“The situation that I see today is exactly the same as during 1977 when India went to vote after the Emergency. The media, then under censorship, proclaimed Indira Gandhi would have a thumping victory.”
Over the last 48 hours, Indian politics converged in one spot – Varanasi, or Benares or Kashi as it once was called. India’s most famous pilgrim city became the political hub of the nation as four political leaders descended into the city over the last 48 hours. Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, UP’s CM helicoptered into the city. Predictably Arvind Kejriwal made a low profile entry but had a thunderous impact. His massive roadshow blasts all calculations.
All political pundits have given an easy victory to Modi. The bone of contention was the poor margin by which Kejriwal would come third in the race, after Congress Ajay Rai.
The Gowdolia area near the Ghats was the nerve center of the political roadshows. I attended all four roadshows to assess for myself the relative support commanded by the four main contenders.
Arvind Kejriwal’s was the biggest roadshow of them all. It was a sea of white. Not only was the roadshow massive, but the response of the bystanders was utterly revealing. People behaved as if he was their beloved messiah. The smile on their faces remained long after Kejriwal had left the scene. Once upon a time, I am sure this is how Indians of my grandfather’s generation must have reacted to Gandhiji. The response from the Muslims in Madan Pura was absolutely astounding –rich, middle class, poor, destitute, young, old, women – all responded with shining eyes. There is absolutely no doubt that majority of the Muslims will vote for Kejriwal and not for the Congress as our pundits proclaim.
When Rahul Gandhi went through this same area this morning, the reaction was starkly different. For sure Muslims came out of their shops to have a glimpse of Rahul – all Indians love a tamasha and roadshows are the best political offering. The Muslims who were on the streets were clearly the affluent Muslims, well dressed in their beautiful white kurtas and dandily trimmed beards. The joyousness of the previous evening when Kejriwal coursed through the same street was completely missing. The size of the crowds is never a good indicator of win ability – after all, our traditional parties are notorious for bussing in paid workers (sometimes they are just hirelings). What is revealing is the mood of the crowd. Affection, connection, spontaneity of a crowd – these qualities can never be faked. A trained eye can spot the difference between paid cheering and spontaneous outpouring.
Modi’s procession was big too – but not as big as Kejriwal’s even though Benares has been BJP’s hub for about a quarter of a century. Besides, Modi was traversing through the area of traders, a traditional BJP vote bank. Rahul’s crowd was ok, predictable and so was Akhilesh Yadav’s. In order of ranking of the size and quality of the crowd, it would be Kejriwal, followed by Modi, then Rahul and Akhilesh. Rahul’s and Akhilesh’s crowd size was about the same, though the quality of the crowd was different. Akhilesh had his youth brigade but very few members of the public. If he were not chief minister which gives considerable muscle and power statement to his procession with dozens of official vehicles, his procession would have been a damp squib.
In a nutshell- Modi’s roadshow symbolized “organization”, Kejriwal’s “people’s power”, Rahul’s “an also-ran event” and Akhilesh’s a “state machinery presentation”
In many ways, Kejriwal’s roadshow in Varanasi mirrors AAP’s trajectory. As it slowly began from Lanka near the BHU campus and wound its way towards the famous Ghat area, it began snowballing, getting bigger and bigger so that the torrent became a sea of white caps. The air was festive with songs, dances, cheering and bonhomie. You could smell change in the air.
Most of Modi’s volunteers came from Gujarat. For Kejriwal, volunteers came from all over India – I met volunteers from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh. And some from abroad – from the United States, Britain and the Middle East. Needless to say, the wonderful young boys who came from Dubai and Kuwait were Malayalis.
There is a fact that seems to have escaped many. When Modi came to file his nomination papers, it was the ultimate power statement. The route had become a sea of saffron. Kejriwal’s nomination was a relatively low key affair. How things have changed in a span of just a few weeks! Honestly, Modi’s roadshow was a poor show compared to his nomination spectacle. On the other hand, Kejriwal’s roadshow was a spectacular demonstration of people’s support.
Of course the media did not cover Kejriwal’s roadshow the way they covered Modi’s. So most Indians have the impression that Modi is storming his way around. The reality is so utterly different. The way the media has covered this election is exactly the same way they covered the election in 2004. They proclaimed the India Shining campaign to be a spectacular success. It took me a solitary visit to Lucknow to realize that this campaign was a humbug and that there was a congress hawa.
But this time in Varanasi the Congress has really damaged itself. If they were genuinely serious about defeating Modi, they would not have put up a candidate. A straight fight would have been easier for Kejriwal to win and defeat Modi. But in the end, as Kejriwal repeatedly says, both congress and BJP are in the payroll of Ambanis and others. Decision has been taken by India’s backroom decision makers that Modi must win this election. Even those who dismiss the perpetual conspiracy theories are inclined to believe a backroom deal in Varanasi between congress and bjp. The evidence comes in the way the situation was maneuvered to split the Muslim votes. Manifestation of this intent is personified by the person Congress chose as their candidate. Ajay Rai was a former BJP MLA. The situation is engineered for him to get the backing of Ansari, accused and jailed for killing his brother. The price of converting this deadly feud into an opportunistic political deal can only be guessed. Ansari’s value is that he can apparently bring in Muslim votes.
