Prime Minister Birendra Pratap Singh paused at the bottom of the steps and took a deep breath. The air was still cool even though they were now in the first week of April. He tuned out the roar of the crowd as he readied for his pre-rally ritual. The entourage behind him fell silent as Singh recited the Gayatri Mantra below his breath. Then, he folded his hands, bowed to an invisible god and bounded up to the stage.
The cheers grew louder still as his head emerged into view. And then, as he bent down and touched his head to the stage as a sign of reverence, the audience went completely wild. The slogan: “Desh ka neta kaisa ho? Birendra Pratap jaisa ho!” began resonating in the grounds of Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan.
Birendra Pratap stepped up to the microphone and took a minute to soak in the approval of the crowd. The venue was full up, jostling room only. He waved to every section, he joined his hands in a namaste, he bowed low to acknowledge the warmth of his welcome.
And then, he held up his hands in that universal sign asking for silence. Only when the cheers had died down completely did he begin. “Mere pyare saathiyon,” he said in that thrilling baritone he had employed to such effect through the course of his political career, “aaj aap ko dekh kar, aap kay utsah ko dekh kar, bahut achcha laga.” (My dear friends, it’s great to see you today, to see your enthusiasm.)
The cheers began again. Birendra Pratap allowed them to build up to a crescendo before raising his hands again to ask for silence. And then, he began the speech that would launch his campaign for the next general election, scheduled a year from now.
First came the achievements of the government, some of them real, others entirely imaginary. Then came the promises for the next five years, only some of which were even within the realms of possibility.
Not that the crowd cared about such details. They were just happy to see their leader, resplendent in a sparkling white kurta-pyjama, his trademark tricolour scarf wrapped around his neck, do what he did best: ride the waves of rhetoric to weave a beautiful picture of the idyllic future that awaited them, so long as they had the good sense to vote for him.
And what a splendid picture he made as he stood onstage. Standing tall at just over six feet, Birendra Pratap had the kind of aristocratic good looks that only generations of breeding can achieve. A high forehead (now framed by a receding hairline), a strong aquiline nose and a pugnacious jaw that hinted at the steel that lay at the core of him. And then, there were those piercing brown eyes that made people feel like they were the only ones who mattered when they were focused on them. A cheap politician’s trick, but one that no one performed better than the Indian Prime Minister
It was with a rousing cry of “Bharat Mata ki jai” that Birendra Pratap bid farewell to the crowd. He turned and did a namaste to the party faithful lined up behind him on the stage, all of them applauding loudly to indicate just how much they loved him. Birendra Pratap’s lips twisted into a cynical smile as he allowed his Special Protection Group (SPG) contingent to sweep him off the stage.
Each one of these bastards would knife him in the back without a second thought if they believed they could wrestle the leadership of the Loktantrik Janadesh Party (LJP) from him. But that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
He felt a twinge in his knee as he clattered quickly down the stairs. There were days when he felt every one of his sixty-five years, and today was one of those days. But it was amazing how the energy of a cheering crowd could revive him.
Birendra Pratap turned one last time to wave to the adoring faithful, who were calling out his name in an incessant chant. His grin grew wider as he saw a young boy perched on his father’s shoulders, holding a placard that read, “Singh is King.”
Singh had always had a soft corner in his heart for children (though, god knows, he didn’t get much joy from his own). On a sudden impulse, he turned and began making his way in their direction. His SPG guards looked alarmed and immediately fell into a ring around him, effectively imprisoning him.
“Out of my way,” snapped Birendra Pratap, “I want to shake hands with that boy.”
“Sorry, sir,” came the apologetic reply from Shankar Roy, head of the SPG contingent. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Birendra Pratap looked down his aristocratic nose at Roy, incredulity writ large on his face. “Out of my way,” he said, in a voice vibrating with barely-controlled rage.
The SPG huddle parted and the Prime Minister walked up to the fortified railings holding back the crowd. He took a selfie with the boy with the placard, he hugged the proud father and then walked on to shake hands with those further down the line. He was halfway down the line when he felt a pinprick on the flat of his palm. He looked down at his hand; it seemed fine. There was no blood, no bruising.
Birendra Pratap was just telling himself that he must have imagined it when he suddenly felt his legs give way beneath him. He sank down to the ground and allowed the darkness to engulf him.
Excerpted with permission from Race Course Road, Seema Goswami, Aleph Book Company.