‘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, authorFor 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.
This story was also published on Rediff.com, our media partner.
‘Next elections will throw up brilliant candidates. The surge of energy today will crystallise by tomorrow’
Maheep Dhillon, 42, Film-maker, MumbaiWhere is Shillong anyway? In Mumbai, I’ve often had to answer that question. My father was in the air force and since he was posted in places all over the country, I know about Shillong. But every time I mention Shillong, I’m asked, where is it?
As far away and as small it may seem to people in big cities, Shillong is a thriving town, the capital of Meghalaya in the North-East. People there are fully aware of the issues that confront them and know what they want from the government and local administrators. The level of commitment among voters in Shillong is very high. I know this because I went there to shoot a movie for the Election Commission of Meghalaya and the two questions I asked, “Will you vote and why will you vote?” crushed the stereotypes about a place too far away to matter.
I want people to watch this movie not just for its message, but also to realise and acknowledge that this beautiful land is part of their country, since it’s clear that many people have no idea at all about India’s North East.
India has two strengths – our youth and our secular diversity. We may complain about our education system, but it churns out very smart people with average IQ levels much higher than anywhere else in the world. My 16-year-old daughter is much smarter than I could even imagine being when I was 20. Today, I can never say that anyone is too young to know anything. And as a country, India has managed to achieve much social and economic development. You will be amazed by the number of subcultures that exist in one small city. But despite this diversity, we manage to hold together as a nation and that’s a strength we can never undermine.
We are an amazing country, but we lack good governance and good leadership. Everyone I speak to is fed up. They are fed up of the Congress and the BJP, the two biggest national political parties, and are going the AAP way. Though they are unsure of the AAP because of its lack of a political foundation since the party came into being just recently, the shift in their thinking is primarily because AAP is projecting a new India – a corruption-free India that wants intelligent leadership.
I am a Sardarni. I was in school during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 when Congress workers wreaked revenge on the Sikh community after Indira Gandhi [then Prime Minister of India and Congress leader] was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. I remember witnessing a surge of hatred among all of us – Sikh and non-Sikh towards the Congress. The same thing happened in Gujarat under Narendra Modi. It might be a late awakening, but people have had enough of that.
When you don’t want someone with a history of sexual molestation to be your representative, would you want someone tainted with even the idea of communal hatred to occupy the Prime Minister’s office? I don’t say this because I experienced communal violence. Thankfully, nobody I know was affected during the 1984 riots. But even had it happened to Parsis, Muslims or Hindus, I would have felt the same magnitude of hatred. Your community makes no difference to me.
I have complete antipathy towards any party with a communal past. A 55-year-old gentleman says Modi is his God. I ask him, from what point of view are you saying this? From the point of view of economic reforms, progress or development, or because someone close to you wasn’t murdered by Modi’s supporters? When you see an accident on the road, you are saddened, but you move on. However, you have to realise that it could have happened to you.
We bleed to pay our taxes, but what do we get in return? As people, not just as women, we need personal security. If you in government don’t utilise public money well, don’t pay police forces, don’t give the public better health facilities and better education instead of plumping up your own bank accounts, we will continue to have security issues. If you don’t take quick decisions, you don’t set a good example. Your leadership cannot say things like ‘boys will make mistakes’.
I want complete accountability and infrastructural facilities from my elected government. If my road is pothole-ridden when I need to get my grandmother to the hospital, I need to know who I can catch hold of.
Our infrastructure is abysmal. The electoral ward office in my neighbourhood is a hole in the wall, manned by people with very basic levels of literacy, who are rude and unorganised. You enter and are rendered clueless. The state government website, almost predictably, keeps hanging.
I am aware that the Election Commission is a fair, autonomous body and all the gunda-gardi (thuggery) that happens, happens at the political party level. But I have no idea why there is such a dearth of organisation. If you want people to vote, shouldn’t you make the process easier?
At the electoral ward, I saw an old burqa-clad woman, holding the registration form, trying to make sense of it by asking people around. No one could help, but her persistence didn’t fade. I see this persistence among voters today and it really touches me.
I am 42 and in my adulthood, I have seen a lot of general elections but I have never before experienced this huge wave of awakening that I sense among people today. This will be the first time I vote and blatantly say that our candidates suck; that they reek of jingoism.
But I am sure of one thing: the next elections will throw up brilliant candidates. The surge of energy today will definitely crystallise by tomorrow. I relate to the AAP for its ideologies but established political parties must also give us something like the AAP. We are waiting. We are hungry for change!
As told to Apekshita Varshney. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
So there wasn’t much else on the minds of Mumbaikars — those who were awake, that is — from 7am on April 24 when the voting stations opened. The streets were strangely quiet — it being a public holiday — with even cabbies nowhere to be seen, and the air rather still, where there was usually the unending cacophony of car horns.
