By Digant Raj Kapoor:Â
I ventured to Banaras from 6-10 May to campaign for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and candidate, Arvind Kejriwal. Given my short-stay and the fact that it was my first visit to Varanasi, my goal was to contribute to various field efforts rather than help the back-office team (who in my opinion are the unsung heroes of AAP’s campaign). In this piece, I will share my experience and provide insights and commentary on trends that cannot be gaged from traditional TV and print media.
Based on what I’ve seen, AAP had the most comprehensive ground campaign in Varanasi. This is not just based on the area covered or number of people reached, but also in terms of the number of volunteers who contributed their time to engage with voters, and the methods used to reach voters. Over 60,000 volunteers contributed to the campaign in Varanasi. A successful back-office took care of logistical, technical, financial, and legal matters necessary to execute the campaign. I met volunteers who conducted door-to-door campaigns, canvassed along busy streets, participated in road shows, and set-up gatherings of various sizes. AAP also set up a phone-call campaign for volunteers who could not physically travel to Varanasi. Over 25,000 phone calls were made through this system.
During my time I rarely spotted BJP, SP, or Congress workers campaigning. Depending on which part of the city I wandered into, I noticed BJP, SP, or Congress flags, as well as hoardings. This type of campaigning is both expensive and impersonal. AAP volunteers could be seen canvassing and engaging with voters throughout the city throughout the day. AAP’s volunteer-fuelled approach is highly personalized and is a major reason that the nascent party is able to challenge a supposedly unbeatable leader’s ‘tsunami’ in a traditionally safe constituency. If Kejriwal wins in Varanasi, then it will be a testament to the power of passion versus the power of corrupt money in electoral politics.
I volunteered on various streets in small teams of 4 (you need the Election Commission’s approval if more than 5 volunteers are gathering in a public place) where I mingled with local vendors and pedestrians. Armed with brooms, flags, and AAP topis (caps) our goal was to establish AAP’s presence throughout the city. I generally preferred to volunteer right under large BJP hoardings to symbolize the power of passion versus money.
Busier streets enabled us to interact with a large volume of people passing by on bicycles, rickshaws, autos, vans, trucks, cars, and jeeps. I looked into the eyes of countless Varanasi voters, an overwhelming majority of whom smiled back, raised their thumbs in support, stopped to chat, give words of encouragement, and don AAP caps. Many reached into their pockets and showed their AAP caps, commenting that they cannot wear them in public due to various reasons.
I participated in various street campaigns, whether it was on trucks with Raghu Ram and Vishal Dadlani, on a motorcycle as a part of Gul Panag’s motorcycle rally, or on a jeep in Arvind Kejriwal’s roadshow, which culminated gatherings of different sizes: nukkad sabha, jan sabha, or vishal jan sabha. The first is a small gathering of up to a 100 people along a narrow street. The second is a gathering of 500-800 people on a major street, and the final has over 1,000 people in a vast open space. While Kejriwal was the main attraction, my favourite speech was Kumar Vishwas’ hour-long delivery in Lanka, mostly because of his creative use of rhetoric and humour.
Compared to campaigns organized by other parties, AAP’s was largely characterized as a spontaneous collaboration requiring a can-do attitude. Indians from around the world came together because they admire Kejriwal’s courage to challenge Modi and the BJP’s rs. 5000 crore campaign in a tough constituency. Volunteers respect the party leadership’s proven adherence to the Gandhian principles of non-violence. Despite claiming to be nationalistic the BJP leadership is indifferent towards the violence employed by their supporters against other Indians. The 2014 election season witnessed numerous examples of BJP supporters attacking AAP leadership and volunteers. Attacks on Arvind Kejriwal, Ankit Lal, Nandan Mishra, Prerna, and Raghu Ram are just a few examples.
Politically undecided residents, and AAP-supportive residents admired the distances AAP volunteers travelled, as well as our efforts. AAP volunteers (including myself) could be seen manning the streets of Varanasi throughout the day, braving the 40-degree plus heat for hours at a time. It was not uncommon for local vendors to be won-over by our hard work. One such vendor offered us masala Pepsi (out of a lota). Mai kafi der se dhek raha hoon. Aap log bohoth mehenat kar rahe ho (I have been watching for a while, you all are working really hard). Such instances were a common occurrence in Varanasi as many volunteers have been working in the constituency for over three weeks. The party preferred to dedicate its volunteers to certain parts of the constituency to maximize relationship building and familiarity with voters.
