#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.
In an age, where everyone is obsessed with what’s trending, the 17th parliamentary election has ensured that the festival of democracy remains a hot-button issue.
Irony is that trends are now accessible at the tap of your smartphone, and our understanding and opinion is driven by algorithms in social media and by hyperbole that our motor mouth news anchors indulge in.
In order to escape a lazy way of understanding and forming an opinion – there is a deluge of armchair psephologist anyway --- I signed up for the first-of-its-kind #campaigntrailwithFirstpost. The invitation to sign up for this three-day trail promised to take us to Varanasi, the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the neighbouring Ghazipur Lok Sabha seat represented by the sitting BJP MP and Union minister Manoj Sinha.
At the outset, let me say that #campaigntrailwithFirstpost delivered more than it promised. We had tête-à-tête with candidates bang in the middle of a hectic campaign in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s hinterland, interacted with voters and met on-ground influencers, who can make or break the poll outcome.
Personally speaking, the trail has been hugely enriching experience.
I have come back with some revealing insights on ‘We the People’, and the way our democracy is being shaped by the current political discourse.
Common people are active investigators rather than passive recipients
A couple of years ago, I had visited small towns and few villages in and around Varanasi, and had come back with an image of a vast section of the local population living in a time warp. However, the campaign trail makes me stand corrected, and what I saw on the ground fills me with immense hope and optimism.
Our entitlement to investigate, enquire and actively participate in the poll mania was visible and palpable among everyone I observed and interacted with. Voters no longer want to be a mere spectator in this dance of democracy; but they want to choreograph the dance. Questions like who we were and what’s the purpose of our visit, why should they share their views, must do something about their issues were proof of their being an active agent of change. It was heartening to see women taking in rallies in large numbers and questioning promises and hyperboles made by the candidates during their speeches. I came back happy with the thought that if every mofussil, village and small town is wide awake, and our democracy is alive and the will of “We the People” will prevail.
For candidates in the opposition to the ruling party – tapping our culture makes for emotional defence against the narrative of development
“The PM doesn’t get the soul of Kashi, he is an outsider who doesn’t get Varanasipan,” said Shalini Yadav, the SP candidate from Varanasi. This statement underscores the strategy that most in the opposition made about the narrative of development is a threat to age-old local culture and people. And, we the people are quite susceptible to a point of view that invites us to defend our culture at any cost. Hence, statements like “Modiji has corporatised our culture” or “vikas without sanskriti is mindless” are being whipped up with unflinching regularity. It is quite understandable why this works. For instance, take any family unit in India and you will realise that most rational conversation can be derailed by a cultural argument that family has known for long time and lived by for ages. Usually, cultural arguments are conclusive in nature for that reason. And, in this election this line of argument seems to be the best bet for anyone who is against the prevailing narrative of ‘vikas’.
Governance under the BJP rule reflects that there are many invisible Amit Shahs going about their jobs ruthlessly
If there is one thing that Modi is generally applauded for - is good governance. He has a record of making key stakeholders in governing the nation --- goal-oriented and accountable. While, we had heard this, we didn’t know about his modus operandi. Why could others not do it? During a visit to the BJP office at Varanasi, the governance formula that Modi has adopted came to the fore. One of the key officials invited us warmly. The invitation came with generous helpings of farsan and dhokhla in the land of kachoris and jalebis – a not-so-subtle supplant of local savouries with Gujarati signature snacks intrigued me. And, soon I realised why it was so. The key campaign managers for the prestigious Varanasi seat were tried and tested lieutenants of Modi, each one of them handpicked to execute his will. It’s almost akin to planting your own machinery to run the operations and reducing locals to manage the standard operating process, or SOP, on the shop floor. I did sense a simmering restlessness beneath the composed appearances of local BJP karyakartas. This approach of planting Modi champions certainly trumps the mesh of local politics and established powers but actively fuels gathbandhan of locals who would like to reclaim their lost ground. Such iron-hand approach to governance by Modi does get the work done, but compromises the very spirit of democracy.
It’s not anti-incumbency, it’s a sentiment that want to reinforce to the Modi government: we made you, and we can break you
This one has been quite an insightful takeaway from my interaction with people from all walks of life. To the proverbial question, “is Modiji coming back?” many replied “yes, he will, but not quite like 2014.” There is always an incumbency wave that has been proven by psephologists over the years. With more prodding and digging, I came to another conclusion: of late, Modi has emerged bigger than the party, politics and people of India and we the people don’t like this idea. This was best summed up by a local in Ghazipur. He said that some of us should vote for the Congress or the SP, just to let Modiji know that he can’t take us for granted. This can be understood better, if we delve into the psyche of our nation. We love underdogs and we rally for their assent to the top. In this act, we find a deeper vindication against trials and tribulations of our own lives, while we are trying to move forward. It’s vindication of our power and push. But when an underdog becomes a hero, we like to emasculate that larger-than-life figure and celebrate our inherent power and strength. Modi’s evolution to being larger than the BJP and republic of India can well be his strength and weakness at the same time. And, this could spring a surprise to Modi and the BJP on May 23, the Judgment Day.
Much like endless political discourse that we Indians indulge in at a street corner tea stall, campaign trails, too, can never come to an end. While I have retreated into my corporate advertising world, I have been cherry picking rich and real perspectives on the mood of the nation during this election. Besides, it’s one thing to be part of a conversation on the election that’s trending, but it’s another ball game to gather authentic and insightful point-of-view that I can claim to be my own and personal. Hey Firstpost, when is the next campaign trail?
(Suraja Kishore is former executive vice-president & GM, National Head, Truth Central, McCann Erickson)
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