UP Election 2017: In Faizabad, BJP foot soldiers working towards Ram Mandir, but does the youth care?

This story first appread on Firstpost on 27th February 2017.

There are theories. And then there are theories. During the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, even the most astute political pundits have at best offered theories. In Faizabad’s most intensely fought seat of Ayodhya, there are theories suggesting Ram Mandir is an issue, and there are theories suggesting it is not.

As far as the youth is concerned — which this series aims to catch the pulse of — they remain ambivalent about it. The slogan-chanting millennial voters riding their bikes through the narrow bustling streets of Ayodhya with a saffron bandana wrapped around their heads and tikas on foreheads crave for the Mandir, and there are no prizes for guessing that. At the same time, a noticeable chunk feels what 22-year-old Gaurav Sonkar thinks. “Mandir will not ensure a job for hundreds of youngsters like me,” said the MSW student at Ram Manohar Lohia University in Faizabad. “What good will it ever achieve?”

Thinking of the majority of youngsters, however, lies somewhere in between Gaurav’s and the mob chanting “Jai Shree Ram”. Mandir does not get a mention in the top three election issues with millennial voters. Those spots are reserved for employment, women security and better standard of living. But when asked if it needs to be built, most, especially the upper caste Hindus, answer in the affirmative.

 

Gaurav Sonkar, 22, thinks employment is more important than some temple.

Rashmi Sharma, 20, a microbiology student in Faizabad, said she would be happy if it is built. “It is a holy place for Hindus,” said the daughter of an army man. “Hindus across the country come to Ayodhya. It is our identity. It would only be just if the Mandir is built.”

When Ayodhya goes to polls on 27 February, close to 40,000 Brahmins would be voting, and the BJP is eyeing to get a lion’s share of it. In 2012 assembly elections, Tej Narain Pandey of the Samajwadi Party won the Ayodhya seat, which hurt the ego of BJP. In a bid to displace “the party of the Muslims” from “Ram Ki Nagari”, the BJP has thrown all its weight behind its candidate Ved Prakash Gupta, who used to be with BJP until 2007, then defected to SP and Bahujan Samaj Party before coming back to BJP again. Even though it is said the workers do not like him for his attitude, they have put it aside to focus on the larger picture.

The RSS and BJP combined, are campaigning vigorously in Ayodhya. A senior journalist said that if the Brahmins vote against Pandey, who is a Brahmin and a sitting MLA, in favour of Gupta, a baniya, it is clear the vote is for Hindutva and Ram Mandir. “Pandey has been one of the better candidates of SP,” he said. “But I am sensing the public wants to reverse the 2012 verdict.”

Suresh Sharma, 21, MSc first year student in Faizabad, said the Mandir should be built soon. “It is part of the Hindu culture and it would be nice if it is preserved,” he said.

BJP workers in Ayodhya said they campaign on the plank of mandir during door to door campaign.

However, as one moves away from Ayodhya, the issue of Ram Mandir fades in the other four constituencies of Faizabad. The district has a large Dalit population, which makes Mayawati a serious contender. Kori, Dhobi and others could come back to BSP after voting for BJP in 2014, although BJP would retain a segment of the share. The second largest community among Dalits, Pasis, are split between SP, BSP and BJP. But Chamars, who are the largest among Dalits and form 12 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population, have always been with BSP and would not desert behenji.

Sunil Kumar, 23, an MSW student in Faizabad, said he has always backed Mayawati because “SP indulges in its own form of communalism to counter BJP’s poison”. “We need a leader who will ensure law and order and who thinks of the poor,” he said. “Akhilesh promises smartphones and gives away laptops. Instead, why not empower the electorate with jobs so they can buy their own laptops.”

In Gosainganj constituency, the BSP is giving BJP a run in its bid to displace the sitting SP MLA Abhay Singh, against whom there is a fair amount of anti-incumbency. BSP’s Nishad Dharmaraj, who is contesting from here, has been a minister before, could end up upsetting BJP.

While Mayawati’s base vote is significant, experts doubt if she would be able to get the add on vote, in order to overwhelm the other two heavyweights she is fighting against. Especially among the non-Dalit youth, her popularity wanes, where Akhilesh and Modi split the honors.