It is precisely immoral calculations such as these that infuriate Muslims. Political parties continue to see Muslims as a vote bank that can be purchased. Muslims have been reduced to a political commodity. In Kochi, before leaving for Varanasi, I had said to friends and associates that I am pretty sure this congress calculation will boomerang. I felt majority would vote for Kejriwal because they are fed up with the callous, cynical congress calculations. In Varanasi and after seeing the Muslim reaction in Madanpura I can give it in writing that Muslims are going to vote for Kejriwal in Lakhs!
I talked to many citizens of Varanasi. People are fed up with criminal politics. They accuse the congress and the Samajwadi party of brazen criminalization of politics. The grouse against the BJP is that they have done nothing to improve the living conditions of Benares. I have been coming regularly to Benares for the past 30 years. I don’t see any improvement. People in Benares also basically disapprove of divisive politics. Hindus and Muslims have lived peacefully for generations. They are economically inter-dependent. It’s the congress’ role in engineering riots to garner Muslim votes that turned the Hindus away from Congress and into the fold of the BJP.
But now the BJP is really worried. Actually, make that a correction. Modi is really worried. I met several of my journalist friends on Thursday, the day Modi has his roadshow. They told me he was helicoptering out of Varanasi that night and would be campaigning in Bihar and UP. This morning papers also quoted Modi’s chief campaigner Amit Shah who said Modi would not be returning to Varanasi. But after seeing Kejriwal’s mammoth roadshow, Modi is clearly nervous. Saturday morning news channels began reporting that Modi is returning to Varanasi Saturday evening. There is no greater proof that Modi is worried. Imagine the ramifications of a defeat by Kejriwal in Varanasi. That is busting the Modi Bubble, once and for all.
Over the last few days, there have been signs of nervousness among Modi’s foot soldiers. It is seen on the street, where several AAP volunteers have been beaten, heckled and harassed. They haven’t been doing this to Congress or SP workers – probably also because they are hard to find! Bullying is the outcome when cowards form a crowd.
The worry now is if inducements are given to voters and if rigging takes place inside polling booths. Only this can prevent Kejriwal from winning in Varanasi. No one must forget that the biggest seizure of liquor in this election was made in Modi’s Gujarat – and this in a state where there is prohibition!
There is now a strong undercurrent for Kejriwal. It came out in the open during yesterday’s roadshow but it still is in many ways an undercurrent. People live very close to each other, everybody knows everybody, nobody trusts anybody when it comes to announcing their political choice. They never make public their real choice, especially when it is a vote for change. This is because they have to be survivors first and foremost. If they make public their choice and the party of their choice loses, there could be economic fallout and ostraciation by the powerful and wealthy.
The situation that I see today is exactly the same as during 1977 when India went to vote after the Emergency. The media, then under censorship, proclaimed Indira Gandhi would have a thumping victory. My antennae picked up the undercurrent and sure enough it was a landslide victory for the Janata party. It was the same in 1982 when N T Rama Rao contested assembly elections, just 9 months after he formed his Telugu Desam Party. I was the only journalist in India who predicted correctly that he would win. I did the same thing in 1982 as I did in the last 48 hours in Varanasi. I followed NTR for a few days – the only journalist to take the trouble to go deep into the dusty, dirt track hinterlands. I also followed Rajiv Gandhi. The writing was there for all to see.Massive crowds for NTR, but small, listless crowds for Rajiv. M J Akbar, then editor of Telegraph newspaper asked me repeatedly whether I was sure. Telegraph had been launched just six months before and was taking on the staid and established Statesman newspaper. All the major newspapers were reporting that Congress would win as usual, but with a reduced majority. I was the only one reporting that NTR could win. The result was that not only NTR, but I was also mocked. I was then only 23 years old and a woman to boot, so you can imagine the scorn, vitriol and ridicule that came my way. A worried Akbar said to me: “If we are all wrong, it doesn’t matter, but if you are wrong and everybody else is right, we are finished as a newspaper. We are only 6 months old and we can’t afford to become a laughing stock.” I told him the big difference in my reporting and all the other journalists was that I was the only one in the field, the rest were reporting from Secunderabad club talking to their congress sources.
I was insistent and sent photographs that I took myself to show the size and quality of NTR’s crowds. In the end, we were the only newspaper that got it right. Our circulation skyrocketed from then onwards. We never looked back. Telegraph launched an ad campaign tom-toming this. This guerrilla newspaper became “Unputdownable.”
Sometimes it amazes me how little things have changed. Even in me. In Varanasi to volunteer for Kejriwal’s campaign, I feel the same excitement I felt as a student on discovering political undercurrents in 1977. Change is in the air.
Kejriwal’s determination and daring is a magnet that has astonished and inspired millions of like-minded Indians who yearn to bring change; who yearn to contribute to fighting injustice, inequality, corruption and exploitation. Kejriwal has rekindled hope that had died in my heart –and in many others’. I told him so when I met him this morning at breakfast time in his unassuming flat in Varanasi. I write about this in a separate article.
Three days in Varanasi and I am certain that Kejriwal and his team of volunteers will continue to astonish and inspire India.