Elections are a grueling experience for all politicians participating in them, more so if they are held at the height of summer. But if you are the prime ministerial candidate – and 81 years old to boot – they are many times more demanding. You have to put in an appearance everywhere across the country to bolster your party candidates’ fortunes.
Lal Krishna Advani is doing just that. But if he finds the effort taxing, he is not letting it show. Early every morning he can be seen being driven into the VIP terminal at Delhi’s Palam airport. He boards a special executive jet earmarked for his campaign, which is soon airborne with minimum fuss.
On the day HT travels with him, he heads for Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, 814 km eastwards. “Isn’t it exhausting campaigning in this heat?” I ask.
“It’s much better than the experience I had in Rajasthan in 1978 when I was already information and broadcasting minister in the Janata Party government,” he replies. “Our taxi broke down at the height of summer and we had to hitch a ride in a truck.”
“And the truck ride was better than the one I took in a tractor-trolley from Kota to Chittor, again in Rajasthan,” he adds.
How long did he think he could go on, I ask.
“I wanted to call it a day when I turned 80 in 2007,” he says. “I wanted to retire while I was still healthy. But then my party colleagues decided I should be projected as prime ministerial candidate. I had to change my plans.”
It takes barely an hour to reach Jabalpur. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, 50, is at the head of the group that has gathered to greet Advani at the airport. But Jabalpur is not our final destination. From Jabalpur we board a Bell 412 helicopter for Katni, 85 km further east.
The helicopter lands, kicking up a brief dust storm. It is all marigold and rose garlands as Advani steps out, with BJP flags fluttering everywhere. Cries of jan, jan ki vani, Lal Krishna Advani (Advani is the people’s voice) rent the air.
But not all present at the rally are his fans. Advani has barely taken his seat when a sandal is flung at him from the crowd. The thrower’s aim and strength are so poor, it lands at least 30 feet away from the BJP leader. (He does not even notice. When told about the incident much later, he does not react.)
“What is our goal?” he asks the audience at the rally. “To make Advani prime minister?”
The crowd roars agreement. Advani is not impressed. “No, our goal is to transform the country, remove backwardness, take water to parched lands. But all that will only be possible with a BJP led government in power,” he says.
We are aboard the helicopter again, bound for Shahdol, another 50 km away. Another meeting, where Advani virtually repeats his Katni speech, and it is time for lunch.
Advani is a frugal eater – sticks to fruits and sweetened curd. Many exhort him to try the roti and sabzi, but he is unmoved. He responds with a favourite story of his: “A doctor once told me God decides the amount of food each person should consume in a lifetime,” he says. “”The person can have it in one go, over 40 years or 80 years, whatever he chooses.”
“Food and sleep are two things I need very little of,” he tells me.
Once more the chopper is in the air, bound for Sidhi, another 100 km ahead. “How do you take the heat?” asks a Western journalist traveling with us, his own facial pallor almost crimson.
Deepak Chopra, Advani’s faithful aide for over two decades, who is also traveling with us, fishes out a small bottle from Advani’s travel kit. It’s a floral essence his daughter Pratibha always packs for him. Chopra sprays some of it on Advani’s cheeks and chin and offers us the bottle. “Try it, it’s refreshingly cool,” he says. “Now you know how we beat the heat.”
After the rally at Sidhi, the next stop is Khajuraho. Thanks to the tourist traffic it attracts, Khajuraho boasts an airport. We find Advani’s executive jet – which dropped us off at Jabalpur – waiting for us here. No more choppers. We move to the jet to fly to the state capital Bhopal – and Advani’s fourth and last rally of the day.
It’s dark when we reach 45 minutes later. Again chief minister Chouhan is at the airport to receive us. At the rally, Chouhan focuses solely on the development his government has brought about; Advani follows it up by listing what more the BJP could do if voted to power at the center.
It is around 10.45 when we return to Palam. Advani will be here again the next day at 7.30 am to travel to Mumbai for a press conference and then campaign in Maharashtra.