I spent the day in several areas of Mumbai South. The constituency is probably one of the most representative of Mumbai as a whole — from the slums of Byculla to the luxurious gardens of wealthy Malabar Hill. At a polling station on touristy Colaba Causeway, the first voters came in dribs and drabs from just after polls opened. The first were the older generation, who unanimously spoke of their pride and duty in taking part in the poll.
Eric Roche proudly presented his inked finger. He said his priorities in choosing a candidate were development and unity. “Uniting people is very important, or there’s fighting all over,” he said.
Development was also a top priority for Italia Rohinton. He thought a Bharatiya Janata Party victory was likely this time round, in part because people had suffered enough from rising prices. “They are not controlling the prices,” he said. “That’s the first thing the government must do. The first thing.”
Several others made the same point about prices, but some, like T B Delal, said that in order to achieve this a stable government was needed. “There’s no point in voting for regional parties,” he said.
But for Kamal, a young woman who stopped to vote on her way to work, the important issue could be summed up in one word: secularism. “I’m confident of the result,” she said over her shoulder as she briskly continued down the street.
Others were clearly tired of all the ballot options, but the principle of voting was what mattered. Jon was in a hurry, but what was important to him? “Today everything is important,” he said. “But I’ve been voting for so many years, and nothing ever comes of it.”
Colaba is a mixture of the various elements of Mumbai. To see what the richer folk think, I took a trip to Malabar Hill – the wealthiest part of Mumbai, and possibly all of India. Interestingly, the framing of the election issues had suddenly changed — now it seemed to be, who would best represent the local Marathi population?
Mangesh was part of a huddle surrounding an election information desk in the street. For him, it was all about getting Narendra Modi in as the next prime minister. “Corruption is the most important thing for me,” he said, “so it’s most important that Modi wins.”
At that point Sanjay pulled up on his scooter, its front adorned with a Shiv Sena sticker. “I’m not sure who’ll win,” he said. “Marathi votes are divided.” But if Shiv Sena and the BJP get the man in they want, “there will be 100% change”.
When I popped into an expensive Western coffee shop, the young counter staff were keen to hear who I was rooting for. “BJP?” they asked, “or Shiv Sena?” Nearly as an afterthought, one of them added, “Or Congress?”
In the taxi ranks at the top of the hill near an entrance to Kamala Nehru Park, driver Rushan Taerri said he wanted a “strong man” leading the country — and that man was Rahul Gandhi. “Modi’s just the new guy,” he said. “He’s not confident at making decisions.”
The final part of the jigsaw that is South Mumbai was Byculla — a mixture of Marathis, slum residents and minorities, a far cry from the glistening glass high rises of Malabar Hill. At one voting booth a stone’s throw from the market, the final groups of voters were coming in.
Shailesh and Raika came with their children. “People want change,” said Shailesh, “and they are all coming to vote today for that.” He said that corruption had to be tackled, because it could be seen all over the world.
For his wife Raika, it boiled down to one thing: “Security for women.” “Write good about our election,” she said as she left, kids in tow behind her.
A young police officer closed the gates and started to turn latecomers away. “It’s very important for people to come and vote,” he said, after asking me a few questions about who I was. “Everyone cares about the election, it’s a very proud day.”
He said he had seen thousands of people through the day, and that his polling station had seen a high turnout. “I’ve been working for the past two days, but I’m proud to do that,” he added.
Mumbai saw a 53% turnout on the day, an 11% increase on 2009 but still lagging behind many other parts of India. Mumbai South saw 54%, not a huge improvement. But it seemed that political understanding was quite high among Mumbaikars, at least about what issues were important to them. Perhaps, with fears over disunity under Modi, corruption under Congress, and the unknown territory of the new Aam Aadmi Party, there was some hesitation in making their electoral mark. But it’s clear that whoever wins will have a difficult task to please the diverse mix of residents in Mumbai South.
Photo: Patrick Ward
Here is how the candidates measure up, state by state, in terms of gender, education, criminality and wealth.
Data compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch, based on sworn affidavits from candidates.
This story also appeared in Rediff.com, our media partner
The election hung heavy in the air over the wealthy tourist hot-spot of Colaba Causeway in the Mumbai South constituency. Everyone had an opinion, from businessmen to beggars, about who should form the next government in India and what priorities it should have.
It was often others who started the conversation – would I like to buy a map of Mumbai? Or perhaps a scarf – genuine cashmere? But most people were willing – after some haggling – to give their views on what they want from the candidates they plan to vote for on April 24.
