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The Needle Swings
It’s almost white hot around noon in Mohitachak, in Saran district in north Bihar, and sweat sliding down the temple evaporates before reaching the corner of the eye. There’s a crackle in the sky and chief minister Nitish Kumar emerges from the dusty twister his helicopter has created. He asks the JD(U)’s candidate Saleem Parvez, a stocky young man in shades, for a list of those on stage so that he may mention them by name before launching into his speech. Parvez whispers something into his ears, and Nitish takes note of some youngsters with banners saying ‘Bijli nahin to vote nahin (No electricity, no votes)’. They are right in the front, jostling with policemen carrying fibreglass lathis.
As Nitish begins to speak, they heckle him. He takes them on squarely. “There is still no hair on your upper lips. I’m older than your father, and if you have any respect, hear what I have to say. Leave the documents with the candidate here and I’ll take action. But at this rally, a lot of people have come to hear me, so shut up now and let me speak,” he scolds them. There’s a cheer from the crowd, the protesters are booed and they lower their banners.
Nitish goes on to make a measured speech, detailing the virtues of the diversity of our country and how divisive forces shouldn’t be elected to power. The crowd listens attentively, and there are a few rounds of applause. Nitish finishes his business and walks away from the podium with almost a melancholic last glance at the people. He doesn’t look too much like a winner.
Quite in contrast is Narendra Modi’s speech in nearby Hajipur, across the badly maintained Mahatma Gandhi bridge from Patna, over the Ganga at one of its widest points. The crowd is immense, youthful, high-strung. “Friends, I know you grow bananas here. Main sab cheez ki khabar rakhta hoon (I keep tabs on everything),” he banters. “There are adivasi farmers in south Gujarat who also grow bananas. They used to make 15-20 thousand rupees a year. I got them new, better varieties of banana from the Philippines, improved the roads so that bananas don’t get squashed in the trucks. Now, they make three, four, five lakhs a year now. That’s what I’ve done in Gujarat.” This goes down well with the gathering; they like this Gujarat model.
Later, in the pretty greenery of a village in Arrah district, a ring of youth is gathered in the cool shade of a mango orchard. Asked who they will vote for, they scream, “Ab ki bar, Modi sarkar.” Why? “Look what he has done in Gujarat...his state has gone international,” says one in a tee and jeans who calls himself Sunny. “But how do you know? You haven’t even gone to Patna,” sniggers another. The group bursts out laughing, but repeats the Modi slogan. It will be hard to dislodge from their minds the idea of the ‘Gujarat model’, imprinted by millions of images and sound bites from TV, posters, ads, speeches, rallies.
Kejriwal’s AAP spiritedly makes its presence felt with rallies and calls to clean up the whole political system.
Modi’s newfound ally, Ram Vilas Paswan, sitting on a bed in a room in Anamika Hotel & Bar on the Hajipur-Patna road and clearly sapped of all energy from the campaigning, explains that people are voting for development. He’s accompanied by his son Chirag. But why did he of the secular credentials and pro-Muslim stance go with the BJP? “Because of him,” he says, pointing to Chirag. “Youth today are fed up with unemployment, corruption, power cuts and inflation. The Congress at the Centre has just not been able to deliver. I told dad to go with Modi, I see him as a man of development,” says Chirag animatedly, just the way a Bollywood newbie would promote his film. He’s the star of Miley Naa Miley Hum (2011), opposite Kangna Ranaut, which didn’t complete a full week in many multiplexes. He says Gujarat has not had a single riot in 10 years and he’s confident Modi will keep India riot-free.
BJP supporters in Bihar say the split with Nitish’s JD(U) has helped: many mlas who did good work that Nitish claimed credit for were in fact from the BJP. “Nitish Kumar has made a grave mistake by breaking with us,” says Sushilkumar Modi, former deputy chief minister and the BJP’s Bihar man at a dinner at Ravi Shankar Prasad’s house on Boring Road in Patna. “None of his mlas wanted to split. It was a personal decision. Nitish Kumar is a loner and he did this because of his ego,” he says. A supercharged Prasad pipes up with, “We’ll sweep Bihar this time, wait and watch.”
Analysts here say that if there is one man who can stop Modi in Bihar, it’s the redoubtable former chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav of the RJD. He’s out on bail in the fodder scam case, back at his sprawling house with his famous buffaloes, in the Circular Road area, which could be called Patna’s Banjara Hills or Poes Garden. The house is once again abuzz with supporters, minders and hangers-on. Voters who want to stop Modi believe only the Muslim-Yadav combine can do it, not Nitish.