Everyday scores of people arrive at the VHP workshop where a model of Ram Mandir is kept.

In Rudauli, for example, there are around 70,000 Muslim votes, which had split between the three parties in 2012 and BJP candidate ended up winning. Reports suggest the Muslim vote this time around is consolidating behind SP, which has the edge in Milkipur and Bikapur as well.

But the politics over caste and religion disgusts Gaurav. He believes the educated, at least, should move beyond it. “If caste or religion influenced my behavior, majority of my friends would not be Muslims or Dalits,” said the son of a fruit seller, who has four more siblings. He added he would have to migrate out of UP if he has to make a mark in life. “It is a task to find a 10,000 rupee job in UP and our PM and his party focus on polarisation. Our burning subject is Mandir. It is sad that quite a few in my university also feel it is an issue,” he said.

The BJP knows that. There are scores of people queuing up for hours to get inside the disputed territory and seek blessings of the idol kept in a tent where Babri Masjid once stood.

BJP leaders may not have hammered the point in massive rallies, but ground cadres say Mandir is what they speak about during door-to-door campaigns and mohalla sabhas. Also, the communal speeches by BJP leaders and Modi’s Shamshan-Kabristan remark does cater to the audience desperate for the Mandir.

Before arriving here, one came across articles suggesting the youth could not care less for the Mandir. But the undercurrent on the ground is a bit different. So here goes another theory. Millennial voters in the upper caste families may not feel as strongly about Ram Mandir as their parents do, and are not wasting their time agitating for it. But they would not have a problem with the ones doing so with communal overtones.

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UP Election 2017: In Amethi, millennial voters are looking beyond Rahul Gandhi

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26th Feb 2017.

The youngsters in Amethi, just like the rest of Uttar Pradesh, are expressive, opinionated and politically alive. One does not have to ask obviously intrusive questions to gauge their mood. Once the interaction begins, they decide the flow and most of the questions in your scribbling pad are covered without your asking them. However, during a good 20-minute conversation with dozens of millennial voters, in which they spoke of pertinent election issues and influential leaders, there was one point they had to be reminded to touch upon: Rahul Gandhi.

Almost all of them then responded with a wry smile and said, “The less said about him, the better.”

Indicative of the mood in the rest of the country, in his own Lok Sabha Constituency of Amethi, Rahul Gandhi is not even considered important enough to be criticised or mentioned. It is by and large applicable to the Congress too, where the electorate hardly mentions the grand old party as a factor in Uttar Pradesh.

And rightly so. A pocket borough of the Gandhis, Amethi is a dustbowl (to put it leniently), where millennial voters are still facing the problems they have grown up with.

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Shri Sai Shivram Girls Education College in Gauriganj constituency of Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet. “We have to go into the farm fields,” she rued. “It is even more dangerous for girls, because the security situation for women is not great here either. The toilets have been built for the well-off, influential people. But our demands fall on deaf ears.”

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet.

The complaints regarding lack of sanitation facilities are not limited to the remote villages, but are heard even up to the town. Ranjit Rao, 21, said even in his village of Banvaripur, which is right on the outskirts of the town Amethi, they do not have a toilet.

While there are no two opinions about the fact that Amethi is one the least developed VIP constituencies, and is even worse than Rae Bareli, a report published by Livemint in 2014 showed that it did not fare well even when compared to the rest of Uttar Pradesh, which lags behind in the juxtaposition with the rest of India. The report highlighted 12 socio-economic indicators on which Amethi fared worse than the state, which included important aspects like access to tap water, electricity, toilet, LPG, literacy and so on.

Add to that the crisis of unemployment faced by the youth, and Amethi becomes a perfect recipe for students to think of migration. Hardly anyone expressed the desire to stay put, saying they do not think the place would improve anytime soon. “If it had to happen, it would have happened by now,” said Ranjit, who is currently teaching primary school students to make a living, while preparing to apply for the job of Uttar Pradesh police. “If I do not get it, I will migrate to Delhi, where my father works in a private company.”

Ranjit will migrate to Delhi is his application to the UP Police does not work out.

