Author: Vignesh Jeyaraman Sharma

Vignesh Jeyaraman Sharma
An ever passionate writer. Believe that there is so much to know, explore and write. News, stories and words light up my life. Truly believe a true story can change lives.
5May

‘Of all parties, only the BJP is assured of the contempt of the 190 million Muslims of India. Yet it’s expected to win’

Manu Joseph, journalist, author

Manu Joseph, journalist, author

For me, elections assume different forms. At one level they are the revenge of the poor. Everybody talks about corruption; the branding of corruption is very strong. But the real voter is different from what political observers and the middle class perceive. He has issues more important than corruption. He is willing to condone corruption if he is impressed with the politician. Some even see it [corruption] as smartness, maybe as a sign of the ability to get things done.

I strongly feel that the AAP [the Aam Aadmi Party, which came into being in November 2012 as an anti-corruption party] has changed the political scenario more than the media realises and sometimes even more than they [the members of the AAP] themselves realise. They were exactly what people wanted, but the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] has managed to control most of the mainstream media very efficiently. Recently, a survey stated that Arvind Kejriwal [the founder of the AAP] has more media coverage [than Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate]. This is just media spin. Kejriwal has got a lot of bad publicity, which is not exactly the same as publicity. So if one is trying to spin media statistics, saying that Kejriwal has been favoured by the media, it is absolute rubbish. What Kejriwal has done is pressurise political parties to transform. For the first time, members of political parties who are corrupt and thug-like are being perceived as probable liabilities. This in itself is revolutionary.

The reason why all this is happening, in my opinion, is because the lure of emigrating abroad has died down. Culturally, a lot of Indians are happier living here than in the First World. By culturally, I mean India’s social pyramid, in which the middle class has a protected and cushy life. This has made ‘home’ very important. The middle class has a great power to disseminate information. Everything from cricket to culture to information has percolated the social pyramid mainly from this class. The need for meaningful politics is a middle class requirement. That is where this revolution began.

The ‘Modi wave’ as Narendra Modi’s popularity has been tagged, was first an exaggeration. But the media has succeeded in creating a wave. If one says there is no wave surrounding a person, it means that there is one. The ‘wave’ is an ‘investment’ in media. Not all media, but yes, a bit of it. And I am given to understand that Rahul Gandhi [the vice-president of the Congress party] had a strategy of governance that included alienating opportunists and cleaning up the system to some extent. This ensured that many businessmen went directly to Modi, instead of playing both cards.

Which brings us to the role of the regional parties. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, more than 350 parties contested. To some, this may seem a nuisance since it creates a lot of confusion for a national-level government, but the regional parties actually represent various factions and sections of society and serve as a pressure valve. There are no major uprisings in India because every group feels that it is politically represented — except for women. This is strange, because women constitute 50 per cent of society. All the other groups have a fair representation. But these ‘divisions’ lead to coalition politics.

Because Uttar Pradesh and Bihar form a large chunk of north India, the whole concept of what constitutes national interest is a bit skewed. I am from the southern part of India, and when I hear people talk about national politics, they largely talk about these two big states. This misconception has singlehandedly destroyed the concept of national politics. [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee [the former Prime Minister of India] once said, you cannot become a prime minister if you don’t pass UP. But this false perception has to change.

I think people vote because they strongly believe that it is important to do so. I also know that a section of society feels that voting is not all that important. Take Mumbai as an example. Most residents of Mumbai are migrants and the middle class, who live on rent and so have no ‘stake’ in the city. So they do not turn up to vote. It is all about individual personal gain. But this election has seen a considerably large voter turnout than the last one. Not because people have become more intelligent in the last five years, but simply because more people think it is important to vote. There is greater political consciousness this time around.

However, while the middle class and social media users have created a lot of noise that one might perceive as growing political interest, the majority of Indians are poor. We do not hear their voices and they are ones who NEED the government. So for the common man and woman, the most important aspect of an election is being able to pick the person who serves his or her interest better.

You and I can say, “Yeah, yeah, we need the government too,” but the poor man’s whole livelihood and quality of life depends on the government, from hospitals to schools to everything. The poor cannot live without the government, so their stakes are very high. They want quick improvement to their lives or at least a promise to that effect. This factor has always existed, though it is fulfilled very rarely. Yes, voting also involves communal factors, caste factors and so on, but increasingly, the caste factor is making less and less sense to the Indian voter.

What amuses me in this election is that the Muslim population of India is a state secret. It is presumed to be around 190 million, and that of all the political parties in the country, only the [Hindu nationalist] BJP is assured of the contempt of this huge chunk of the population. Yet it is also the BJP which is expected to win, though I am not entirely sure about that. I want to just wait and watch.

On a positive note, I think that everything is falling into place for India. We are more politically mature, and I think that in the next 10 years, there will be a place for a political party that focuses on women and women’s issues. I do not expect this to happen, but surely there is place. I am also expecting the AAP to be more and more influential in the coming years. They have some very capable and honest leaders, and they have the power to bring about positive changes.

Also, we will know this time how influential social media can be. The good part is that politics now matters to every section of society, from Mumbai socialites to the poor. So let us wait and see how this election unfolds.

