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The power of NO (elections 2014)

None of the above option.  photo courtesy Indian Express
None of the above option. photo courtesy Indian Express

The refrain of the Sam Cooke anthem keeps playing in my head: “It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will”

In just three days, Bangaloreans will be choosing their MPs, hopefully for a full-term. Many voters are still undecided, and for most, the moment of reckoning will arrive when they are up close to the ballot boxes.

Below are the impressions I have formed after meeting a cross-section of people – shopkeepers, domestic workers, school teachers, tech workers, entrepreneurs and students. I modified my original plan of trailing candidates of all parties as I heard them all at the BPAC citizens meet. I have stuck to evaluating three political parties – BJP, Congress and AAP.

Yes, everybody is agreed that we need a strong government. But who will bring it? How can we help bring the change? These are the questions that frustrate many citizens.

Modi, the strong patriarch, seems to be gaining ground. So what if he left his child bride? Sacrifice and suffering are much revered in our country. Several people are inclined to give him a chance simply because against a weak and pusillanimous government, Vibrant Gujarat holds its own.

Some have a very real fear of religious polarization that makes BJP a not very welcome option. Even if they could be convinced that fears of communal divides are exaggerated, the track record of the BJP government in our state of Karnataka is abysmal, and the re-admittance of Yediyurappa and his backers is beyond the pale. Crony capitalism and corruption will not end under Modi sarkaar. Adani will join the ranks of Ambani, is all the change that’s going to happen, they say.

If the argument were for a strong Opposition to counterbalance the Modi sarkaar, the Congress would be the party to vote for. But yet again, the Nehru Gandhi dynasty looms large with Priyanka now being touted as the knight in shining armour who will ride out to rescue the party in distress.

The Congress seems unable to read the writing on the wall. People do not respect a party that is clinging to the pallu of a family. “How many reluctant Prime Ministers should we suffer? Its senior leaders are guilty of propagating a puppet regime. What of the able candidates in the fray for this elections – they would very well be sucked into the Congress internal quicksand and be ineffective.” – This is the gist of people’s complaints. The lesson for the Congress to ponder upon after the elections is to consider letting the Nehru-Gandhi scions retire from politics and leave the party to manage by itself. It will have to learn to survive without them.

While AAP stands for all the right things, Kejriwal is a loose cannon, and has unfortunately become the butt of jokes after Slapgate. Can AAP overcome the teething problems, or even a replace a leader if he becomes more of a liability?

Increasingly, NOTA is gaining ground. Rejecting the devil, the deep blue sea and an unpredictable new leader is a valid and empowering choice too. If people, who reject all the politicians before them, would still come out to exercise their vote and choose None of the Above, this will be a powerful action. If sufficient numbers do this, it will signal to the parties that the old ways won’t work.

May be then, a change will come.

meeting with candidates with BPAC – on the campaign trail -2

AAP, BJP, JDS &Cong candidates of bangalore central lok sabha constituency
AAP, BJP, JDS &Cong candidates of bangalore central lok sabha constituency

Sunday morning and about 300 people turned up at the new altar of BPAC whose grandmasters decided, after the debacle of the Bangalore South debate, to display some toughness of their own.

This time, the debate of the four major parties was not wholly public. Details were circulated among a chosen few who had to display their invites and photo IDs to get in to the hall. Dozens of vigilant volunteers had diligent plans from entry to seating and everything went off like clockwork.

Candidates were asked four questions in turns and had four minutes each to answer them. Audience questions were pooled and read out at the end, with no room for slanging matches. At one point when BJP’s PC Mohan and Congress’s Rizwan Arshad locked horns, K Jairaj, former bureaucrat and one of BPAC’s big daddies, went so far as to order that their microphones be muted!

Why do they consider themselves good candidates, what do they offer and what is their vision for Bangalore were the broad themes addressed by the candidates. The incumbent MP Mohan claimed that he had worked to get the metro, and to add bus stations, to increase water supply and to upgrade the railway station.

Nandini Alva introduced a curious new term – essential Bangalorean, and spoke more in general terms. Bala made hard-hitting points about the fact that the Parliamentary elections having become centred on municipal issues as the local bodies had failed to deliver. To applause from the audience,he promised to press for the swaraj model to empower local wards, better implementation of law and honest governance.

Young Rizwan’s speech was constantly interrupted by spontaneous bursts of applause from the audience, who did not baulk at Jairaj’s remonstrations to restrain themselves. Rizwan had an answer for everything: like the others, he too wants a cleaner, safer city with less traffic. He would implement his own ideas, as well as the good ideas of his opponents.About corruption, he said that the Congress had to be given credit for The Right to Information Act which led to exposure of scams. He also took pride in the Aadhaar project which had enabled timely delivery of benefits to people. As this was not a homogeneous constituency, he would create a Vision Group for this constituency to come out with specific solutions for different areas.

