#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.
I was born and bought up in one of the sprawling chawls of the Maximum City, Mumbai. And, my initial brush with politics was the Shiv Sena mohalla shakha on our neighbourhood corner, where we would go to play carrom, read Marathi newspapers or just while away our time listening to elders.
I went to Sardarni Pratap Singh Janta Vidyalaya, which was run by Sardar Tara Singh, our local BJP councillor. I was part of the school band that would double up for his election campaigning. We were happy to tag along, marching in our school uniforms, playing with our rag tag band instruments. He made me feel special as he treated us to vada pao and biscuits. At times, he would even send his jeep to fetch me from my humble chawl.
Gradually, I got disconnected from politics amid the hustle and bustle of aspiring for a better life. My typical stock response to politics was a Bambaiya couldn’t-care-less approach to life: apun ko kya.
Life moved on, and so did I. I started out with door-to-door sales, then set up my first few ventures in a roller-coaster ride till I stumbled upon Firstpost’s Varanasi campaign trail advertisement a few weeks ago.
I signed up immediately for the May 3-6 trail. And, what a trip it turned out to be?
The first surprise was to find an old friend and mentor Srikant Sastri as co-Tournalist along with the other amazing bunch of fellow travellers.
We used to start our days at 7 am and round up around 11 pm in the searing heat of eastern Uttar Pradesh’s hinterland.
Our trail started on a Friday (May 3) afternoon with a visit to a weavers’ colony at Lallapura, Varanasi, followed by back-to-back meetings with politicians of diverse hues and listening to various version of the same electoral issues.
In retrospect, I was stuck by one singular thought: What matters in politics? Is it a politician’s work or the perception?
For instance, when a politician starts to govern India as a minister/MP/MLA/MLC, is s/he a king or kingmaker? Who is her/his customer?
Consider this: we visited the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor on a Sunday (May 5) morning, and honestly, I had no clue about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project till Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate for Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, brought it up during our interactions a couple of evenings ago.
SP-BSP candidate Shalini Yadav, too, highlighted the raging corridor controversy during our interactions with her later that morning.
Is there a controversy over the corridor issue?
The fact of the matter is that the BJP-led Uttar Pradesh government is clearing out a major part of the land next to the sacred Kashi Vishwanath shrine by demolishing centuries-old houses to create a corridor leading up to Lalita and Manikarnika ghats of the adjoining Ganga river. There are around 300 houses and many housed temples inside them, some believed to be up to 700 years old.
Most of the owners of these ancient buildings have vacated their premises in lieu of hefty compensation packages --- four times higher than the current market value.
I was left at a compelling thought about a section of the owners, say about 25 per cent, who are likely to refuse to accept the compensation or trade for a better quality of life and steadfastly want to stay on close to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. They may argue that their faith doesn’t allow them to leave their ancestral place. Faith, they may reason, is the issue and not an infrastructure upgrade.
Whose interest should PM Modi as Varanasi MP protect? Because, in Ayodhya, too, faith is germane to the argument about the construction of Ram Mandir.
Besides, it was interesting to observe, while listening to all the key personalities --- from Ghazipur sitting MP and Union minster Manoj Sinha to Ajay Rai to Shalini Yadav and Sinha’s challenger from SP-BSP combine Afzal Ansari, the elder brother of dreaded don Mukhtar Ansari – that they all have their own narratives about similar issues.
What’s my key learning from #campaigntrailwithFirstpost? The narrative matters the most in this day and age of politics accentuated by a digital push, thanks to Whatsapp University.
The author is a serial entrepreneur, investor, restless traveller, foodie and is focused on promoting startups in Tier 2, 3 and beyond Indian cities
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