their availability — Ghulam Nabi Azad, Digvijay Singh, Ambika Soni, Mukul Wasnik, Oscar Fernandes, Abhishek Singhvi, Janardhan Dwivedy, Kapil Sibal, Veerappa Moily, Prithviraj Chavan, Salman Khurshid, and Rajiv Shukla. And, of course, Patel.