Electioneering in India has changed. Gone are the days when Indira Gandhi used to ride all night in an Ambassador to get to the next election rally in the morning. Gone too are the rathams, the mobile travelling/sleeping/speaking platforms invented by N T Rama Rao.
In both versions, there were unscheduled roadside meetings, crowds to wave to at wayside villages, the many uncertainties of road travel in India, and catnaps when you could snatch them, writes T N Ninan.
Political leaders now campaign in comfort, by chopper -- and to schedule. Whether it is L K Advani or Nitish Kumar, they start out at a comfortable hour, hop to half a dozen meetings where they address crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000, and wind up by 5 pm, getting back to base and sleeping in their own beds at night.
Along the way, there are newspapers to read in the air-conditioned cabin, Coke cans and bottled water to quench your thirst, wet wipes to moisten your hands and face after the heat and dust of a rally that usually lasts about 40 minutes, and packed lunches of home-made roti, daal, vegetables, pickles and a chilli.
The only thing that will be in short supply, we are warned, will be loos -- and therefore to empty bladders before boarding.
At Patna airport, when I land in the evening for the next day's chopper run with Nitish Kumar, the Jet aircraft from Delhi is the only plane in sight. Come the morning, in another corner of the airport, there are half a dozen helicopters ("This one is for Lalu, that is for Paswan, the one in the middle is being used by the BJP
"), and about as many private planes, in the closed hangars and out in the open. Patna airport seems to have gone "private" in an unexpected way.
It's 10 am, the Bihar chief minister drives up on schedule to face a media scrum, answers a few questions, and then we clamber into the 12-seater Bell 412 (the same model that has been in the news along with Anil Ambani, which raises some questions in my mind). Soon we are off eastwards at a steady 120 knots (220 km per hour), headed for Banka, a Naxalite-affected district on the border with Jharkhand.
Nitish Kumar has brought along 10 Delhi newspapers that he proceeds to devour rapidly, exchanging notes occasionally with N K Singh, the former Bihar cadre IAS officer who is now a Janata Dal (United) member of the Rajya Sabha and the man whom the chief minister turns to for advice on a variety of issues, including economic ones.
Some 3,500 feet below us, the parched summer landscape and dry riverbeds give way to low, wooded hills, and an hour later the chopper is making its descent as a small town comes into view.
The drill is for the helicopter to do a slow zig-zag over the town; people hear the rhythmic whops of the rotor blades and run to the rally ground, past startled cattle running helter-skelter, and the pilot does a slow arc in order to give them time to get to the appointed spot.
The sparsely populated field fills up quickly, and as the doors open the air is filled with mikes bellowing "Nitish Kumar zindabad".
The chief minister, of medium height and build, greying and with a modest swell around the waist, is attired in white kurta and pyjamas, and Geox moccasins.
Up on the makeshift platform, he speaks to the crowd in a conversational style. Here and at later meetings during the day, the message is simple: In the 41 months that he has been chief minister, he has improved the state of affairs in Bihar, whether it is law and order or development initiatives. But the government in New Delhi has been miserly in giving funds. If he is to do more, voters have to strengthen his hands by electing a central government that will open the purse strings.
Banka is a difficult constituency for the JD-U; Digvijay Singh, who was a minister in the Vajpayee government, has defected after being denied the party ticket, and is fighting as an independent. His JD-U opponent is from a very backward community, and seems a poor substitute for the established politician. In an election that the JD-U-BJP combine expects to sweep, Banka is one constituency that it might lose.
The crowd here is smaller than at the later meetings in Bhagalpur and Begusarai, and less responsive. "It's a tough fight," is all that the taciturn chief minister will say when we are back in the chopper.
Asked about the poll outlook, he says "Last time the UPA got 29 seats (out of Bihar's 40). This time I think the position will be reversed. People say it will be better than that."
Nitish Kumar is introduced at meetings as "vikaspurush", and gets responsive nods when he talks of his development initiatives -- more roads and bridges, free bicycles for all girls who reach high school, 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayat elections, special schemes for neglected categories within broader caste groupings (like the mahadalits and EBCs or extremely backward classes), and much else -- including the claim of having trebled the state's tax revenue without having raised tax rates.
But the scheme that draws the loudest cheer is the promise of taking all the subsidies in a variety of government schemes, and transferring the money as cash into bank accounts opened by the poor. It is a gambit designed to trump the Congress' rural employment guarantee programme and the promises of wheat and rice at a rupee or two per kilogramme.
(TDP chief) Chandrababu Naidu has promised the same in Andhra Pradesh, and these cash transfers could become the big new idea of the 2009 elections.
Loud claps also greet Nitish Kumar's promise of investment that will bring jobs to Bihar, so that "Biharis don't have to go to other states for work, and be treated badly there".
At Bhagalpur, the NDA candidate is the BJP's Shah Nawaz Hussain, another former minister. The meeting here is better organised, the crowd noticeably bigger. But while the BJP flags are of quality fabric, well printed and bigger, the JD-U green-and-white flags everywhere are smaller, of thin fabric fraying at the edges, with the colours faded.
At Begusarai, the crowds are the most enthusiastic, and the chief minister grows visibly more expansive as he spells out scheme after scheme.
As the chopper lifts off from a school ground, he waves to the crowd through his glass window, and a line of women standing at the edge of a paddy field waves back.
"Women waving, in this remote place," the chief minister notes with wonder. Asked whether he thinks development is a bigger issue than caste in this election, he says he thinks so. But he knows that he has also worked the caste arithmetic very carefully when drawing up his programmes.
The day's meetings over, we trace the Ganga's course back up to Patna. At Munger, a rail-cum-road bridge is under construction. "It was sanctioned in 2002, work has begun only recently," the chief minister notes by way of another complaint against the central government.
It is left to N K Singh, who is introduced everywhere as 'arthshastri' and who makes short, pointed speeches at the rallies, to respond to the speculation that the JD-U might switch horses after the elections.
"Nitish will not be like Naveen Patnaik. If he has to change partners, he would rather go to the people and hold assembly elections first".
He may have no choice, of course, since he needs the BJP's MLAs for a majority in the state assembly; in the current mood he could well win a majority on his own -- which would give him manoeuvring room in New Delhi.
The reassuring thought at the end of the day is that a young engineer who plunged into the JP movement 35 years ago has matured into someone who is not focused on either money or deal-making or caste politics per se. Instead, in a state that is a by-word for poor governance, he stands up at an election rally and promises 100 per cent literacy. There is hope yet.