April 28 was the last day to campaign in Gujarat before the entire state heads to the polls on the 30th. Gujarat, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, is the 10th most populous state in India and has about as many people as Italy. It is also front runner Narendra Modi’s home turf.
The penultimate stop on Modi’s final tour of Gujarat was the grounds of Sardar Patel University on the edge of the city of Anand. The speech was set to begin at 2:30, but when the time came, there was still no sign of Modi. Instead, various party leaders from Gujarat filled the stage and took turns addressing the crowd.
Around the stage an enormous canopy of translucent white cloth had been erected to protect the crowd from the sunlight, which was baking Gujarat to 110 degrees Farenheit.
There were more people present than this canopy could accommodate, several thousand easily, and the outliers held back, staying behind the reaches of the shade from trees growing around the edge of the field.
Once underneath the canopy, the relief from the sun was fleeting. Any more than five feet into the interior and the air became dead calm. Now it was the heat of the thousands of crammed bodies under listless air that pushed the heat even higher than outside. Everyone was visibly drenched in sweat.
Yet no one was deterred. Onlookers crammed into every space where there was not a chair or a human already sitting or standing. Empty plastic bladders that had carried water or chaas (buttermilk drink) littered the floor. These were being passed out at the entrance but had long since been drunk by those inside the canopy, where maintaining proximity was much more important than hydration.
Random cheers for Modi would break out and the crowd seemed disinterested with the ramblings of the politician who was on stage. What could barely pass as a golf clap would reward a multi-minute drone about Congress failing this or Congress botching that. Every few minutes, some noise would grab the crowd’s attention—Modi’s helicopter, perhaps?—and all heads would turn in a random direction. Onlookers would climb on chairs, only to descend again.
The crowd was overwhelmingly male. I attempted some sort of unscientific attempt at counting the number of females by noting every one that I came within 10 feet of as a meandered throughout the crowd. Seven.
Almost exactly an hour late, Modi took the stage and his armed guards spread out around him. The roar of the crowd was deafening. Those outside the canopy ignored the sun and rushed to the canopy’s edge to snatch a hopeful look. Once Modi began to speak, it was less than a minute before the crowd became dead silent.
Such moments of silence are rare in India, especially when thousands of people are packed this tightly. In terms of human density, perhaps the Mumbai local train at rush hour could compare. In terms of unspoken obedience to silence, there was no comparison. Anyone who made a noise as Modi was speaking was hushed severely by those around him.
People cheered at the political overtures and laughed at his jokes, but the specific content of his speech did not seem to be the most important thing. This was the real Narendra Modi standing in front of them and everyone there seemed to fervently believe that they were listening to the voice of India’s next Prime Minister.
When Modi finished speaking 22 minutes later, the velocity at which the event concluded was intense. There was no interaction with the crowd – Modi shook the hands of a few people on stage and exited stage left. Walls of opaque white cloth flanked the stage, but the crowd disregarded them as they jumped over fences and rushed to catch one last glimpse of Modi.
It could have been 1964 after a Beatles concert, aside from the marked absence of screaming girls. Modi waved from the front seat of his car as it swiftly exited down a police-cleared path. Within 5 minutes of his speech ending, Modi was gone.
It was at this point that I realized my wallet was also gone. By the time I returned to the canopy to perform what I knew would be a futile search, the entire area was vacant. Again, silence, though not as total. Now the only sound to be heard was of chairs being stacked.