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I’ve come back with a lot more respect for our politicians. It’s been most insightful

Firstpost print Edition

#CampaignTrailwithFirstpost to Varanasi and Ghazipur unfolded to be a journey full of overwhelming sights, insights, contrasts and contradictions, and more question marks than full stops. We navigated the interiors of eastern Uttar Pradesh to meet the leaders of these constituencies and saw them battle the heat and dust of elections – up, close and personal. We also met the locals to understand their take on who will win the elections, and many other issues fundamental to their growth and survival. My first impression of the visit to both these constituencies was that the incumbents will return to the 17th Lok Sabha. But underpinning this impression was an old proverb and my belief that the devil is always in the detail.Seeing things, which are not apparently visible, come naturally to me.

As a ‘Tournalist’ on this trail, my aspiration was primarily to understand whether what was promised in 2014 has been delivered or not. I was keen to understand the election manifestos of the contenders of these constituencies for 2019. Is Meri Kashi as Prime Minister Narendra Modi fondly calls his constituency, truly Vikas Ke Path Per? Is Ghazipur, once known as Apradh Ka Kendra, on track to becoming Pragatisheel Ghazipur? Has Jayapur the PM’s adopted village missed its target of becoming a model village? I was looking forward to getting a sneak peek into the progress on infrastructure, water, sanitation, financial inclusion, public health, Ganga cleaning, and such other socio-economic issues.

I didn’t get all the answers.

But here is my narrative – of what I saw, heard, observed and experienced – of the phenomena called Varanasi – the impressions and sound bytes, which will stay with me for long.

For one glorious weekend in early May, I was like a frog that had jumped out of the well to discover a brave new world outside.

My earliest memory of grassroots election campaigns is from the 1960s & 70s in Maharashtra, where I grew up. A family friend, one Mr Desai, a Congress activist, got a bunch of us kids on to a bullock cart that was part of an election procession (‘2 bullocks’ was the election symbol of the undivided Congress in those days). The other time was when I heard Sharad Pawar at an election rally in the 70s. The closest ring-side view of politics I had was in 1998, when I joined hands with my friend, Sushil Pandit, to pitch for running the BJP’s election advertisement campaign. We won the bid, and operated a Task Force from the BJP’s headquarters on Ashoka Road, New Delhi. I have vivid memories of meeting Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and LK Advani, and a brief glimpse of Narendra Modi. I can, arguably, claim some credit for the 13-month Vajpayee government!

That apart, like most Indian middle-class folks, I have largely followed politics remotely because it looked messy. Easier to watch it on noisy TV channels and keep abreast with developments via WhatsApp groups. For us frogs in the well, it was just safer to stay in our cocoon, and keep distance from politicians. After all, aren’t they lazy, corrupt and incompetent?

Then, Campaign Trail with Firstpost was held between May 3 and 6. I went to Varanasi and Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and came back with a lot of respect for our politicians.

Ghazipur is a great place for a frog to get baptism by fire. It is among the original ground zeroes of Indian history and politics. Legend has it that Maharshi Jamadagni, the father of Maharshi Parashurama, lived there. The Chinese traveller, Hsüan Tsang, described Ghazipur as Chen-Chu, i.e. “lord of conflict or battle”, as the translation of Garjanpati, the original name being Garzapur.

But, Ghazipur also stands for good stuff. It has the biggest legal opium factory in the world; the first Scientific Society of India was established here in 1862; it produces unique rose-scented spray, i.e. ‘Gulab Jal’. And it is the home of luminaries like Hamid Ansari (former vice-president), Vinod Rai (former CAG), and Bollywood dialogue writer Rahi Masoom Raza. Raza, who wrote the script and dialogues for the popular TV serial, Mahabharat, is a great example of the syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture that Ghazipur has stood for.

It is in this Ground Zero that many different battles are being fought in this election. IIT-educated engineer Manoj Sinha, a sitting BJP MP, versus Don Mukhtar Ansari’s elder brother and a bahubali in his own right, Afzal, who is fighting on a BSP ticket. Modi’s BJP versus SP-BSP Mahagathbandhan. BJP’s idea of India versus Raza’s idea. That’s what made the Ghazipur trip so fascinating for me.

Watching the ‘netas’ in action — Sinha and Ansari — was a huge learning experience. They have effortlessly internalised everything that Philip Kotler teaches in marketing (consumer preferences, segmentation, USP) or Dale Carnegie writes about (“how to win friends and influence people”). At his rallies, Sinha started by playing on fear (“only PM Modi can ensure national security”), and ended with issues that matter locally — express trains to Mumbai, a modern railway station, a passport office and a medical college. Switching between Hindi and earthy Bhojpuri, he had the audience eating out of his hands.

Ansari, an equally powerful orator and an imposing personality, was less specific at his rally about achievements and promises, but focused more on tearing apart Sinha’s claims.

Both netas were patient and articulate while answering questions during our interactions. Ansari was totally unfazed when asked about his reputation as a ‘don’. He responded by claiming to be an inheritor of freedom fighter and communist leader Sarjoo Pandey’s legacy, and to be fighting for the marginalised and oppressed.

Respect for the netas goes up when you see them speaking at eight to 10 rallies daily in this scorching heat. It requires enormous resilience and hard work; in sharp contrast, a newbie like Gautam Gambhir recently got dehydrated and sat inside his car in East Delhi.

Many friends from across the country messaged me asking “who’s winning Ghazipur? Who’s winning UP?” This is one of the toughest questions to answer even if you are out there in the constituency (unless of course it’s a one-sided contest like Varanasi). When you are at Sinha’s BJP rallies, you start believing that only he can win. But, when you then go to Ansari’s rally, the opposite seems to be true. That’s because you meet only committed voters at these rallies. voters who follow the party or caste tune rather than their own minds. It is somewhat like that famous Utpal Dutt dialogue in Gol Maal (1979) that Ghazipur’s very own Raza wrote: “Tumhari shaadi usse nahin hogi jise tum prem karti ho ... tumhari shaadi usse hogi jise main prem karta hoon (You cannot marry the one you love…you will marry the one I love).”

So, the simple answer is that I don’t know, who’ll win. Only the uncommitted, fence-sitting voters know.

But, as a frog, I’ve come back to my well wiser. With a lot more respect for our politicians. It’s been one of the most insightful experiences I’ve ever had. Something that will keep me thinking and awake at night, at least till May 23.

To end with Raza’s immortal words:

Is safar meñ niiñd aisī kho gayi; ham na soye, raat thak kar so gayi

(On this exciting journey, I lost my sleep so badly that not only did I not sleep, but the night got tired and fell asleep).

(Srikant Sastri is co-founder, Crayon Data; creator, Chalo StartUp web series; and advisor/board member at several companies)

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

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