Can Arvind Kejriwal be a giant slayer in Varanasi?

Arvind Kejriwal addressing a gathering in Varanasi, where he is contesting BJP's Narendra Modi. Photo: AAP

As the 2014 Lok Sabha elections begin to wind up, the BJP and Congress have intensified their mudslinging — even as one man continues to draw people to his cause. Arvind Kejriwal, 45, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, is looking forward to a successful outing for his party, especially in Varanasi where he will contest against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi.

His message, which can be summarised as ‘Congress is corrupt and BJP is no better’, has not changed since his campaign began. In Varanasi, he told people to vote for his party or risk a gas price hike. Unlike the Congress, accused by Modi of allegedly favouring Priyanka Gandhi’s husband Robert Vadra, and the BJP, accused of allegedly supporting the business interests of the Adani group of companies, Kejriwal seems to be concerned with what could be called a people’s model. He repeatedly told the crowd in Varanasi, ‘I am a fakir’– a poor man. At some point, he said he had only Rs 500 in his pocket.

This attempt, at various points in his campaign, to connect with the common people and present himself as one of them seems to have widely increased his popularity. He was recently named Time magazine’s most influential man of the year in its annual readers’ poll, pushing Modi to second place. He also dominated the list of the most-watched politicians on YouTube.

However, the contest he would love to win most of all is the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat for which he is pitted against Modi. He has said that his attempt to defeat Modi in Varanasi is not a battle of prestige but an attempt to save the country from the corrupt forces of the BJP and Congress.

Kejriwal also hopes the AAP’s candidate in Amethi, Kumar Vishwas, defeats Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.

Modi has some reason to be worried because Kejriwal’s popularity is not just online. In December 2013, he defeated three-time chief minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit in her own constituency. And he was only a rookie at the time.

Apart from Varanasi, Modi is also contesting in Vadodara, his home turf in Gujarat, an act some people have referred to as cowardice. Whether or not that’s true, winning in Gujarat and losing to Kejriwal in Varanasi would be an embarrassment to Modi. Will Kejriwal be the pawn that checkmates the king?

Photo: Courtesy AAP

This story was also carried in WoNoBo, our media partner.


‘Next elections will throw up brilliant candidates. The surge of energy today will crystallise by tomorrow’

Maheep Dhillon, 42, Film-maker, Mumbai

Maheep Dhillon, Film-maker, Mumbai

Where 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.


“ A 56-inch chest is not needed to run this country, a big heart is needed. To run this country cruel force of power is not needed, but moral strength ”

- Priyanka Gandhi. Her response is to Modi who said during the Gorakhpur rally that it would take a “56-inch chest” to convert UP into Gujarat. -

Mumbai MPs will have a difficult task pleasing its diverse population

Malabar Hill

You would have to have been living under a rock wearing cast iron earplugs not to have known there was an election going on in Mumbai. Weeks of rallies, megaphone wielding volunteers and mass leafleting sessions have been part of daily life here in India’s biggest city, and it would be difficult for any of its 13 million inhabitants not to have walked under the smiling faces of the major candidates as they peered down from massive billboards along every main road.

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


When India voted, did Mumbai really not care?

Voters crowd around an election information desk in Mumbai's Colaba Causeway. Photo: Patrick Ward

The scorching heat coupled with Mumbai’s humidity did not stop her. Nor did the serpentine queue. Wiping the sweat that trickled down her forehead, Pratima Gupta, 48, was determined to exercise her democratic right to vote. Standing in line at a polling booth in Mumbai on April 24 when the city had its turn at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Pratima raised concerns over the worsening weather, aberrant to the island city, and sometimes, even the current government.

As a mother of two, the safety of her daughters, the scope of employment, and a stable economy are only a few of the many issues Pratima wants her elected government to resolve, though she acknowledged that Mumbai still has a gloss that other cities lack. “Elsewhere, opportunities are few and the environment conducive for women to make the most of opportunities is lacking,” she said.

But better than other cities or not, Mumbai’s active voters on April 24 still felt there was room for improvement. For women, safety was the biggest issue since, over the last 10 years, Mumbai has lost its famous ‘always safe’ tag. As 20-year-old Rani said, “I am voting today, so that tomorrow I can walk on the road without fear.” And for young people in general, as 24-year-old Akhilesh Gupta said, work was important. “We hardly have jobs. I want the government to generate more jobs,” he said.

But though 11.98 million Mumbaikars share each other’s apprehensions, in 2014, only 51.98 per cent of the city’s eligible voters thought it was important to be part of the democratic process that will determine who rules for the next five years. Yet, this figure is better than that of the 2009 elections, when despite the fury after terrorists from Pakistan held Mumbai hostage for nearly a week in November 2008, the polling percentage was an abysmal 41.4 per cent.

Mumbai’s lack of involvement in the democratic process can be baffling. Even a watchman at a polling booth on April 24 commented on it. “We expected a horde of people to turn out today, but…” he said helplessly, gesturing towards the sparse crowd. Though some part of Mumbai’s relatively poor voting figure in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls can be attributed to mistakes in the electoral rolls – some 15 per cent of the city’s eligible voter population discovered their names were not on the lists – the city does seem to have a too-busy-to-care, insouciant attitude towards elections.

Rahul Phadnis, 24, didn’t even bother to register as a voter because he finds the entire process bogus. “I don’t think any change is going to come my way by voting,” he said. So political apathy is one reason why some Mumbaikars did not vote. There is also snobbery from people who can afford to buy themselves privileges that others cannot, who therefore can’t see a purpose in stepping out of their air-conditioned abodes to contribute to a larger change.

Mumbai is charming, no doubt. It has a bounce-back spirit that the whole country acknowledges, that lets it take virtually anything in its stride.

But that spirit is lacking on election day. And that is Mumbai’s greatest defeat.

Photo: Patrick Ward

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

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