I have been on the director's chair during election programming in the past. But I have never seen anything like this.
We landed in Hyderabad from Uttar Pradesh for the second leg of 'The Countdown', spoke to lot of people and covered a number of rallies too. But Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu's main challenger YS Jagan Mohan's rally was completely a one-of-a-kind experience for me.
The moment the chopper was in visible range, the waiting crowd erupted. Shouts of "CM, CM, CM" rang in the area. All of us in the NDTV team were waiting to hop into his car for the interview. But Jagan gestured, how we do this given the chaos all around. Security pushed all of us out of the way. Somehow Dr (Prannoy) Roy, Uma (Sudhir) and Nagaraju managed to get into the car.
I wasn't that lucky as there was no space left. I had to make that split-second call. Should I do it? Should I not? I did it anyway. The doors were closed, the car started moving and I jumped on the footboard, just like his security detail. Now, with my left hand holding on to the roof rail, I started shooting. Thankfully, Samsung phones aren't that heavy even if they are attached to rig.
At this point I was calculating the distance from the landing site to the rally spot: about 4 to 5 km. What if I fall? The driver seemed like he had won a 'Desert Storm' rally. He was zipping past everyone and occasionally braking hard, seemingly to reassure us of his and the car's abilities. More than my life, I appeared concerned for the footage on the phone. I saw Dr Roy knocking on the glass ("Soni, are you fine?"), Uma looking concerned ("Is he fine?"), Nagaraju giving me a wink ("Well done").
It was a bulletproof car, I did not know if the audio signal from the microphones inside would get through. I requested the window to be rolled down just a bit, so that my rig could catch the audio. But, there was no option to do that.
As far as you could see - around the street, dividers, rooftops, shops, bus stop - it was all teeming with people gathered, shouting "CM, CM, CM".
I could see the campaign bus parked just 20 meters away when the crowd rushed in and starting blocking the car. They had to see their leader whatever the cost. They started to push me as well, as I was blocking the view from the right. Someone punched me in the back while somebody else grabbed my backpack and tried to yank me away. I lost control of the rig and it fell on the car roof. Fortunately, I managed to pull it back with the microphone wire.
Eventually, all of us were happy that we made it to the bus where Jagan addressed the public gathering. I was so exhausted and dehydrated by this point that I nearly fainted. Dr Roy offered me some water. Nevertheless we got the interview and the frenzy all around was captured beautifully.
But by then, there was another worry. We had to catch a flight back to New Delhi that was set to take off at 8:40 pm and it was already 7:45 pm. And we did not have any way to reach our cars which were parked 5 km away.
As soon as the rally ended, we started looking for a cab. Some of the locals even offered to drop us on their motorcycles. Finally two gentlemen offered to help us. There was no point of going to the landing site so we told the cars to proceed towards the airport. Finally, we caught up with them, thanked the gentlemen, and drove off.
We knew we had to be extremely lucky to make to our flight. But luck wasn't in our favour - we had to stop at a railway crossing for an incoming train.
Finally, we did make it to the airport, but it was too late. All of us including our drivers looked at each other and smiled - Chalo koi baat nahi, we tried.
I think the almighty did not want me to leave Vijayawada that night. The sign was clear: Soni, you have to go back to the food street and try out the biryani you wanted last night. And so I did.
(Soni Varghese is Senior Producer-in-Charge, NDTV)
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