Newsroom diaries 2016: Momos from Bhutan and ruggedness of a political terrain called Assam
Away from the 'field' for so many years, I was apprehensive and the prospect of botching up the mission always kept me on tenterhooks.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series of newsroom diaries by various members of the Firstpost team. These diaries will provide you with the journalist's recollections of a particular bit of news coverage in 2016 in which she/he was deeply involved.
Juicy, served hot and incredibly appetising. The plate of dumpling that a roadside restaurant in Bhutan's Samdrup Jongkhar district bordering northern Assam could offer me for a really late lunch was perhaps the perfect metaphor describing the mood of the Indian state in polls.
Election time for a journalist, who has a gluttony to devour all that makes news, is no less appealing than a dish that dictates your insatiable craving.
You must be wondering, why Bhutan for Assam Assembly polls?
Well, on a warm April afternoon this year while on a quest for a story in Assam's Bodoland Territorial Area District of Baksa overlooking this Bhutanese town, it was the sheer natural beauty, curiosity, the economic equation of the place with Assam and its serenity that took me there. Of course, the visa-free entry did help. My stay in Bhutan was hardly for a couple of hours but that was my little tryst with tranquillity in my 10-day sojourn to the northeastern state to cover its Assembly election.
Away from the 'field' for so many years, I was apprehensive and the prospect of botching up the mission always kept me on tenterhooks. I could not show any fear but it was lurking within as I traversed from one end of the state to the other chasing leaders, meeting voters, filing stories.
The sweetness of the political class when the elections are right there is something unmissable. Leaders no matter what their hierarchy is would pick up your calls, oblige to your request to meet them and even accommodate you in their vehicles when there is no time and space for a formal rendezvous in the flurry of campaign meetings.
Mine started off with the then chief ministerial candidate of the BJP Sarbananda Sonowal (he is now Assam chief minister). Sonowal was busy campaigning for the party's Tinsukia candidate Sanjoy Kishan visiting every small pocket in the business town. Thanks to one of my relatives, who also happens to be a BJP member, I could gather the entire itinerary of Sonowal. Although I attempted to arrange for a formal meet, the frenzied schedule, jam-packed venues made it impossible.
People would rush to meet the chief ministerial candidate with petitions, felicitate him with gamosa (a cotton yarn cloth given to near and dear ones in Assamese culture), tell him their problems with raised voice one above the other, while it was abundantly clear that Sonowal could follow none in the cacophony. He merely nodded and smiled giving the people hope that their problems would be personally looked into. Hope is such an important ingredient of politics, it is like oxygen for a human being.
It was at this neighbourhood meeting I realised that unless I could a hitch a ride in their vehicles I could meet none of them even for half a minute. Immediately I unleashed my Mumbai local train skills on the heaving crowd and reached close enough to Sonowal where I exhausted all my lung power in identifying myself and requested for a ride in his Scorpio. He obliged immediately and signalled the accompanying Assam Police commando to get into the police vehicle behind. With a similar feeling when you successfully grab a window seat in a crowded local, I soon after directed my volley of questions to Sonowal.
When I met now Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma who was then campaigning for Jorhat Lok Sabha MP Kamakhya Prasad Tasa it was nearly a war like situation. Tasa was taking on then Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi in his home constituency of Titabor, a reason enough to make the seat prestigious and make the battle royale. It was also a showdown between Sarma and Gogoi given their ugly political fallout.
The venue itself, which was a school auditorium, was no less than a village fair. Thousands gathered in that poorly lit auditorium, stood on desk and benches, shouted slogans, shoved and pushed for a closer view and even tried to shake Sarma's hands. His stature was no less than a rock star. The rains made it worse. I ran on the slush towards Sarma's vehicle which was parked in the school playground (which was akin to a paddy field by then). Wet and tired I was pushed into the vehicle (I don't know by who) only to borrow the phone of a Sarma aide to tell my driver to follow the convoy. The batteries of my antique Nokia smartphone had already left me at my mercy. As the SUV raced towards Jorhat, I interviewed both Sarma and Tasa and jotted down whatever I could in my notebook in absolute darkness. The conked off Nokia of mine did not provide me with the luxury to record it. When I checked later, those jottings were my worst ever handwriting which was already terrible since genesis. It took me hours to figure out who said what before I could write my story.