Verdict: Both Bala and Rizwan made convincing statements; Mohan was defensive, Alva on a different wave length. If votes were counted on the rounds and decibel today, we would have to give it to the Congress.

Will a ‘mea culpa’ from Kejriwal help? On the campaign trail – part 1

I hit the campaign trail this morning to see for myself what voters feel. Earlier this week, the idea popped in my head that I should step beyond the smug cocktail circuit to revisit the grassroots election campaign. I have not done this for over a decade, and I feel that I have to observe first hand these elections that have thrown up so many vexatious questions that no party is able to answer. I am also curious to see if campaigning has changed now – what with a new breed of candidates, and more questioning constituents.

AAP volunteers at Ulsoor Lake
AAP volunteers at Ulsoor Lake

As a neutral observer, I intend to cover one candidate in each of Bangalore’s three parliamentary constituencies ( from Congress, BJP & AAP), though of course, I plan to vote with my conscience on V-Day.

AAP volunteers wait at the gate
AAP volunteers wait at the gate

Major Aditi, campaign manager for V.Balakrishnan, the Aam Aadmi Party’s hopeful from Bangalore Central, told me I could join them at Ulsoor Lake at 7 am.

Lo and behold, along with AAP topiwallahs, I found a host of Congress supporters gathered too. A woman swiftly thrust a pamphlet on me saying that Rizwan Arshad (the Congress candidate) was coming. There was a motley group scattered along the entrance, including a few more women who were heavily made-up (for that time of the morning). They didn’t seem too inclined to chat though.

AAP’s crew were standing at the gate leading to the walkway, and were greeting people politely and distributing  pamphlets. They were eager to receive me as a supporter and when I explained that I was there just to observe, were more than willing to talk.

Demographics:Ulsoor Lake is in close proximity to Muslim and Tamil dominated areas, with a fair sprinkling of Marwari and other trading communities.

The first AAP volunteer that I spoke to was 33-year old techie who said that this was the first time he would be voting. As we chatted, Rizwan’s entourage arrived. As he entered the park, he stopped to greet and shake hands with me and also with the AAP volunteers.

rizwan-1

These pleasant exchanges between the two parties continued through the morning. Within a few minutes of Rizwan setting off down the walking trail to meet and greet people, Bala arrived. While one of the volunteers suggested that he head in the opposite direction to avoid meeting up with the Congress team, Major Aditi would have none of it and charged off in the same direction.

As she walked, she ensured that each person she met had an AAP pamphlet, and Bala who was walking with a group of supporters, shook hands, patted shoulders or did a namaste as the case may be.

At one point, Bala’s group overtook Rizwan’s group, and Bala doubled back to introduce himself and shake hands with his rival. Handsome and fresh-faced, Rizwan smiled spontaneously and embracing Bala, wished him “all the best”. That seemed to cheer the AAP group which was muttering that the Congress had got wind of Bala’s visit and barged in to grab his moment with the voters.

People’s voices

“ I know you, I know your father, magar humhare party ke usul alag hain, beta”- said an old bearded gentleman to Infrastructure Minsiter Roshan Baig’s son Ruman, who was accompanying the Congress candidate.

 “Everybody should vote for AAP”, said a delighted walker. Another said that he shared the same name – Balakrishnan but was not from Central constituency. AAP supporters encouraged him to vote for their candidate in any constituency.

 I met an old acquaintance, who retired as a CEO of a company and now has a start-up. He was of the view that the country’s economic stability had to be given prime place; without a strong economy India could nothing. Though he didn’t say it explicitly, I got the feeling that he would vote for the BJP.

 

Bala embraces his Congress rival Rizwan.
Bala embraces his Congress rival Rizwan.

As we walked, every now and then, one of the AAP team members would gently raise the subject of my convictions. One of them is a builder, and heads the builders association. He is also a Muslim. I told him that with his professional and religious background, it was a surprise not to see him in the Congress. He acknowledged it with a smile and said, “ I left them because I am fed-up. Every Corporator wants an apartment from a builder; each one in this area alone has 3 or 4 apartments. Every now and then, they demand lakhs of rupees. Just like that. We need a change.”