Ranjit further complained the vacancies in the police force of UP go mostly to the constituencies where SP is strong. “They consider Class 12 marks for the job,” he said. “In Mainpuri, Etawah, Pratapgarh etc, students end up fudging their marksheets and get through, which is why Amethi lags behind.”

Whether the allegations are true or not, it conveys the hapless youngster’s plight in attempting to make a decent living. The incompetence of Rahul Gandhi as an MP, and the inability of the previous state governments to develop Amethi, has been cashed in by Narendra Modi, who continues to wield his popularity over the electorate. The critics and experts have dissected all the angles of demonetisation to prove it was an ill-thought, poorly executed scheme that only disturbed the lives of millions while achieving little, but it hardly matters to the electorate going to polls. The fact is, an economic disaster has proved to be a political masterstroke.

In Poonam’s remote village of Ultagadha, where lush green farmlands and fragile huts occupy the periphery of potholed roads, she said every Sunday her family of five gathers to listen to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. She belongs to a farming family and the way Modi speaks about farmers in his speeches, she said, appeals to her. “He reaches out to the poor,” said Poonam. “Notebandi attacked the rich who used to misuse honest tax payers’ money. He has delivered in Gujarat as well and he should be given a chance to govern UP. Not that I have a problem with Akhilesh, just that Modi is better.”

Poonam has never stepped out of UP, yet is familiar with the “development” in Gujarat. “My brother showed the videos and images of Gujarat he received on WhatsApp,” she divulged.           

In spite of not declaring the CM candidate, the BJP seems to be riding, and riding well, on Modi’s back to displace Akhilesh Yadav, who also remains popular among the youth. In UP, there are close to 25 lakh first-time voters, which has added another dimension to the polls. The parties have gone out of their way to woo the youth, and Modi and Akhilesh are the men to do it for their respective parties. While how the battle culminates in the rest of UP would be known only on March 11, in Amethi at least, the man from Gujarat has the edge, mainly because he has no baggage of anti-incumbency, and, just like Rae Bareli, the alliance has not been able to negotiate successfully.  

Out of the five constituencies in Amethi that go to polls on 27 February, Congress had won only two in 2012 assembly elections. But the Lok Sabha constituency is a bastion of Congress party. With both parties claiming the upper hand, they have ended up competing against each other at two of the five constituencies – Gauriganj and Amethi Sadar. With votes being split between them, BJP would automatically gain more, as BSP had not made a mark in 2012 in Amethi.

In Amethi Sadar, the battle between “maharaja” Sanjay Singh’s first wife and second wife is most keenly watched. Garima, the first wife, contesting on a BJP ticket, is striking an emotional chord with the electorate while campaigning for “justice” against the “man who wronged her”. Sanjay, influential in Amethi, is busy backing Amita, the second wife, who is contesting from Congress, the party that sent him to Rajya Sabha.

With Rahul Gandhi hardly bringing much to the table in his own constituency, another factor drowning out Akhilesh’s popularity is his candidates. The electorate speaks highly of Akhilesh but say his MLAs indulge in hooliganism. For example, in the Amethi Sadar seat, the candidate Gayatri Prajapati, is a rape accused. After the directives of Supreme Court, UP police charged him with separate cases of gangrape and attempt to rape another woman and her minor daughter. When Akhilesh held a rally in Amethion Monday, Prajapati was conspicuously absent.

Ashish Kumar Agrahi has been running a chow mein stall for the past eight years due to lack of employment opportunities.

Selling chow mein in the heart of Amethi on bustling narrow lane running parallel to the Ramleela Maidan, Ashish Kumar Agrahi, 24, said people fear walking out of the ATM after withdrawing cash. “While he has done some commendable work, law and order has worsened under Akhilesh,” said Ashish, who lives with his parents, and has stayed back to help them because his elder brother migrated to Lucknow to work as a property dealer. His father runs a pani puri stall on the same street and the two of them make 500 rupees of profit per day.

Ashish has passed his intermediate exams, but due to lack of employment opportunities, he has been running the chow mein stall for the last eight years. He said some of the people vote for the Congress because of the earlier generation, but the current lot lacks empathy. “You must have come here with high expectations from Mumbai,” he said, pointing at the Tehesildar House. “It was built during Rajiv Gandhi’s time. My parents tell me it has not even been painted since then.”