And Laloo is thriving in this mood, back in the limelight he loves and out of the political wilderness. “What kind of divisive talk is this Modi indulging in? Can a country like ours ever elect such people?” he asks. But aren’t a lot of people, both upper caste and obcs, in the villages talking about a Modi wave? “It’s just hype, on TV and the internet,” he says. And then a one-liner: “Modiji ko online se mainline pe aana hoga.” What about youth? Laloo’s fast-talking daughter Misa chimes in: “Youth know that for development, there has to be peace. If there is communal tension, how can development take place? They may chant ‘Modi, Modi’ to you, but will vote for a secular party.”
Some decades back, you’d be lucky if you passed through the notorious abc (Arrah-Ballia-Chhapra) region, on the way from Patna to Varanasi, with all your belongings intact. So far for us, the roads in north Bihar, even in remote areas of Saran and Hajipur, have been pretty good. Our good run ends on NH-84 between Arrah and Buxar. On a Mars-like surface, it takes three-and-a-half hours to cover 58 km.
As we approach the new Modi country, the city of Varanasi, his main choice of battleground, besides Baroda, the chanting of his name reaches a crescendo. But if you cut through the noise, the troughs show. In a village dominated by Rajbhars (Dalits) and some upper castes in Bhadohi constituency, neighbouring Varanasi, people say they are for a Modi sarkar at the Centre but will vote for Seema Mishra of the Samajwadi Party here, as she and her father Vijay Mishra, the local MLA, have done a lot.
A few kilometres ahead, people are walking to a Mulayam Singh Yadav rally, almost all of them Yadavs, some having come from as far as Allahabad. They will all vote for the Samajwadi Party, but some are angry that of late, netaji is trying to woo Muslims brazenly. Nobody can make out much of his speech, there is something about secularism, about how the Congress at the Centre is not helping farmers in Uttar Pradesh, a little about Mayawati. In the end, as if netaji has heard his supporters’ complaint about his playing the Muslim card, a conch is blown and there is a puja of sorts with the chanting of hymns.
Mulayam’s son, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, with his boyish charm and easy manner, dismisses all talk of a setback under the Modi onslaught. “Yes, we have failed miserably in one area—in PR. And every small mistake gets magnified many times. The Durga Shakti controversy made headlines for days. Do you know that she and her husband have been given great postings and they are very happy now? Did any of your Delhi papers carry that?” he asks. He says his party faced flak because it couldn’t get across the right message during the Muzaffarnagar riots even though the government had reacted quickly. But people say lawlessness is back in Uttar Pradesh, there’s no big investment, unemployment is high, some of his party leaders have made regressive statements about women, anti-incumbency feelings are running within just three years of his rule. Akhilesh defends himself: “Again, this is the view from Delhi. Ask any degree student who has got a free laptop from us how his or her life has changed. Yes, some may be watching films, but the majority of them put the laptops to good use. It’s a great idea. No state, not even Gujarat, has this scheme,” he says.
On the way from Bhadohi to Varanasi, we veer off the highway to take in an AAP roadshow. A group of children run about wildly, waving brooms (the AAP symbol) in the alleys, shouting slogans. A singing troupe is belting out numbers praising Arvind Kejriwal through a loudspeaker. Soon Kejriwal arrives in a Bolero jeep, grabs the mike and rattles off his speech. Two teenage boys sitting on a railing at the back, feet dangling, preempt what’s going to come. “Now, he will talk about BJP workers throwing eggs at him,” says one. As if on cue, Kejriwal says, “I’d just taken a dip in the Ganga, worn a rudraksh, and BJP workers threw eggs at me. Is this respecting Hinduism?” “Now he’ll talk about choppers,” says the lad. And Kejriwal says: “Modiji roams around in a helicopter, his ads are everywhere. Where does he get the money from?” The boy finishes the list with “Now about the FIR,” and Kejriwal says, “Friends, here is a copy of the FIR against the Ambanis. Has any politician had the guts to file an FIR against the biggest corporate empire of the country?” How many roadshows have the boys attended? “Seven or eight.” Why? “What else is there to do?”
Life goes on here in Varanasi as it has for the last 3,000 years on the ghats. The Ganga flows quietly, boats wobble on it gently, the sun dries all the dirt, prayers float in the air, people cleanse themselves, corpses turn to ash. The holy city, pushed into the vortex of politics, takes it all in its stride.