Assam’s ‘elephant’ man is king on home turf | india | Hindustan Times
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Assam’s ‘elephant’ man is king on home turf

india Updated: Apr 22, 2009 02:45 IST
Rahul Karmakar

Eight rallies covering 220 km, a campaign coordinator tells Prafulla Kumar Mahanta (57), dressed in trademark white safari suit with a Chinese collar. A string of visitors — never more than the number of Black Cat commandos and policemen at his grey-green cottage here off NH37 — hadn’t allowed him to eat breakfast till well past 10 am.

The former Assam chief minister, a vegetarian, nibbles from a plate of fruits before stepping into a bullet-proof Ambassador, one of a convoy of 10, at 10.45 am. All cars except two are full of security personnel. High on the militants’ hit-list, Mahanta moves with Z+ security.

The convoy heads to Raidingia, 26 km north. There is mild commotion among the 1,200 Assamese people as Mahanta alights; a few push their hands past the Black Cat barrier to shake hands with Mahanta. His address is brief, but he drives home the point — why the haathi (elephant, Asom Gana Parishad’s symbol) needs to be with the lotus (BJP’s symbol) to oust the anti-people haath (hand, the Congress symbol).

Another 20 km northwards at Dhing, a laidback, town surrounded by Muslim villages, the turnout is a tad below 2,000. Many migrant Muslims in that crowd. Former AGP minister Shahidul Alam Choudhury takes the mike ahead of Mahanta. “Muslims feel so insecure under Congress rule that they have to form their own party,” he says in Bengali, alluding to Badruddin Ajmal’s Asom United Democratic Front.

There is pin-drop silence as Mahanta stands up. “Dust storms and dry spells made your life miserable. Then the rains rescued you. So you see, this political dust storm from the UPA has to be tamed by the NDA’s soothing showers.” Heads nod in comprehension.

The mid-day sun is searing down as Mahanta wraps up, but Dhing isn’t ready to bid him adieu without some jalpan (refreshments). Mahanta relents and picks up a ghila pitha (brown rice-cake) from a plateful of goodies.

At Rupahi, a large Muslim village 40 km away, he lists out reasons why AGP’s Gunin Hazarika (61) is a better candidate than either sitting Congress MP Deep Gogoi (57) or AUDF’s Sirajuddin Ajmal (52) for Kaliabor. “The Congress claims it has provided free medicines and guaranteed jobs. Did any of you get them?” The crowd is silent. Mahanta smiles, “Your silence says you have been beneficiaries.” He pauses. “Noooo!” reacts the crowd this time.

After another quick rally at Sulung, 5 km from Rupahi, the convoy returns to Nagaon, where Mahanta eats a late lunch of rice and dal with salad. Then he rides out for four more rallies — two each in Kaliabor and Nagaon.

The rallies in the evening attract more people, and it’s clear who they have come for. “Mahanta is our friend, philosopher and guide, and we know he won’t ask us to vote for the wrong candidate,” says trader Babul Mollah (44).

Mahanta’s trail ends well past midnight. “It’s been a long day, but four hours of sleep will refresh me for tomorrow,” he says without betraying signs of fatigue. “I’ll sleep a bit longer when the NDA is back in power, and a regional player like AGP has a bigger role in national politics.”