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UP Election 2017: In VIP constituency of Raebareli, millenial voters vexed with Congress, inclined to vote for Akhilesh

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

Ajay Singh Rathod’s mother is undergoing a treatment. A few months ago, she had difficulties with her teeth. When 22-year-old Ajay took her to the dentist, he said the teeth have become brittle because of drinking water with high levels of fluoride. “Quite a few people in my colony have had similar issues,” said the political science student at Firoze Gandhi College in Raebareli.

Several millennial voters in Uttar Pradesh’s high-profile Raebareli district cited safe drinking water, along with employment and better standard of living, as major election issues as the district goes to polls on 23 February. Even in a few pockets of Raebareli city, the water provided to the citizens is not healthy. Move into the interiors, and the water situation worsens. More importantly, not more than 15 percent of Raebareli’s population is urban.

A bastion of the Gandhi family, Raebareli remains one of the least developed VIP constituencies. Of course, the subsequent state governments that rule Uttar Pradesh are not less culpable either, but the youngsters here aspiring for better standard of living have limited options with majority of the electorate being farmers or labourers. “I would prefer to migrate for further studies,” said Ajay, son of a teacher at a private school, living with a family of seven. “There are no industries either. The infrastructural development has not been great. If we migrate, we would lead a better life.”

Ajay said he sees the kind of lifestyle students from other towns of the country lead (via social media and television) and it makes him notice how under-developed and backward Raebareli is. In the interiors of the district, however, the problems are a little more fundamental. In Unchahar, 22-year-old Sachin Sharma said that the villages in his constituency do not even have a toilet and open defecation is the only option for everyone. He has done Bachelors of Science in agriculture, and is now teaching at a private college, earning rupees 6,000 a month. “I am saving up for my further studies,” he said. “I want to go to Chandigarh.”

The disaffection with the Congress and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who is an MP from Raebareli, is palpable. The electorate had made it clear in 2012 Assembly elections, when the Congress did not manage to win even a single seat out of the six constituencies in Raebareli.

Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity, on the other hand, remains more or less intact among the youth. Twenty-two-year-old Kaushal Kumar Yadav drives an auto in Raebareli and told Firstpost that his family of five is rooting for Akhilesh. Son of a farmer, Kaushal said Akhilesh is young and he understands the aspirations of the young. “He has done enough development to deserve another chance,” he said. Upon highlighting a certain a drawbacks of the state, he said Uttar Pradeshg is so vast it is beyond anyone to transform it in five years. “How is it possible to iron out every flaw in over 70 districts in merely five years?” asked Kaushal. “Moreover, his (Akhilesh) father and uncle hardly let him work for the first two years. If he has been able to do as much in merely two and a half years, then now that he is the clear leader in the party, I am sure he would do much more in the next five years.”

Narendra Modi also remains popular enough to indicate he would more or less sweep the 2019 elections. However, quite a few youngsters in Raebareli feared if Yogi Adityanath would become the chief minister if BJP came to power. Twenty-year-old Rajat Singh, a commerce student said, “Modi is good. But many of his men in Uttar Pradesh are dangerous. People say the governments at the state and Centre should be one to ensure coordination. But I believe it should be the opposite to keep the checks and balances intact. I would vote for Modi in 2019 but in the state, I would prefer Akhilesh.”

However, in spite of the Akhilesh factor, the alliance could be in for a bitter pill in Raebareli, because it has failed to strike a deal in two of the five seats (Salon also falls in Raebareli district but is considered under Amethi constituency).

In Unchahar and Sareni, Congress and Samajwadi Party both have fielded candidates and are campaigning against each other. “Uttar Pradesh ko yeh sath pasand hai, lekin Unchahar ko hath pasand hai,” is one of the slogans of Congress in Unchahar, confusing the electorate and handing out advantage to BJP and BSP in a platter.

Observers said that the BJP is increasingly pandering to the OBCs, not just in Raebareli, but in the whole state to eat into Samajwadi Party’s Yadav vote bank. BJP’s state president is Keshav Prasad Maurya and the district president is Dilip Yadav in Raebareli, where two of the four candidates of the BJP are OBC with one being a reserved seat.