As told to Vignesh Jeyaraman. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Manu Joseph, a columnist for the New York Times and a former editor of OPEN magazine, is the author of Serious Men and The Illicit Happiness of Other People.

This story was also published on Rediff.com, our media partner.

10Apr

‘Strings’ of vote: artisans in a New Delhi colony feel like puppets

The artisans of a New Delhi colony feels like puppets on strings. Will their vote make a difference? Photo: Nithil Dennis

“Politicians promise much before an election. After they win, we are forgotten,” remarks Rohit Bhat, a young puppeteer and dhol (drum) player from Delhi’s Kathputli Colony. Bhat is upset that residents of the five-decade-old colony near Shadipur metro station are being shifted to a ‘transit’ camp.

The shifting is a consequence of the ‘modernisation’ of the capital. The plan was put into action in 2007 when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) planned the city’s first on-site slum rehabilitation project and chose Kathputli Colony in West Delhi owing to its proximity to the city’s heart, Connaught Place, which is just a ten-minute drive away.

The slum has 685 recognised jhuggi jhopris (slum tenements). The settlement’s ‘real estate’, which is under the DDA’s ambit, was sold to Raheja Developers for Rs 61.1 million (approximately £607,535). The residents had to be moved to another camp so that construction could begin. The rehabilitation process was divided into three stages: first, residents who qualified for rehabilitation would move to a transit camp; second, the developer would raze the cluster and start building high-rise apartments; third, after three to five years, the residents would move back to their new homes next to Delhi’s ‘first true’ skyscraper — Raheja Phoenix (a 190 metre-tall, 54 storey tower housing luxury flats and equipped with a ‘skysclub’ and helipad).

“We believe them [politicians] each time, but who knows what they will do?” continues Bhat. “Unse hume koi umeed nahi hai [we have no hopes of them].”

Kathputli Colony traces its roots back to the early 1970s when puppeteers and musicians from Rajasthan settled in the Shadipur area of the national capital. With time, artisans, magicians and musicians from states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra joined in, collectively forming a settlement of artistes. The colony got its name from string puppet theatre (kathputli in Hindi), a folk art form practised by a number of its residents.

The performers have found mention in Time magazine (2008) which wrote that ‘you can find magic in the Kathputli slum, if you know where to look’. A few of the residents have also been felicitated by government heads.

Well-wishers have set up a Facebook page titled ‘Friends of Kathputli Colony Delhi‘ to marshal support for the residents. “The problem is that privatisation, in the name of modernisation, is invading everything,” says one comment from an unnamed person on this page. “These artists are the ambassadors of India. They propagate a magical image of the country all over the world with their art. They should not be removed.”

Another person wrote, “I SUPPORT KATHPUTLICOLONY. I learn puppet with master Puran Bhat and I know so much Kathputli colony, it is like my second house. I am so indignant. Destroy the Kathputli colony without consulting the first people concerned: the residents. It is not respectful of us and their identity. They represent Indian culture all over the world. India will be proud of them. They are the heritage of the Indian culture. All these artists and this place must be protect. Kathputli Colony should be inscribe in UNESCO organisation as international cultural heritage. Martine in Paris.”

Messages such as these indicate that the place is more than just a colony; culture and emotions are deeply involved here.

Nithil Dennis, a photographer who covered the protest,  says, “The simple lot do not talk much about politics, they just want a place to perform, food to eat and a place to peacefully sleep. They are protesting because they are sceptical whether these simple wants will be satisfied at the transit camp.”

Dennis says the residents are mostly being supported in their cause by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations); politicians are still not a large part of the struggle. “Till now they have not been benefited in a major way by anyone from the political class,” says Dennis. “Maybe their vote might help make a difference, I do not know. But the question here is not about vote, it is about who can do something for them. Anyone who does that will earn their loyalty.”

The main candidates in fray in the West Delhi parliamentary constituency, of which Shadipur is a part, are Meenakshi Lekhi (Bharatiya Janata Party), Ajay Maken (Indian National Congress) and Ashish Khetan (Aam Aadmi Party). They have all promised to attend to the issue in the best way possible, but a distinct leaning  towards the AAP candidate can be seen on the part of many residents.

Meanwhile, the ‘kalakars’ (performers) are in a limbo. They are torn between walking into ‘good’ transit homes and staying put in their hovels. Some express their disbelief by asking loudly, “Kya hume sacchi jaana hai?  (Should we really move out?).” Some others are moving out, leaving behind more than just a house, hoping they can return in a few years.

The remaining residents recently staged a peaceful, intelligent protest in the colony against their ‘rehabilitation’. The performers first mesmerised spectators with their art, then slowly brought them to the heart of the problem using skits. The dwellers then read out a list of their ‘legitimate wants’ at the transit camp, including pucca houses with waterproof roofs and adequate space to practise their art forms and earn their living.

To be fair, the developer has promised to deliver ‘a good and safe camp’ for the residents with all basic facilities. The DDA has promised not to evacuate the residents by force, leaving the choice of registering for transit accommodation to them.

But the question remains: will their vote make a difference? The answer hangs by a string, just like a kathputli. As Rohit Bhat says on second thought, “They [the politicians] may yet do something for us. Who knows?”

Photo: Nithil Dennis

This story was also published on WoNoBo.com, our media partner.

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