Hitesh Chhabria is the owner of Immediate Boutique and is rooting for the Congress. “People are scaring other people into voting for Narendra Modi,” he said. “He is working the media well.”
Chhabria said he could see the difference a Congress government had made to the area, and wanted it to continue. “I’ve seen India 10 years ago, and I’ve seen India now. There’s a lot of difference,” he said. But he did have his reservations. “Politics is politics, people want to fill up their pockets,” he said.
Would he ever think about Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party as an alternative?
“Maybe,” he said. “The AAP is a good thing. But Kejriwal is so small, and they are not letting him jump.”
A South African man who was in the shop chipped in to say he didn’t know much about Indian politics, but there was only one candidate he noticed thanks to wall-to-wall advertising: “The guy with the beard.”
As we spoke, several dozen AAP supporters, wearing their trademark white caps and waving the party’s symbolic brooms in the air, marched down the street, loudly telling people to give their party a chance in the election. Diwan Chandres, who works for an internet service provider, was part of the procession. “People are very supportive here,” he said. “Everyone is against corruption.”
But does a young party have a genuine chance of winning here? “We have a 99 per cent chance of winning,” he said. That much? “Scientists, businessmen, students, taxi drivers, hawkers and doctors – all over India, people want the AAP and don’t want corruption.”
The AAP candidate, former Royal Bank of Scotland banker Meera Sanyal, might seem a strange choice for the aam aadmi [common man]. Her website even includes a quotation from Ayn Rand, a favourite of the right-wing Tea Party in the US. But that didn’t seem to make a difference to many on Colaba Causeway. In fact, the AAP was the most visible party on the road, with dozens of street merchants proudly wearing the official cap of the party.
Further along the road, Preety Virle was behind the counter at the Himalaya Wellness health shop. “All the parties are the same,” she said. “But you have to vote — that’s our right. I would like to try the Bharatiya Janata Party. We’ve had Congress for 10 years, but no change. I want to get inflation down. For working class people like me, our salaries are so low, we find it very difficult to cover our basic needs.”
Another person finding life difficult was Laxmi Jadhu, a beggar. She was carrying her small baby as she asked people to buy her milk powder among the busy market stalls. “I will vote, but I don’t know for whom,” she said. “I just hope the new government will do more for poor people. But I don’t know who will do that.”
Dipa Tambe, from the John Player clothing shop, said he just wanted to see some results from politicians on issues like pollution in the city. “Some of them are cheaters, some are good,” he said. I asked him to name names. “The Congress is good, and AAP have good people,” he said. “But we will only know after the election.”
True to the entrepreneurial spirit of the street, several people I spoke to said they had no opinion at all about the election — but that they might develop one if I bought whatever they were selling.
Two men, who asked not to be named, said their stall had been confiscated by the police that morning — and were angry that, they believed, the only way to get their stock back would be to “pay under the table”. They did not want to be drawn into a discussion about who they would vote for, but said corruption was a big issue for them.
“I will tell you everything if you buy us some beers,” one of them said. I thought that perhaps that wasn’t the best way to get the story, and declined.
It was starting to get late, so I got into a cab and went to Marine Drive to speak to some of the people lining the bay, sitting on the wall taking selfies against the sunset and buying fruit juice from street vendors.
Mohammed Asif Gandhi, a young mechanical engineer, was tapping away at his laptop when I interrupted him. “I’m not very interested in the election,” he said. “We just need the right sort of people, but so far it hasn’t been encouraging.”
He was annoyed the focus on the election seemed to be negative campaigning. “They need to do the job properly, but many politicians don’t focus on the job. They just try to focus on the negative points of others.” Gandhi added his vote would go to a person, not a party — but he preferred to keep exactly who that was to himself.
Also wishing to keep their voting intentions to themselves were Sandhya and Brij Gupta, both government workers. Sandhya said she was disappointed that more people didn’t take the time to vote, but was happy turnout was higher this time round.
“Everyone should do their best,” she said. “But politicians shouldn’t forget that they are chosen by the people.”
Photographs: Patrick Ward
This story was also published in Rediff.com, our media partner
The inauguration of the Congress election headquarters saw hundreds of supporters cram into a makeshift meeting place by the side of the road in Kalina, a western Mumbai suburb. There was little applause. But people seemed to welcome the speeches from top party figures, including Dutt herself and Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.
Before the event, Dutt, the sister of Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, said the campaign was “very hectic and very good”. She dismissed worries about the challenge from a resurgent BJP, but also the Samajwadi Party and the AAP.
“The AAP won’t make a huge difference,” she said. “This time people are much more aware of what is happening and who they are voting against. They can see the vote is not divided — they are clear-headedly considering their vote.”
