The making of rath yatras
In the frenzied campaign for the coming Lok Sabha polls, roadshows have emerged as the most effective campaign tool, with several leaders including Deputy PM LK Advani and Congress president Sonia Gandhi choosing this mass contact programme to win over the electorate.
However, few outside Andhra Pradesh know about the pioneering rath yatra taken out by the founder of Telugu Desam Party, late NT Rama Rao in 1982, which besides catapulting him to power also entered the Guinness Book of World Records. In all fairness to other leaders, it will be no exaggeration to say that their road shows were no match to NTR’s — in terms of sheer drama, curiosity and the response it generated.
For, the actor-turned-politician travelled nearly 40,000 km, touring the entire state four times in nine months, ate at wayside hotels, slept in his rath (or under trees sometimes), took bath on roadsides and did not even return to Hyderabad till elections were announced in January, 1983. No wonder, he missed the marriage of his two sons in the process!
Christened Chaitanya Ratham, NTR turned his old Chevrolet van into a rath, fitted with the required paraphernalia like a revolving chair, table to work and facilities for him to rest, says his biographer and senior journalist I. Venkata Rao. NTR would climb on to the top through a hatch. Opposition leaders of the day ridiculed him and his rath yatra as an extension of his celluloid histrionics and dubbed him Drama Rao.
Unfazed by the criticism, NTR went ahead. He would address even a small gathering of 20 people, which would soon swell in to a huge crowd, Rao says. NTR also gave a fresh lease of life to forgotten Telugu songs like Maa Telugu Talliki Mallepoodanda (a garland of jasmine flowers for mother Telugu) and Cheyyetti Jai kottu Telugoda (praise Telugu by raising your hands).
These songs stirred the listeners. “People used to wait for days, camping on the roadside, bringing along stoves, utensils and mats just to hear NTR.” Villagers would post one person on the main road and ask him to signal them at the sight of NTR’s rath. Women offered him arathi, asking him to name their newborn kids. NTR too mingled freely with the public; he would stop at roadside eateries to have tiffin, chat with people, take his bath and a short nap, Rao says.
Driven by his son and former minister Hari Krishna, Chaitanya Ratham symbolised NTR’s political campaigning even when he set out to campaign against the incumbent Chief Minister and his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu after the latter took over as chief minister.