In Harchandpur, it is a three-way contest. The sitting MLA is of the Samajwadi Party, but Rakesh Singh of the Congress has got the ticket. Bachhrawan should go with the alliance, where the sitting MLA is Ram Lal Akela, who defected to RLD, but had won on an Samajwadi Party ticket in 2012.

The Raebareli Sadar seat seems clearly tilted towards the alliance, where 29-year-old Aditi Singh daughter of Akhilesh Singh is fighting on a Congress ticket. Akhilesh Singh, a patron to his supporters and a strongman to his critics, has for decades wielded his influence on the constituency. He won thrice on the Congress symbol, once as an Independent and most recently, on the Peace Party ticket. His daughter Aditi is set to carry forward the baton, with the youth backing her as well.

Ajay’s classmate Shubham Shukla, praised Narendra Modi for demonetisation and development for about 20 minutes, but said he votes for the MLA not the leader of the party, and Aditi is the best candidate of the lot. “Most of the candidates are tainted,” he said, echoing the sentiment of many against bad distribution of tickets. “The MLA should be the one who is approachable. Even though I am not satisfied with Akhilesh, I will vote for Aditi because I feel she would work towards making Raebareli a better place.”

There is not a single university in Raebareli. The industries and factories that started during the time of Indira Gandhi have been more or less dormant, leading to further unemployment. Even though the electorate taught Congress a lesson in 2012, Sonia Gandhi was re-elected as an MP from here in 2014 general elections. She has been an MP of Raebareli since 2004, during which period she has instituted a branch of Aiims, opened a Railway Coach Factory and inaugurated RO plants, while declaring a few government schemes. The implementation on the ground remains questionable. Aiims has been constructed but it is not functional yet in spite of the project being mooted in 2009. Congress says the centre is delaying funds, while the centre claims technical problems. RO water plants provide water to a certain places in the city, but a few pockets and substantial parts of rural Rae Bareli remains deprived of safe drinking water.

While expressing concerns over the future of his students, a professor at the Firoze Gandhi College, requesting anonymity, summed up why Raebareli remains underdeveloped, yet is a pocket borough of one party. “Raebareli ek paudhe ki tarah hai,” he said. “Jisko harabhara bhi nahi kiya hai, lekin sookhne bhi nahi diya hai. (Raebareli is like a small plant. They are not letting it grow, neither are they letting it die).”

UP Election 2017: In Sonia Gandhi’s adopted Udwa village, millennials are impressed with Modi’s ‘audaciousness’

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

Rajiv Kumar, 21, has come home to vote. He has met his parents after June last year. But after going to the ballot on February 23, he will immediately head back within a few days. “I have spent my childhood here,” he says. “But after the amount of time I have spent away from home, it makes it a bit difficult to adjust.”

Rajiv lives in Delhi, where he is preparing for the IAS exams. Prior to that, he spent four years in Assam pursuing B Tech. He hails from the remote village of Udwa in Uttar Pradesh’s Raebareli district, which would be going to polls on 23 February. More importantly, Udwa is the village adopted by Sonia Gandhi in 2014 under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

More than two years down the line, millennial voters in Udwa remain without the basic amenities one takes for granted. The struggle begins with sunrise. Only 19 households have a toilet out of the 608 families living here. Others have to toddle through farm fields to relieve themselves. Women have to go even before the sun makes his journey up the sky.

Firstpost/Parth MN

Most houses in Udwa are brick-walled. Firstpost/Parth MN

More than 40 kilometers from the city of Raebareli, Udwa welcomes the visitors with lush green farmlands on both sides of a bumpy road. One hardly comes across a concrete house while meandering through the village. Most of them are brick-walled constructions, which look dilapidated with widening gaps between the bricks. Others are even fragile where a tin-roof is supported by bamboos with brittle constructions covering the sides. One has to bend to be able to enter the house, which is dark even at noon, for the lack of ventilation. Clothes are hung out to dry on a rope tied to a tree in front of the house with livestock walking through the cow dung in the vicinity.