Dutt’s rivals are focusing on what they say is her lack of engagement with her largely slum-residing constituents. They claim she has done little to improve conditions in an area in sore need of improved infrastructure.
“I will be honest, all the other candidates don’t live in the area,” she said. “They had nothing else against me. A lot has been in the media in advertising, a lot of negative campaigning.”
Dutt reeled off a list of her regular engagements: Six months a year at the Lok Sabha in Delhi; work for her charitable trust; attending her monthly medical camps; working in her office for four hours a day when she is in Mumbai; listening to her constituents raise concerns at public meetings.
“I fail to see how they corroborate that,” she said of her opponents’ criticisms.
At the rally, Dutt could be seen rushing on and off stage, directing her followers as masses of people pushed to be near the speakers. Lines of white-clothed party volunteers tried to hold crowds in place, sometimes resulting in altercations as people wandered in from the street.
Under floodlights, it seemed that her supporters were as committed as ever — despite the event starting several hours late and more than one scuffle between members of the packed crowd.
Many of those present focused on what they said was the misleading focus on Narendra Modi’s leadership of Gujarat. Abdul Rahim Khan was among the party faithful, having previously worked as a leader in the Youth Congress. He was upbeat after the rally and ready to offer the party line.
“Congress has done a very good job here,” he said. “Most of the development in India comes from Maharashtra.”
He accused the BJP of misleading the public about the so-called Gujarat model of development. “They have paid money to PR campaigns,” he said. “The same progress was done in Maharashtra with a Congress government.
“Modi is similar to Hitler and Goebbels,” he added. “If you say a lie 100 times, and hope it will be true. They want to make a separate India with something special for the majority and nothing for the minority.”
Businessman Imran Khan was also enthusiastic, and shrugged off claims that the SP and AAP could split the Dutt vote.
“People know she is the strongest candidate in this area,” he said. “The election is going very well for us.”
Hitesh Singh, a young Congress supporter, said the focus on a BJP win was because BJP leader Narendra Modi “is hypnotising the people”. He was optimistic of a Congress win, though.
“Our work is going on properly,” he said, adding he was sure local people would see through opposition claims about his candidate.
As the event drew to a close, Chavan was quickly escorted away by his security entourage, shoving aside the assembled mass of well-wishers, reporters and party volunteers.
Dutt was surrounded by supporters. They all made their way into a small room in the headquarters, decked with maps of the area, to plan for the last stretch of the campaign.
As the chairs were collected and people started to drift off home, an older man, Satrikas, remained. “All the people were here today, this is a very important election,” he said.
Did he feel confident of a Congress victory? He shrugged.
“I don’t know who the next prime minister will be.”
Photo: Patrick Ward
This story was also published on Rediff.com, our media partner.
Navigating the busy Pune streets in the hot sun is a challenge. No wonder they say if you can drive in Pune you can drive anywhere in the world. As you avoid hawkers in the narrow lanes near Moti Chowk, an orange flag captures your attention. The legend ‘Murudkar Jhendawale’ inscribed in Devanagiri is noticeable.
Owner Girish Murudkar welcomes every political and non-political enthusiast with the same smile and zeal. “This shop was opened by my great-grandfather,” he says with evident pride. “Murudkar is one of the oldest shops in the city that sells paraphernalia for different occasions and festivals.”
All kinds of political merchandise like flags, pluck-cards, caps, badges, uparnas (shawl-like strips of satin), banners, tags, you name it and it is available at Murudkar’s. With Pune’s polling day (April 17) approaching, the shop has witnessed a spike in sales.
Cutting open a small package, Murudkar says, “This is an innovative type of merchandise created by Murudkar’s — aromatic tags with party symbols and names. One can hang these in one’s house or car; the fragrance lasts for up to 25 days.”
With the growing popularity of the Aam Aadmi Party, the Gandhi cap has again become a fashion statement at political rallies. “The demand for different colours and designs has risen more than for normal caps,” he says. “Now every political party wants its own Gandhi topi.” Not surprisingly, the caps, priced between Rs 2 and Rs 5, constitute the single most sold item at Murudkar’s.
One can get various combinations at the shop. “Puneri phetas or pagdis are known across India,” says Murudkar. “We have designed phetas according to every party’s need.” Uparnas are sold for Rs 15-20; phetas start at Rs 800. Prices of party flags vary according to size.
Murudkar’s is not an outlet for the sale of only political paraphernalia. The shop also sells products for specific religious and cultural occasions. But right now, it’s the festival of democracy that is driving sales.
Ask Girish Murudkar about his favourite politician and he refuses to commit himself. All he wants, he says, is “development of the city”. Why, he’s speaking like a politician himself.
Photo: Deepa Venkatesan