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I was obviously in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason. But I wasn't alone in that. Keeping me company were the teeming multitudes of the Delhi media corps. They were there in all their (dubious) glory, armed with their boom-mikes and cameras and lights and cellphones and bandanas and alcohol breath and rude laughter. They circled the convention centre of the Ashoka Hotel like hounds on a blood trail...or worse. The occasion was a tea-party hosted by Subramanian Swamy to felicitate Jayalalitha, the Supreme Human Being of the AIADMK. At its best this seemed to me like a good PR exercise, and at its worst, an attempt to cause political mischief.
What struck me as odd was the overwhelming media presence barely 15 hours after the century's worst earthquake had rocked large parts of North India. Barely kilometres from this convention hall lay Chamoli, epicentre of the quake that now lay like a crumbled ghost town. Why weren't these correspondents there? Was petty politics more newsworthy than natural disasters? Did the Supreme Human Being sell more copies than devastated villages? Was there a method to this madness?
I wandered around this mad hatter's tea party and overheard the host, resplendent in white, mutter into his designer cell phone: "It is getting too late". As if on cue, the motley cast of characters began to arrive slowly but surely, in ones and twos. In came three ex-prime ministers, a saffron clad sanyasin, a one-time prime ministerial candidate, (unarguably) the most good looking MP in Parliament, (arguably) the best finance minister we have ever had, a prince, an ex-editor and the March Hare. While a few journalists made desultory conversation with this motley crew, everybody had their eyes fixed on the door and their gofers on standby at the main entrance to get first glimpse of the Queen of Hearts.
All hell broke loose when she rolled in fashionably late with a coterie of lesser mortals and a beatific smile that she maintained throughout the entire tea-party. To understate the effect she had on the gathered media, suffice to say they went stark raving mad. For the rest of the evening she had them eating out of her lily-white hands. They giggled and smiled and nodded en masse like a herd of mindless sheep. Even the questions they asked were put forth only to flatter her. An old hand whispered to me, 'Madam walks away if anybody asks her a question she doesn't like'! This was very clearly a queen on a State Visit and everybody, and I mean everybody, was scared of displeasing her... She just might smile and say 'Off with his head'.
As my journalist colleagues scurried around like five little mice trying to get a little closer to the Queen, I found myself all alone in a far corner of the vast hall. Strange, I thought, the room was a large one, but everybody was crowded together at one corner. 'No room! No room!' they cried when anyone tried to squeeze past. Just at this moment, another door opened for me, and a lovely woman I had never seen in my life took me by the elbow and said, 'Come, let me introduce you to everybody'. She took me across to another corner of the room where under a cloud of perfume sat seven lovely women. After quick introductions the group adopted me and we sat on the sidelines of the melee, making elegant remarks about the rowdy behaviour on display and speculating on the motives of host and the guests. "It's just to cause mischief," said one woman. "Why is the press falling all over her?" questioned another. "Do you want to go say hello to her dear?" asked another as she picked up her third glass of tomato juice.
Every few minutes a chief minister or an MP or consul general would walk over to pay obeisance to one of the women. She would graciously accept the homage, introduce the rest of the group and continue watching the main event.
In the meantime there was a buzz in the room. 'Sonia is coming, Sonia is coming' went around the room like brushfire. A senior Congressman came over with a cellphone attached to his ear and, nodding soberly, informed us that she was five minutes away. "Now this should be fun," said one woman as she quickly started eliciting more information from him. "Why is she coming here?" "Was she expected" "Is it significant?" "Are they planning to make a joint statement?"
The buzz turned into bedlam as Sonia Gandhi scurried in almost rat-like. Her lean hard face in sharp contrast to the rotund Madonna. Her hurried moments so different from the royal cautious steps of the Supreme Human Being. Her frown offset by the other's beatific smile. Her brisk tone so different from the convent educated, cultivated speech of the Queen of Hearts. A study in contrasts, these two, and yet joined by the fact that they are undoubtedly the most powerful women in the land today.
Sonia scampered across and took her place next to Jayalalitha. They smiled at one another and made some polite conversation that nobody heard but everybody wrote about. Then as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Sonia got up and hurried out and the Queen reigned alone, smiled beatifically some more and called her meeting with Sonia a 'political earthquake' -- thereby making the only remotely significant statement of the evening.
The adrenaline level had gone down considerably and sensing that, the Queen played her final hand. She got up as if to leave and as expected, the media reacted like kids who were about to lose their favourite toy. They surrounded her and hounded her and with every two steps she answered five 'last questions'. Naturally her departure took well over half an hour. Again, in sharp contrast to Sonia Gandhi's greased lightning exit.
I looked around after she left and was surprised to find that the all the other invitees had slunk away at some stage in the last hour or so. Quietly, insignificantly, unnoticed and unmissed.
The tea-party was over. And in the final analysis, no one was any wiser as to why it had been held or what it had achieved. As we started to leave I heard someone say a political realignment was in the offing as a result of this party. Someone else called this party an unqualified success. Subramanian Swamy made a call and expressed his undying gratitude and friendship to a man named George.
I walked out thinking that nothing really happened all evening. Things just got curiouser and curiouser...
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