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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

The mother of all rath yatras



A file picture of N.T. Rama Rao on his 'chaitanya Ratham'.

Dasu Kesava Rao

HYDERABAD

With elections looming, road shows are the flavour of the day. The BJP leader, L.K. Advani, breezed through Andhra Pradesh some time back with his Bharat UdayYatra. A week before, the road show by the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, gave the party a much-needed boost.

However, for sheer drama and glitz, hype and response from the people, there is perhaps no road show to match the one launched by N. T. Rama Rao, the screen icon-turned founder of the Telugu Desam party in 1982. Bringing tinsel world techniques to politics, the late NTR pioneered the `rath' (chariot) culture in politics and redefined the concept of election campaigning. Hidebound politicians of the traditional mould scoffed at his style, dismissing it as yet another celluloid fad; they were forced to sit up and take notice soon enough. Today, no politician of any consequence can afford to ignore the effectiveness of road shows.

Floating the Telugu Desam party — he named the party on the spur of the moment in response to a journalist's question — exactly 22 years ago, NTR decided to hit the road and reach out to the masses. He transformed his vintage Chevrolet van, normally used for outdoor, into a `ratham'. Fitted with rotating floodlights and loudspeakers, the Chaitanya Ratham, as it came to be known presently, also had enough room for NTR and his aides to relax. He would climb on to the top through a hatch.

With elections still a year away, NTR rode out on his ratham for a whirlwind tour of the State - an odyssey that also propelled him into the Guinness Book of Records. Sporting bell-bottom trousers and a full-sleeved shirt, NTR would start early, covering 120 to 140 km a day, waving to farm workers in the fields and stopping to address even a group of 15 persons, which in no time would swell to 100 or more. For months, the Chaitanya Ratham became his home away from home. No guest-house for him.

He would stop at a roadside well to spruce up. Any roadside `kaka hotel' would do for a plate of piping hot idlis, pesarattu and coffee. While eating, he would chat with fellow customers — locals, lorry drivers grabbing a bite, or whoever else happened to drop by. The Telugu press gave wide publicity to his yatra (journey).

Sitting ramrod straight in the ratham, unmindful of the scorching sun or pouring rain, NTR, then 61 years old, would ride to the party's signature tune, `Maa Telugu thalliki malle poodanda" (A garland of jasmine flowers for Mother Telugu). The song had an electrifying effect on the people. The response to the tour was overwhelming. "He used to be late by 24 hours, sometimes even 72 hours. But people would wait. They would camp right on the roadside, bringing along cots, stoves and utensils just to make sure they did not miss him", recalled Kambhampati Rammohan Rao, a member of the Rajya Sabha, who as a diehard follower, accompanied NTR on his tours.

"People would never allow him to proceed. Women would offer arathi and ask him to bless and christen their newborn children. Sometimes he did not even have time to change his clothes for days", Mr. Rammohan Rao added.

He would take a 10-minute catnap under a tree and be ready to roll again.

So focussed was NTR on his goal that he did not return to Hyderabad until the elections were announced — when he was in Bhainsa in distant Adilabad district. In the process, he missed the marriage of two of his sons! He was accompanied on the yatra by three trusted aides, Reddy, Choudhary and Prasad; his elder son, Nandamuri Harikrishna, actor and former minister, drove the ratham.

NTR also used the ratham later to campaign for M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu and Devi Lal in Haryana. The Chaitanya Ratham may be a far cry from the hi-tech, mine-proof vehicle that will be used by the present TDP supremo, N. Chandrababu Naidu, but has entered pages of history as the mother of them all.

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