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Clothes are dried outside the houses near trees. Firstpost/Parth MN

The dire state of the village cannot only be blamed upon Sonia Gandhi. The state governments that ruled UP over the years are also culpable of negligence. But having adopted the village, the electorate here believes Sonia Gandhi should have taken more interest in it. Villagers say she has hardly visited, neither has any Congress leader inquired about their requirements.

Rajiv says the village has not changed since he moved to Assam. “When I heard Sonia Gandhi has adopted our village, I was filled with hope,” he says, as he walks through Udwa, with a sense of relief that he would be out of here in a few days. “But apart from the electricity situation, the place is sadly the same.”

Rajiv, who is now well versed with the technology, says he would have loved to remain in his native village. “Who would not want their parents to be around?” he asked. “But it is not possible to prepare for the IAS exam without any facilities.”

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Rajiv, has come back to the village to vote, but he finds it difficult to adjust. Firstpost/Parth MN

Rajiv is a son of the Pradhan of the village, who could afford to send his son away. Others, however, are less fortunate. Lavlesh Kumar, 20, travels 24 kilometers to get to his college, where he is pursuing his final year in BA. He cannot wait to migrate. “I spend four hours in traveling every day,” he says. “I want to do MA after this. I have no option but to migrate. Those who have remained here are languishing without jobs or working as daily laborers. There are hardly any avenues of employment.”

Sick of waiting for the transformation of Udwa, the youngsters here in the village adopted by Sonia Gandhi are set to vote for Narendra Modi. Almost every youngster said Modi is the one who can now be trusted. Udwa has around 25 percent of SC and ST population and a sizeable “Mauryas”, who fall under the OBC category. The BJP candidate here is also a Maurya and the large chunk of SC, ST votes is likely to be split between BJP and BSP. The Congress-SP alliance is struggling here simply because there is no alliance. Udwa is one of the villages in Unchahar constituency, where Congress and SP have both fielded candidates. But as far as Udwa is concerned, the youth here is smitten by Modi.

Rajiv says it is important to have BJP in the state, which would ensure coordination between state and centre, making it easy for the lawmakers to develop UP. “I feel they should have declared CM candidate, but it will be Modi’s man at the end of the day,” he says. “Look at the way he has transformed Gujarat. Even since he assumed prime ministership, he has focused on job creation and investments.”

Rajiv has never been to Gujarat, but he says, he has followed the development through social media, which is his major source of news. He is a frequent internet user, who reads articles popping up on Facebook. “I am also a fan of Sushma Swaraj and Suresh Prabhu,” he adds. “The way they solve problems on Twitter is amazing.”

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Lavlesh has taken a liking for Narendra Modi. Firstpost/Parth MN

Lavlesh, on the other hand, became a fan of Modi after demonetisation and surgical strikes. However, he praised Akhilesh for the developmental work and said even the sitting MLA is a decent man. “But SP cadres indulge in gundagardi (hooliganism),” he says. “I will vote for BJP because Modi is an audacious prime minister. We need someone who is decisive and takes quick steps. How long do we wait for our village to see some sort of development?”

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Neelam is one among the girls who have had to quit studies because of lack of facilities. Firstpost/Parth MN

Listening intently to their forceful arguments is 19-year old Neelam Agrahari, who is helping her brother prepare samosas at their stall. She has studied till 12th standard. But she had to shelve her education in spite of the keenness to continue. “The college is 24 kilometers from here,” she says. “We do not have a bike or a vehicle. It is difficult for a girl to travel that much every day. Most of the girls of my batch have quit studies.” Just a few meters from there, sits a primary school of the village where a slogan on one of the walls reads, “Padhi likhi jab hogi nari, ghar ayengi khushiya sari. (When a woman is educated, there will be happiness in the household)

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A slogan on one of the walls in the village that reads: ‘When women are educated, only then households will be happy’

UP Election 2017: How Lucknow’s first-time voters are gearing up for the polls

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

After she passed her Class 12 exams with respectable marks, Nazia Khan, 24, wanted to pursue her graduation. However, hailing from a conservative Muslim family in Lucknow, she could not find any takers for her desire to study further. But in 2014, after applying for the Kanya Vidya Dhan scholarship scheme, she received Rs 30,000 and enrolled herself in a BA programme.

