2000 kms by road
Glimpses of dance of democracy
By R.C. Ganjoo
In India, the largest democracy of the world, election is the greatest of all carnivals. Rain or shine, it enlivens the countryside, the whole land wakes up to the drum and rhythm of electioneering. Travelling 2,000 kms by road, we bring you a colourful narrative of the 45-day-long dance of democracy.
“There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home,” said John Stuart Mill. Exactly, it was an experience, coupled with adventure for me and for my journalist friend, Jay Kishan, to cover over 2,000 km of distance from Delhi to Guwahati by car.
Before we started our journey we marked the route on the road map. We began our journey in the Maruti Esteem car from Delhi at 10 a.m. Traffic on Delhi roads was as usual, maddening but once we hit the highway, it was a treat. We could see the Prime Minister'sdream highway project becoming a reality, but only in small parts-if a stretch of 100 kms was pure joy, another 100 was the same old story. But one could see things really changing.
We reached Lcknow around 9 p.m. and checked into the government-run Gomti Hotel. It may be a public sector undertaking but what made the difference was the smile on the faces of the staff, who ensured that we were comfortable.
Once we hit the highway, it was a treat. We could see the Prime Minister'sdream highway project becoming a reality.
But we just slept there and decided to leave early next morning. We skipped the breakfast at the hotel despite the staff”s entreaties, thinking we should not lose time. But it was not to be.
As we hit the highway, we looked for a reasonably good place to have our breakfast and we saw a nice place just outside Lucknow. But as we entered, we saw the staff sleeping. Obviously, they had all stayed up late. We woke them up and in order to save time, we helped them in kneading the flour, making paranthas and omlettes. And soon we were on our way again. Well the drive was as smooth as it could be, given the traffic on the roads with stray cattle and vehicles of all shapes and sizes vying for the slice of tarred road. In town after town, the only talk was of the impending elections.
It was around 3 p.m. that we reached Kushinagar, the place where Lord Buddha attained parinirvana. It attracts tourists from across the world, but ironically the tourist office is in a ramshackle building with a lone official serving as tourist guide. The reasons why India figures so low on the world tourist map are not far to seek.
Well, we hit the road again, and we reached the UP-Bihar border just before the sun was about to set. And there was a massive traffic jam. My friend got down to find the reason. Once the truck-driver knew that we were journalists from Delhi, they became overprotective. They advised us not to travel during the night and be part of their convoy till Muzaffarpur, where we decided to halt for the night.
We had heard about Bihar roads, but now we saw them, that'sif you can call them roads. Mind you these are National Highways, the trucker told us. When 26 kms take you more than one hour, need one say more about the state of the roads?
Once inside Muzaffarpur, we were told that there was only one good hotel named Chandralok. We checked in but were told that though they had AC rooms, the AC would function only if there was power supply and there was no guarantee when that would happen. We just took a room.
But then Biharis and politics are the two sides of the same coin. Once the ?General Manager? of the hotel came to know about us, he simply wanted to go on and on about the state politics. But when asked about the state of roads and power supply, he said, “We are happy the way we are.” Perhaps this explains the great Indian karma theory. At six in the morning we resumed the journey and managed to reach Begusarai around 9 a.m.; had breakfast there and proceeded. No need to repeat the condition of the roads. We asked a restaurant waiter, “You have so many Central Ministers from your state, then why is all this like the way it is..?” His one-line answer was, “Sir, too many cooks spoil the broth.” But, here, what broth could they spoil? There was simply no broth there.
Well, the story remained the same right up to Purnea. Driving on that highway could give Michael Schumacher jitters of his life. It is a tribute to the great Indian truck-driver that he drives on these so-called highways. But again, what is Bihar if you are not surprised! Soon after Purnea, we literally started cruising along the road as if we were taxying on the runway. It was Kishanganj on the Bihar-Bengal boundary and the young MP and Minister from there, Shahnawaz Hussein'sconstituency. Well, if there is a will, there is a way, even in Bihar which this youthful Minister is trying to prove. Beyond Bihar the roads were smooth although we had another night halt at Jalapaiguri, before reaching Guwahati after four days and three nights.
The capital of Assam is said to be the third fastest expanding city in India. Well not many would know that the North-east remains, psychologically very distant. Alongwith our host, a devotee of Kamakhaya, the Shakti Peeth, the next day we visited the temple. We spent one complete day there as it was Chaitra Purinima Shukla, the auspicious day. There we were introduced to Pt. Rana Kant Sarma, the priest of Kamakhya Sham Bara, the grandson of Pt. Ramnikant Dev Sharma, scholar and sidh sadak. Surprisingly, we came across with one Kashmiri Muslim business family in the temple, who too was performing puja under the supervi-sion of Pt. Rana Kant Sarma. We were told that the Kashmir businessman, who had become the devotee of Shakti Peeth, had himself seen the miracle of Goddess Kamakhya Mai when his stall in an exhibition did not get engulfed in flames during the fire that broke out in the area, while rest of the stalls were razed to the ground. He seemed very comfortable in the company of other fellow devotees. He performed the rituals and joined the community lunch on that day.
But being journalists, we could not stay more than one day in Assam, through we were interested in the political goings on. My friend, who is an old hand on Meghalaya, suggested that we go to Tura from where P.A. Sangma is contesting, And the next morning we were on our way. Tura, about 250 kms from Guwahati is located in western part of Meghalaya and is Sangma'spocket borough. We talked to people along the road and it was clear that he would win, but the margin remains a cause of worry as he has been fighting the last two elections on different symbols. This time it'sthe Trinamool symbol.
Sangma was amazed to see us. It was Good Friday and being a Christian, he had taken a day off from electioneering. So we had time for a long talk on the future political set-up in the country. Tura, till the other day, a small hill town, is today full of life. You have a modern shopping mall with escalators and autorickshaws which do brisk business. The economy is definitely on the upswing.
Next day we were back at Guwahati. We passed the night and decided to go to Shillong, Meghalaya'scapital. Barely 100 kms from Guwahati, this Scotland of the East is fast turning into a concrete jungle with construction all around, which has simply taken the sheen off the place. My friend suggested that we have tea at Hotel Pinewood, a place which still retains its old world charm. It was surprising to see the reaction of the hotel staff upon seeing my friend. They all came out to greet us and wanted us to stay the night but we had to get back.
For the next three days we remained at Guwahati, where we had a chance to meet a veteran CPI member, Phani Bora. In his 80s, Mr Bora is not in the pink of healh, but his understanding of the political situation in the country is simply amazing. He took us down memory lane telling us about his encounters with leaders about whom we have just read in books. What made the conversation important was the fact that while sitting in Delhi, we perceive the North-east as a region which is simply distant and in the back of beyond, they are the people who can teach us a thing or two about hospitality, honesty and friendship.
How many of us would know about Ms Kanak Lata Barua who was a freedom fighter? She was the first to raise the tri-colour in Nagaon in Assam and was killed during the freedom struggle.
Why youngsters there take to arms is another story, about which a lot has been written, and which can again be told some other day.
It was Kishanganj on the Bihar-Bengal boundary and the young MP and minister from there, Shahnawaz Hussein'sconstituency. Well, if there is a will, there is a way, even in Bihar.