Rains indeed played its role. Campaigning for his father Tarun Gogoi, Kaliabor MP Gaurav Gogoi had to leave one of his open-air public meetings and rush for shelter in a nearby Shiva temple. Huddled inside the temple people left their footwear outside in a jumbled heap making me wonder how they will find the right if they found the left. Gaurav's was privileged of course. With only little spots of mud on them, his expensive leather shoes were well-protected as his personal security officer (PSO) secured them. The poor chap actually stood in the rain with an umbrella overhead away from the people making sure that his boss' shoes aren't wet or soiled. Whether it was diligence to duty or excess of it, I would refrain from commenting but I did feel bad for the middle-aged man.
Pengaree tea estate in Upper Assam is the place where I met former Assam minister Pradyut Bordoloi. A public meeting that was to start at 3 pm was almost delayed by two hours when the dusk gradually took over from the sun. Tea garden workers even from nearby ones were given a half-day off so that they could attend the meeting. Irritated by the long wait the workers were in for a bigger shock when Bordoloi delivered probably the dullest of a poll campaign speech. Lacking in humour and anecdotes, the missing link with the mass was clearly palpable as people sat through the torture with some praiseworthy patience. Despite the mundane speech, my job was to get a story and I used my tried and tested formula of hopping into their vehicle. My driver had by now become adept with my strategy of following the convoy.
After Pengaree, Bordoloi was to address another rally at Philobari which was at a distance less than 20 km. With Bordoloi's permission, I took the seat next to the driver in the Scorpio as his PSO went to a police vehicle behind. As it was getting late the convoy decided to take a shorter route — it was possibly the worst road I ever travelled upon with the realisation dawning upon me why the powerful Mahindra SUV was so popular with the politicians. There was practically no road, as the vehicle used all its horsepower to clamber up and down at times tilting in dangerous angles but still moving. In that hell of a journey, I carried on with my interview as I realised that there was not a single soul or an electric bulb blinking somewhere far. Apart from the headlamps, it was an all-pervading darkness in an area which is one of the state's dreaded zones known for violent activities by the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam.
And Assam has its own history of pre-poll violence. With prayers on my lips, I listened to Bordoloi's musings on the political future of the Congress and hoped that no one was hiding somewhere to ambush the convoy. The vehicle I was in was leading the convoy and would obviously be the first target. Sitting in the front seat that was not a cosy thought to settle down. So much so that when the former minister decided for a roadside loo break all vehicles switched off their lights to give him a sense of privacy and security in the darkness. Fortunately, no mishap occurred, only that he lost the election later.
My meeting with former Congress president Anjan Dutta was a test of my patience. The day I landed at Amguri where his daughter Angkita Dutta was fighting the first Assembly election in her life, Congress star campaigner Raj Babbar was also there. Badly vanquished in the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Ghaziabad constituency, the cine star of yesteryear still got some hero-like adoration. Congress leaders with their families flocked at Hotel Nandanban in Jhanji, 20 km from Amguri to have some selfie moments with the ex-Bollywood star. The roadshow that followed was more like a festival than a campaign. People flocked to watch Babbar more than to show their support to the Congress candidate. Amid this fanfare, I waited for an atrocious four hours to interview the man who then headed the Congress campaign in Assam — Anjan Dutta. Sadly, this turned out to be one of Dutta's last interviews as he passed away on 16 June following severe ailment less than a month after the new government took over.
Now eight months after the muddy trail that saw the lotus bloom for the first time in Assam forcing the hand to go on a soul-searching... there is another set of polls elsewhere in 2017 that would be certainly as hot as the momos from Bhutan.
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