BJP workers employed the language of ‘outsiders’ in a hostile manner. Aam Aadmi Party ke pass itna paisa kahan se aya hai? Kitna mil raha hai aapko? Wapas jao jahan se aie ho (Where did AAP get all this money from? How much are you getting? Go back to where you came from). Being a holy-city for many Indians, and a popular tourist attraction, I did not expect to encounter such sentiments. It reminded me of conflict-inducing ideology employed by BJP’s political ally, the Shiv Sena. The irony that their beloved candidate is as much a Varanasi outsider as me was lost upon them. Juxtaposed to the geographic origins of AAP volunteers, which spanned the globe, the inclusivity and binding aspect of the Aam Aadmi Party is one of many things I admired about the party. I met volunteers from the US and the UK as well as several Indian States including Kashmir, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Delhi.
During my conversation with locals, I shared my observation regarding AAP and BJP caps. I commented how in my opinion AAP caps empower individuals and acknowledge their value. They simply state, “I am a common man, I want Swaraj.” BJP caps simply say “Modi for PM.” The difference in messaging is indicative of the political ideology of the two parties. AAP empowers people and asks them to think critically, whereas BJP requires submission to Modi.
What does the Media show us?
TV channels are quick to point out that the BJP, Congress, and SP executed large street rallies. Coverage of these one-off mass events cannot be considered authoritative accounts of on the ground realities. The media acknowledges that the crowds seen on TV, supporting various parties, are a mix of constituency residents and Indians from other states. But no channel has provided commentary on the nature of the crowds and their impact. It is rare to come across accounts of AAP’s comprehensive ground campaign throughout the Varanasi constituency.
It is not a challenging feat for established parties to gather ‘large’ crowds for a one-off event. A relatively small crowd of 200 people can congest the narrow streets of Varanasi, and fill-up TV screens. Moreover, given the simple lives of Varanasi’s residents (the lack of alternative entertainment), any road show is bound to draw-out people to the street side immediately outside their homes. The number of bodies on TV screens of shots focused on the political leader does not capture the mood of the people or the true size of the rally. Nor are the images able to explain the motivation behind the convergence of the crowds. The best reporting I came across is NDTV’s Prime Time, in which Ravish Kumar dedicated entire episodes to covering the political campaigns of the BJP and AAP.
Scores of locals said that they had never seen a rally the size of AAP’s on 9th May. Kejriwal’s rally lasted for the longest time, had more vehicles, and more people than any other rally. Moreover, all the major leaders were approachable by the public. People were excitedly rushing up to Manish Sisodia and Kejriwal to shake their hands.
Gunda Raj, Streets Politics, and the Politics of territory
Many people, including my relatives, asked me why I was going to Varanasi. What difference would it make? My answer is that a concerted effort is required in order to change the way politics operates across India. By asking volunteers to flock to Varanasi, AAP ensured it had the numbers necessary to challenge the Uttar Pradesh politics of Gunda Raj (Gangster rule) and intimidation. It is my belief that without the 55,000+ volunteers who came from outside the constituency, AAP would not have been able to campaign in many parts of Varanasi. I refer to this as the politics of territory or street politics, which I think plays the biggest role in parts of India where the voters lack the resources or ability to access information online, or express their opinion safely.
Lanka, home to Banaras Hindu University, was the most violence prone area of town. To counter the dominance of violent BJP supporters, AAP held massive rallies in this area. Being severely outnumbered, the BJP supporters did not utter a word, and local residents were able to attend AAP events to hear unedited messaging from the AAP leadership. In this regard, I respect and thank the Central Security Forces that were called in the constituency and protected us during large events.
AAP volunteers from outside the constituency can afford to get attacked by BJP workers. They can return to the safety of their distant homes. Without the scores of volunteers, local residents would be slow to come forth, join the movement, and express themselves. While numbers provided strength and largely prevented outright violence, it led to a rise in pick pocketing. Many people’s mobile phones were stolen in the massive rallies, including mine.
As a testament to the volatility and uncertainty of the area, my trip was cut short by a sudden ‘Prashasan’Â demanding that people should Â leave. My hotel informed me on the evening of the 9th that I would have to check out the next morning, even though I had a booking for another night, because they had been given orders to not allow any non-Varanasi Indians to reside in the hotel any longer. On 10th morning, the hotel was unable to arrange a taxi to the airport because taxi drivers were scared of being intimidated and harassed by police. I find it absurd that hard working honest citizens are afraid of the very people who are supposed to protect us. While it was disappointing to cut my trip short, I definitely had the experience of a lifetime.
You can view photos and videos I have shared from my visit on Instagram (@drkapoor).
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author only