Things were set up for an election campaign speech at Hyderabad’s iconic Charminar on Saturday, as Indian National Congress (INC) President Rahul Gandhi was scheduled to speak on October 20, which marked the 28th anniversary of the ‘Sadbhava Yatra’. It was his third speech of the day after he officially launched the Telangana Congress’ election campaign for the upcoming elections in Telangana.
The day was of great significance for the average Congress worker. On October 20, 1990, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi embarked on a ‘Sadbhava Yatra’ with the aim of fostering communal harmony in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid riots in Hyderabad that left over 300 people dead.
Exactly 28 years ago, Sayed Hyder, now eighty years old, watched Rajiv Gandhi raise the Congress flag before the Charminar. “I was watching him from that corner,” points Sayed to the mouth of Rathkhana street next to Charminar.
“It was tough times,” recalled Hyder who said he had to shut his small jewellery repair shop for days because of the riots, “It felt good watching him raise the flag then, eventually things returned to normal,” said the old Congress worker.
When asked how the crowd size for Rahul’s speech was in comparison to that day 28 years ago, he replied, “The crowd size is much smaller today. Back then, many more people had gathered here to watch his father.”
Apart from Congress workers who were in attendance from other constituencies, the crowd consisted of a few tourists who did not get the memo about the Congress party’s show of strength in the heart of Hyderabad. The party had even arranged large screen TVs for the convenience of their party workers. However, not many residents from the old city were in attendance.
Crowdless in AIMIM’s backyard
“Less than 5% the people here are from the Charminar neighbourhood. Most of the Congress workers here are from other constituencies,” said Sayed Ahmed, a member from the All Indian Professionals Congress Committee (AIPCC), who was tasked with bringing more people to the event.
Charminar and six neighbouring constituencies are All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) strongholds in Hyderabad. The Congress has never won a seat in these constituencies since Malreddy Ranga Reddy won Malakpet in 2004. Prior to that, the Congress won in 1962.
“At Kammareddy and Adilabad, Rahul held speeches in considerable Congress strongholds, but Charminar is AIMIM’s backyard. They (AIMIM) are already worried about this meet happening here and they have asked people not to come for this meet,” Ahmed alleged.
Many of the white chairs the party had arranged were empty and filled up only midway into Rahul Gandhi's speech.
Omar Habib tried to enter the ring of police barricades through different entry points to Charminar but was denied entry. He finally made it inside through the Laad Bazar entrance midway through the 28-minute long speech.
“I am not a Congress worker,” said Omar, adding, “I am an ice-cream vendor and not associated with any party. I just came to listen.”. He was one among the crowd of last-minute entrants who were let in by the police after much outcry.
The public tried to enter the venue from Laad bazar, Machlikaman, Gulzar house and Sardar Mahal. But the public was denied entry as they did not have a pass issued from Gandhi Bhavan, according to the police.
“They had put barricades at places and many people couldn't enter the venue. The Congress workers were asking the police to allow the public in. They would only allow people who argue with them a lot,” complained Habib.
AIMIM will win, say people
“Why is the MIM helping the BJP?” questioned Rahul at Charminar, “Even in Maharashtra and other states the AIMIM is helping them, the intention is to break the country. Who benefits out of this? In the Parliament, who supports BJP the most? It's your Chief Minister and they help each other and don't want people to be united because they know that if people stand united, their tricks won't work,” he added.
As Gandhi winded up his speech officially kick-starting the Congress election campaign in Telangana Habib observed, “It was a good speech. He has improved.”
Soon after the crowd disbursed, Moin, a jewellery retailer started readying his store to catch up on some lost business for the day. Police had asked all shops within the Congress venue to remain shut during the event.
“One evening's loss doesn’t matter,” said Moin who listened to the whole speech by Rahul, “He can give a speech in Old City but his party won't win the seats. Only AIMIM will win,” he added.
When Moin was asked why AIMIM always wins, another shopkeeper replied in his stead, “Last time I went to cast my vote but someone else already voted instead of me. That’s how AIMIM always wins.” Those listening in, including Moin, chuckled.