One of the AAP team asked me if I would join their party. I said that I was disillusioned after Kejriwal abandoned the opportunity to rule the Delhi government. He said, “ How could he have run a minority government with no support? Our principle agenda was Jan Lokpal, but when the Congress and BJP joined hands to stop it, there was no point in staying in power without being able to do anything. So he quit to try for another chance”. Kejriwal hadn’t explained this well and all that we had seen were a lot of theatrics, I said, and he conceded the point, admitting that perhaps he should have been clear about it.

Soon after, Bala stopped to greet a gentleman who asked him tough questions. “How can you compare your fight with the Freedom Struggle? Inquilab Zindabad has a different context, you can’t equate it with what you are doing.”

Bala said, “AAP is fighting against corruption. So we are striking to strike a chord with the same slogan”.

“Can’t you come up with something else?” asked his inquisitor, to which Bala replied, “If you can suggest something, we’d welcome it”. The group moved on.

I stayed back to talk to the gentleman, Ramaswamy. He said that he was among those who sat for three days in Freedom Park when the first anti-corruption movement started; he had gone to Delhi to support Kejriwal too. But he had been disillusioned. One of the AAP members had by then turned back to join us.

 

V Balakrishnan, ex- Infosys Board member, is AAP candidate from Bangalore Central
V Balakrishnan, ex- Infosys Board member, is AAP candidate from Bangalore Central

Like others had done whenever I had brought up the Delhi debacle, he too admitted that Delhi probably was handled wrongly. I asked Ramaswamy whether he thought AAP could learn from its mistakes and should be given another chance.

He is not a man to mince words. With words as direct as his piercing eyes, he said, “Kejriwal has not accepted that he made a mistake. Let him admit it and then ask for a second chance”.

My view: People who looked to AAP feel let down by Kejriwal’s antics; the candidate and his team avoid confrontation and try appealing to logic and ethics. They do not talk at high decibel. They talk about corruption. They are clean, decent and earnest. No thugs or strongmen lurk in the shadows. They promise a fair fight. Will voters vote with their conscience or back a winning horse?

The previous winner was PC Mohan, BJP who defeated HT Sangliana of the Congress.

The Hindu says: The constituency has 17.91 lakh voters and nearly 8 lakh of them are aged under 35. Thanks to the constituency’s cosmopolitan character, political parties believe that a representative from a minority community will give them a distinct edge. Also in the fray  in this constituency  is Nandini Alva, from JD(S).

photos by Aditya Mendonca

AAP & the art of gentle persuasion

 imagesEven as AAP comes to grips with the reality of governing, like several others, I find myself willing that it comes through as more than a loose conglomeration of well-meaning people.

We’ll have to wait and watch if it will repeat its Delhi triumph in other places, but I am immeasurably cheered by the wave of optimism that it has infused amongst the ‘aam aadmi’. I do not agree with the statement that the AAP is a party that has come to power on a wave of ‘negativity’ which can’t last.

The media hails Kejriwal one day, denigrates him the next – it seems it can’t make up its mind. After all, media people are among the ‘empowered’ class in this country.

I heard Prithvi Reddy, AAP national executive member and Bangalore-based industrialist, speak last evening. I will not report his entire speech here but suffice to say, he speaks quietly, but surely. He’s firm in rebuttals but not aggressive. He answered questions, some of which would have made seasoned politicians squirm. Prithvi Reddy did not impress with his panache, he impressed with sincerity.DSC_3386

For example, a journalist asked him, “AAP seems to help only the Congress by taking the spotlight away from BJP’s prime contender.” Prithvi replied:” Do you want to rid the country of the Congress or corruption?”

I asked him if AAP had criteria for members, he said since there were thousands of applicants, they could not screen members, but were definitely screening office bearers and potential candidates. I pointed that among the top business honchos, there is at least one, if not more, who have huge business debts. He promised that such aspirants would be in for a surprise when the list of candidates was announced.

For a contribution of Rs.50, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, her driver and her office boy, can all get to wear a badge that says, “I support Aam Aadmi Party”. So is there is a classless Socialist Utopia in the making? Will we all, like worshippers in the mosque, share an egalitarian space?

Will we not need power and/or pelf to process our papers? It’s the dream of such a day that I am sure has compelled the banking and IT honchos who have had their fill of navigating through murky waters, to quit their lucrative careers and join AAP.

AAP does not need conventional media of print and TV; skillfully harnessing mobile and internet tools with the good old fashioned personal meetings at localities is working for it, and this is a strategy that is going to bring it manifold returns.

PS: I have not signed up as an AAP member; I don’t know if I want to be an active political worker but I am watching with hope that it will indeed cause a change not just in the way politicians behave, but in the way we do.