The year was 1999. And the mother of all political battles was being waged in a very unlikely corner of India: Karnataka's mining belt, Bellary, where Sonia Gandhi was contesting her first Lok Sabha election, along with Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP choppered in its beti Sushma Swaraj to take on Rajiv Gandhi's widow. The stakes were sky-high.
The night before I left for Bellary to cover the high-voltage campaign for New Delhi Television (NDTV), I was having an informal chat with Prannoy Roy. "I am throwing you a challenge, Nupur, in covering the Bellary election," he said to me in his usual soft-spoken but persuasive manner. "Oh, what is that?" I asked. "I know very well that you will get up-close to cover the campaigns of both Sonia and Sushma - but I want you to get us something more." Very curious by now about what that could be, I again queried, "And what is that?"
"I want you to try and get an interview with Priyanka Gandhi," Prannoy said. "To date, Priyanka has never ever spoken on camera to anyone and your challenge lies in trying to get her to give you an interview - to speak on camera." Silence. I was barely aware that Priyanka was going to be coming to Bellary to campaign for her mother, so steeped was I in the Sonia-Sushma optics. The challenge gave me an instant adrenalin rush. I promised him that I would leave no stone unturned for this interview.
In Bellary, I hit the campaign trail with Sushma Swaraj on her open jeep and walks through voters' homes, speaking her newly-learnt Kannada talking about how the "foreign bahu" should be shown the door. As the campaign progressed, she was giving Sonia a run for her votes in a constituency foreign to both candidates. We covered Sonia's rallies in the district and attended her evening press conferences at the local Congressman's house and got the standard bytes of the election preparedness, etc.
But I was getting restless waiting for my challenge to arrive. Finally, she did - and how. Minutes after Priyanka, 27, landed in Bellary, she clambered onto an open jeep wearing a white-and-yellow cotton kanchivaram with her mother, Sonia, who had her pallu draping her head in true desi bahu style. That evenings's campaign was to change the trajectory of the contest.
As the Congress jeep carrying the two Gandhi women rolled through the villages of Bellary, the mood among the voters was palpably electric. Thousands of men, women and children lined the streets, perched on buildings and trees for glimpse of Priyanka. It was as if the entire district had come out to greet her and her mother, the crowds were so unprecedented. A team of around 300 of us journalists, including dozens of international media who were trailing the convoy that day, all swore that they had never seen a campaign like this. Every time Priyanka would wave her hand in one direction, we would watch in amazement as 20 young men who had clambered onto trees precariously, would just fall off the tree in their excitement. It was clear that it was Priyanka who was the star they had come to gape and cheer at. Fact became fiction and fiction became fact: I asked an old woman who had come to Bellary; she replied, "Indira amma"!
That evening, we all assembled for a press conference at the makeshift Congress camp in which Sonia Gandhi and other Congress leaders spoke to the press. Priyanka just sat beaming next to her mom. I managed to push through the media and get to her and park my request - "Priyanka, you must talk to me about this campaign in Bellary that your mother is waging." She smiled benignly but made no promises.
Over the next three days, I chased her all over Bellary district. One day, their convoy had stopped for a break and we too stopped just behind them. Once again in close proximity to her, I repeated my request and said she must give me an interview. She said "You look tired". I said, "What do you expect, chasing you for three days across Bellary?" She laughed and told me to take care. She wouldn't say no to the interview but she wouldn't promise to give it either. It was both frustrating but hopeful. Many foreign crews were trying as well but she wouldn't speak to anyone.
Finally, on the day when polling was to end, I told my we would follow her to the very end that day and not give up our ''Priyanka Mission". Though the day, we kept trailing Sonia's rallies where Priyanka was speaking: the same eye locks and smiles exchanged, but no sign of the interview. The other journalists kept moving off as they gave up on her talking to the press. Finally, at the last stop after the last rally, where we were the only television crew, I literally accosted her as she came down from the dais with Sonia and said "Priyanka, you promised you would speak to us - I have been following you for three days across Bellary!" Something caved. She said, "Please speak to my mother first - she is the candidate". So I turned my microphone to Sonia and asked, "So Mrs Gandhi, is it Advantage Sushma or Advantage Sonia? "Advantage Sonia", Sonia Gandhi replied with a smile and walked away.
Then it was the moment I had been waiting for. Priyanka and I were finally alone. We stepped aside a bit and started rolling the camera. I fielded all the questions that were in my head for the last three days rapid fire to her, aware that her entire contingent was waiting at a distance for her to join them so they could head out. But Priyanka, having decided to speak to us finally, was unhurried and stood and answered my questions. She critiqued the xenophobic campaign unleashed against her mother in the Bellary campaign. She said her mother would win and show her opponents what stern stuff she was made of.
When I asked her if her presence in the Bellary campaign signalled her entry into politics, the answer was not on expected lines. "You have to wait a long long time for that" she said and smiled broadly. I drove back with my team to my Bangalore studio and uplinked my chat with Priyanka over satellite, the first ever on Indian television.
It has taken 20 years for her to come into politics. Let's see what she delivers.
(Nupur Basu is a former Senior Editor with NDTV and a documentary filmmaker)
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