Inside the venue: The Modi talk and keen spectators

Greater Kashmir

Srinagar, Dec 8: The Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium in the heart of summer capital is remembered for the historic 1983 cricket match that India lost to the visiting West Indies. International cricket never returned to the Stadium post-1990 following the political unrest in Kashmir, though the Stadium’s date with the sport continued. But on Monday, politics replaced the most-loved game on the turf. 
In the charged poll season in Kashmir, the stadium hosted the Prime Minister NarendraModi’s maiden rally. The scenes inside and outside the venue were in complete contrast. The Valley had shut on separatists’ call against the Prime Minister’s visit. The markets in the summer capital were lifeless. But the mood inside the venue was electrifying—the scene “saffronized” as cloth sheets of saffron color dangled around the boundaries, and BJP buntings and festoons crisscrossed the stadium.
By early morning, the right-wing party supporters ferried from different districts—many of them travelling from outside—queued to find a right space. As clock ticked past afternoon, the BJP leaders on the podium—the pavilion had been dressed into a political stage—engaged the audience.
HinaBhat, the party’s face in Kashmir, got a chance to speak. “We are for development and an end to family Raj,” she said as people responded by saying “Zaroor” (definitely).
BJP’s election coordinator, Jaideep Singh Deendsa, was busy giving final touches to the program. He said the party was “surprised” at the response they were getting from elderly in Kashmir.
“Our focus is on reaching out to Kashmiris, the numbers will automatically come,” he responded to a question.
Inside the ground, the audience numbering between 8000 to 10000 was eagerly waiting for the Prime Minister. When Modi finally appeared on the stage, positioned at some 20 feet from the ground level, at 2:30 pm, the supporters and VIPs, seated in the ground, divided into 11 compartments, stood up to welcome him.
Dressed in a light-brown color pheran (traditional Kashmiri cloak), Modi waved towards the supporters as people got up from their positions to reciprocate.
Modi, who became the third prime Minister to visit Srinagar today post 90’s, then returned to greet the hosts, 30 of them, on the dais decorated with garlands and flowers as long arm cameras panned from one end to the other to capture the scene. He shook hands and exchanged hugs with members who in turn presented Modi with traditional Kashmiri shawls, an embroidered gown and flower bouquets.
For KesriShashi Kumar of Dooda who had come to attend the rally, Modi is a “good man in bad company”. “The bad company is entire BJP,” he responds to a question.
A web-designer, Ashtosh Sharma had flown from Indore to attend the rally. “It is the most interesting campaign of the BJP in Kashmir,” he said.
The Prime Minister began his speech by naming all the party candidates and leaders present on the stage as people in the gathering shouted pro-Modi slogans. When he named BJP’s candidate from Zadibal, Neelam Gash, it evoked excitement in her sister Kahkashaan, present in the audience. A lawyer, Kahkashaan, has been busy these days to support her sister and has temporarily stopped her practice.
“I was told that for the first time after 1983 somebody has dared to hold a ‘Sabha’ at this ground of this sea of people,” Modi said, amid clapping from audience.
Though Modi’s 30-minute speech was more development-centric, he recalled AtalBihari Vajpayee visit to Srinagar and his rally at the venue in 2003. It was in 2003, when Vajpayee extended hand of friendship to Pakistan and offered a dialogue process with separatists, from the same venue. Vajpayee’s successor Manmohan Singh visited Kashmir in November 2004 and he too had extended a hand of friendship to Islamabad and unconditional dialogue with all parties committed to peace, from this stadium.
Modi skipped any references to Pakistan and separatists vis-a-vis Kashmir but talked about unemployment and vast tourism potential in Kashmir to address it.
Today was Modi’s 5th visit to Kashmir and his first to Srinagar which is the stronghold of separatists. His audience also comprised of flood-affected people from across the Valley who had turned up hoping the Prime Minister would announce a package for them.
Sahista of SangamAnantnag, which was worst affected in the flood, had come to listen to Modi’s speech.
“I want to listen to his plans for upliftment of poor in Kashmir,” she said, accusing the state government of failing her in times of flood. “We didn’t get any support from the government.”
But Zahida of Natipora described herself a supporter of HinaBhat, BJP’s candidate from Amira Kadal constituency here.
“We will give her a chance and see if she fulfills her promises made with us,” she said.
Some people from Bihar were also present in the audience. “We painted this entire venue,” said Brijesh Patel of West Champaran (Bihar) who has been working in Kashmir for many years. “We are 22 people from our group here to listen to ModiJi.”
They got excited when Modi, after finishing his speech, came forward on the dais to once again wave at the audience. Some people shouted pro-Modi slogans when the PM asked his party members present on the dais to join him. They held each other’s hands in air as Modi appealed people to vote for them before he left the stadium.