The assembly elections in the state are quite a few months away, but from the look of the narrow and winding roads of Shillong it seems that canvassing is on in full swing. And all the parties are rooting for the same candidate.

On entering the city a huge hoarding sponsored by the state Youth Congress Chief asks you to vote. Further down into the city, the BJP has also put up banners appealing you to vote for the very same contestant – Amit Paul.

Many television viewers are by now quite familiar with the name. Amit Paul is the Shillong lad who has made it to the final two in one of the numerous TV musical talent shows – called Indian Idol. And for the hill state of Meghalaya and its sleepy cosmopolitan capital Shillong it seems to be the best thing to happen since January 21, 1972 – when the state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam.

For a city with its soul soaked in music the zeal expressed in support of a local lad coming to the verge of getting a ticket to the ‘big league’ might not seem surprising. But the feverish excitement over a TV show is something that someone like me finds tough to comprehend.

People from other cities from where boys and girls have been contenders for the big promises of the talent shows might have been witness to similar phenomenon. I also had, last year, when Debojit Saha from south Assam had gone to the SaReGaMaPa contest on Zee TV (he was the eventual winner but not necessarily not the most talented of the lot) and I happened to be on a visit to that part of the country.

Amit Paul is already an icon in Shillong. Almost everyone is talking about him all the time. From the barber to the taxi driver, the point of discussion is Amit. Giant screens have been put up all over the city so that people can watch ‘their boy’ in action. MLAs and MDCs (Member of District Council) are falling over one another to sponsor free PCOs from where the public can punch in their votes for Amit.

Rallies in support of Amit are a daily affair and the crowd at the one when Amit came visiting home is said to be the largest that the city had ever witnessed. The last time Shillong saw people turning out on the roads voluntarily in huge numbers was when the body of Kargil martyr Captain K Clifford Nongrum was brought home.

Amit t-shirts line shop windows and his posters are best sellers (though some organisations have urged them to be distributed for free). Wherever you look in the city you cannot possibly miss one face with a slight stubble looking at you from all directions.

The swanky touch-screen mobile phones are no longer the latest show-off here, it is the number of votes that one has cast for Amit. An elderly gentleman who occupied the seat next to me in a local taxi (taxis in Shillong usually ply on a sharing basis) said that he voted 500 times. Others have reportedly sent over a thousand votes for their home-bred contestant. And the voting continues throughout the night.

To have a first-hand look I walked through the semi-deserted streets to one of the free PCOs at around midnight to discover a huge crowd there. People of all ages, pre-pubescent girls and elderly grandmothers all queuing up in a pleasant September night to vote for Amit. Occasionally some slogan shouting in support of Amit breaks the silence of the night.

For a city which is used to shutters downing a couple of hours after dusk (the sun sets early in the east) these energetic midnight ventures by the young and the old is indeed welcome.

What else is also welcome is that in a communally divided and sensitive society like Shillong’s the success of Amit Paul has brought about an unprecedented sense of togetherness.

Amit Paul is Bengali, his family owns a renowned clothing outlet in the centre of the city – Shankar Brastalaya – and at the forefront of the campaign in support of Amit are the Khasis (both communities – Khasis and Bengalis – over the last few decades haven’t shared the best of relations). Now both, along with the numerous other communities who inhabit Shillong are making a collective effort towards realising the recently realised dream of a city-bred Indian Idol.

But then there is also a dark side to this tale. Amit’s competitor for the title of Indian Idol is Prashant Tamang, hailing from Darjeeling, and sceptics believe that Shillong’s Nepali community (a sizeable one) is voting for Prashant, while according to them the loyalties of of all the people of Shillong should be with the city and not the tongue one speaks in.

In case Prashant betters Amit in the vote count there are apprehensions of disturbances in Shillong, which has fortunately been quite peaceful (communally) for the last few years.

To add to all the confusion are rumors of free SMS services being provided by mobile operators leading to many people sending as many SMSes as possible. Apart from the freebie seekers there are many deep pockets abound distributing free pre-paid cards to anyone willing to punch in the SMSes in Amit’s favour.

Amidst all the brouhaha it is obvious that there would be a few who can see though this maniacal euphoria (thankfully there are). These few realise that the producers of the show are merely triggering the upheaval of regional emotions and filling their (and the mobile operators’) coffers and are also aware of the real value of such talent hunts at a time where every channel boasts of one, if not more such shows. They also try to recall the previous winners of such shows and the oblivion where most of them have disappeared into and also the process of multiple public voting which turns a so-called democratic exercise into a farce.

A local columnist Patricia Mukhim is believed to have ignited the fire for Amit through her columns in the local newspapers. Then socio-cultural organisations took over and even the government couldn’t resist from staying behind. The Meghalaya government has declared Amit Paul the ‘Brand Ambassador of the State of Meghalaya for Peace, Communal Harmony and Excellence’ (see the adjacent image of a copy of the letter from the Chief Secretary) and even the Governor signed his fan book.

With many of Shillong’s lasses already publicly expressing the desire to marry him, Amit might just face another problem of plenty. A Sikkim-based businessman has announced a Rs One crore funding for voting in favour of Prashant. There are also rumors of the government employees of Sikkim contributing a day’s salary to the kitty for P

May the best man win, but they seldom do in the farce that these talent hunts are.

Special addition: [September 19, 2007] In fear of excommunication by fellow Shillongites and the possibility of being denied entry into the city in the future for daring to question the concept of TV talent shows at a time when Amit Paul has made it to the finals of Indian Idol 3, here’s an attempt towards pacifying the die-hard fans of Shillong’s latest singing sensation – some childhood and teenage photographs of him (Don’t ask me whether I voted for him or not).

[Click on images for a larger view]

Teenaged Amit

Baby Amit with his grandmother

Boy Amit with his sister

Youthful Amit singing at a Shillong hotel

Amit’s childhood photos courtesy: Eastern Panorama

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