DHARAMPUR, India — The landing helicopter raised great swirls of dust that blinded the travelers. When the craft settled and the security men flung open its doors, there were a dozen tribal women standing outside, looking as if they had materialized in the dust.
On their heads the women balanced large brass vessels, each filled with water, one brown coconut seed, marigold flowers and mango leaves. It was a traditional Gujarati tribal greeting for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in one of his first stops on a grueling two-day campaign blitz of central and western India.
Only an hour before, the young prime minister had been ensconced in a private apartment aboard his Indian air force Boeing 737 jet. Breakfast was served by a white-gloved attendant. At an air force base, Gandhi transferred to his Soviet-made MI-8 helicopter.
Here, in Gujarat state, he stepped from the craft into a remote and hilly land older than history. No one really knows how long the tribal Dhodia, Varlis and Kiknas peoples have lived here. They are aboriginal to India, virtually untouched by centuries of Aryan, Muslim, Rajput and English rulers.
Fitted With Headdress
The assembled crowd of more than 50,000 people trilled like a giant rookery as Gandhi was fitted with a feathered headdress made by a local tribe and was handed a quiver of arrows and a crude bow. The day of campaigning, Indian-style, had begun.
For the next two days, the prime minister, scion of the great Kashmiri Brahman family of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and son of assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, traveled to 25 cities in four states, campaigning for local candidates in the current state elections.
The two-day elections, Saturday and this Tuesday, will determine whether Gandhi's Congress-I Party will control state governments as well as the central government. In his two days of campaigning, Gandhi appeared before nearly 2 million people.
The campaign cut a course roughly parallel to the Tropic of Cancer. It passed through barren desert lands with cinnamon-colored mountains, through emerald-green rice paddies and the teak forests of the Sat Pura range. Along the way were sacred Hindu rivers and one of the largest mosques in the world. Atop one lifeless mountain peak was the tomb of a Mogul prince. At the end of the first day of campaigning, the whole entourage slept in a maharajah's palace.
TV Little Used
The style of the campaign--a journey by helicopter and, after dark, by automobile through the countryside on roads cleared of traffic for hundreds of miles--was perfected by Indira Gandhi in her 16 years as ruler of India.
India is a land where politicians must meet with the masses. Television reaches only a small percentage of the population, and politicians make only rudimentary use of TV for campaigning. In campaign days that lasted from dawn until midnight, Rajiv Gandhi appeared before crowds ranging in size from 40,000 to 200,000.
The campaign stops included some of the country's most prosperous cities, including Baroda, an oil, petrochemical and atomic energy center, as well as some of the poorest and most backward places on earth.
Dharampur, for example, is called by its own citizens "the poorest of the poor." For several months every year, the people here fight starvation.
Few in Area Literate
The populace is racked by disease including malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery, worm fever, scabies, rickets and ringworm. Dharampur has the highest leprosy incidence in India. Only 10% of the people of greater Dharampur district, 150 miles north of Bombay, are literate. More than 150 villages in the district lack electricity. Eighty-nine are not connected to the outside world by roads.
The contrast between this town and the developed world, even the developed part of India, is dramatic, but the depth of the difference is not well known here except to a few educated leaders.
As the Gandhi entourage prepared to board the waiting helicopters, a local official handed an appeal for help to one of the prime minister's aides.
"Dharampur is perhaps one of the poorest regions of the country," the message stated. "Unless special, concentrated, prolonged efforts are made, it will never enter the mainstream of development."
The reporters who routinely travel with President Reagan on Air Force One are not served green coconuts fitted with drinking straws to refresh themselves on board. Nor do they stay in palaces at the end of a tiring day.
But the tiny press cadre that accompanied the Indian prime minister--usually only four reporters, including representatives from the two national wire services--had many experiences unknown to American political reporters.
On the short hops between towns, they were given anise seeds to sweeten the breath, tiny seedless grapes, cashew nuts and wet red and green offerings of pan-- a mixture of tobacco, rose flowers and betel nuts wrapped in the leaf of the flame-of-the-forest tree that is to be dropped whole into the mouth and chewed.