‘Rahul who? We never heard of him before!’

March 30th, 2008 - 12:12 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Sonia Gandhi
By Fakir Balaji
Chamarajanagar (Karnataka), March 30 (IANS) If Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi has embarked on a tour to ‘discover’ India, it was high time he did so - because people in the rural and tribal areas are beginning to discover him and know him as the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, albeit belatedly. For the rustic folks and Soliga tribals of southern Karnataka in this most backward district of Chamarajanagar bordering Tamil Nadu, about 185 km from Bangalore, Gandhi’s visit this week was a one-of-its-kind experience. No high-profile politician has ever come calling at their doorstep.

The sheer inquisitiveness of hundreds dwelling on the fringes of the rich bio-diverse Western Ghats for a glimpse of the 37-year-old politician and a possible handshake pulled them out of their huts and hamlets in droves on a sunny day to the venue of Gandhi’s first public meeting atop B.R Hills. The venue was near the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra, in the middle of an evergreen forest.

“We came to know about him only last week. We never heard of him before! Away from outside world, we didn’t know who he was and how he looked. We learnt about him last weekend when Congressmen came in vehicles, fitted with loudspeakers, and announced his visit to our village by blaring that ‘Sonia Gandhi’s son and Indira Gandhi’s grandson Rahul is coming to see you, meet you,’” Soliga leader Jade Gouda (52) told IANS on the slopes of B.R. Hills.

Incidentally, Gandhi’s first port of call was at Gouda’s thatched hut in Muthugadha Pudo hamlet on the foothill for interacting with his family and partaking Indian bread, made of fine millet (ragi roti), with forest honey.

Though old-timers remember Indira Gandhi and recall knowing her elder son Rajiv and later Sonia, this is was the first time they got to see Rahul in posters and banners that sprung up overnight in and around their villages and small towns.

When Gandhi stepped out of the convoy, went around greeting Soligas and applauding their tribal dance to the beat of forest drums, men and women, young and old, could not take their eyes off, as they were in awe and bemused by the sight and presence of Rahul Gandhi in their midst.

“He is so white (fair)! We didn’t know Indians can be so fair! From a distance, he looks like a foreigner. Though wearing white kurta pyjama, his regality, mannerisms and simplicity have convinced us that he must be from a royal family,” tribal woman Chennamma, 47, said.

Manjunath, 19, a tribal youth, studying at Chamarajanagar, said if Gandhi had come on his own without fanfare or riding on the Congress bandwagon, he would not have been known or recognized. At most, he would have been mistaken as a foreign tourist on an adventurous trip to the forest.

When tribals and other village folk were told by this scribe that Gandhi’s mother Sonia was an Italian but the father was an Indian, they said: “No wonder he is so white (fair) and handsome!”

On account of Gandhi’s short stature and lean figure, many tribals were curious to know how young he was and what he did for a living. On being told that he was an MP but a bachelor at 37, they wondered why he wasn’t married yet!

“It is surprising he did not find a woman (bride)! Why so? In our community, boys get married by 20 and girls by 18. Is it so difficult to find a partner for him? As he is so charming and still looks young, we wish he finds someone to settle down,” 24-year-old Lakshmi, a tribal woman and mother of two, chuckled.

Though many of the tribals were keen to converse with him to tell their tales of woe, being shy and reserved they asked their community leader (Gouda) to convey their problems and how they remain neglected by the authorities.

“This is the first time such a big leader has come to our place, that too in a helicopter. Our children who see only natural birds fly in the forest were delighted to watch a copter carrying Gandhi descending and making huge noise. Due to tight security and instructions from local Congressmen, we could not go to the helipad for a close look at the metallic bird,” honeybee-keeper Veeranna(32) lamented.

To ensure maximum attendance at Gandhi’s public meeting and interaction with youth, local leaders told the tribals to take a break from their daily grind and assemble in a large gathering at the venue atop the hills. Womenfolk were also told to join their men and the only school in the thanda (village) declared a holiday to enable the children watch the grand event in uniform.

In spite of the language barrier and security cordon, Gandhi was able to connect with the audience and win their hearts by admiring their tradition, simple lifestyle, occupation and their role in preserving the rich flora and fauna and protecting the forest environment.

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