The scholarship scheme was first launched during the regime of Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2004 to help girl students from economically backward families, but there were questions raised about its implementation. When Mayawati came to power, she shelved it. In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav revived it after assuming chief ministership, and it has been a catalyst in sustaining his popularity among the youth here in Lucknow. With the scheme aiding economically backward families, it automatically ends up consolidating his Muslim vote share and cajoling Dalit colonies. Even though teachers at the Lucknow University say that the enforcement of the scheme has room for improvement considering its irregularities, it has been significantly better than what it was like during Mulayam’s tenure.

“I would not have been able to graduate without the state government scheme,” says Nazia, adding, “Akhilesh deserves another chance to consolidate the good work he started a couple of years ago.”

Lucknow’s nine constituencies went to the polls on Sunday, and the popularity of the incumbent chief minister among the first-time voters here is undisputed. Even the ones inclined towards the BJP are not overly critical of Akhilesh. They cite the examples of the Metro and express highway while speaking of his developmental work. He is young, they say, and he speaks “our language”. “We can easily identify with him,” Nazia’s words were echoed by almost every first-time voter.

Sudhir Kumar Yadav, 22, a philosophy student at Lucknow University put it more colorfully. “Jis taraf jawani chalti hai, usi taraf zamana chalta hai (Whichever way the youth go, that’s the way the generation goes),” he says.

Sudhir adds that the Samajwadi Party MLA in his constituency has been “useless”, but “We do not vote for the MLA,” he said. “We vote for the chief minister. His move to provide laptops has helped youngsters a great deal.”

Another scheme that is being hailed by the electorate is the nutrition mission program in alliance with Unicef, with which the state ensures the deprived are fed an all-round meal. It is monitored under the stewardship of Dimple Yadav, who has propelled the party’s face as a party of the young. With close to 25 lakh first-time voters across the state, parties have understandably made their moves accordingly to clinch the pivotal vote share, and the Samajwadi Party seems to have an edge courtesy Akhilesh.

Nonetheless, Lucknow is a place with its fair share of problems. One of the biggest challenges gnawing at the youth is unemployment. Nazia, who is currently in the middle of a vocational training program at Sanaktada NGO in the city, has been looking for a job for over a year. Living in a joint family of 11 in a cramped, dim-lit 500 square-foot apartment of Dali Ganj, Nazia’s conservative family would not allow her to move out of Lucknow for a better opportunity. However, most of the others plan to migrate to Delhi or Mumbai. Teachers at the Lucknow University complain they are not able to retain sharp students either.

However, the drawbacks of Lucknow, and of Uttar Pradesh, are largely blamed on the old guard by the electorate. Lucknow-based historian Saleem Kidwai said it reflects how astute Akhilesh is.

“He smartly turned the anti-incumbency, at least perceptibly, on his uncles and father during the family feud,” he says.

Along with unemployment, healthcare and security of women are the issues raised by the youth. This, and not religion or caste, is what influences their vote, insist everyone.

Senior journalist Sharat Pradhan says caste identities are being blurred in urban Lucknow and Akhilesh stands to gain from it. “If youngsters move beyond caste and religion, it means some of the upper caste Hindus may move towards Akhilesh,” he says, “But the Muslims won’t vote against Samajwadi Party.”

However, a teacher at the Lucknow University, requesting anonymity, says the students are merely being politically correct. “They won’t divulge that caste or religion plays a role if not the role. But behind closed doors, if you scratch the surface, it all comes out,” she says.

Indeed, the hints are there for those with a keen ear.

Aksa Hasan, 20, living in the same colony as Nazia, praised Akhilesh for the reasons mentioned earlier. But unwittingly says, “We would obviously vote for the party that would protect us.” Upon being probed further, she adds that the Hindutva narrative does make her nervous, and apart from the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, she does not have an option.

Interestingly, a significant chunk of the Shia vote in Lucknow traditionally went with the BJP. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his protégé Lalji Tondon, enjoyed respect among the Shias. However, with the increasing paranoia under the Narendra Modi government, Shia Muslims are drifting away from the BJP. But with the Shia and Sunni Ulemas being at loggerheads with each other, Kidwai says the Shias are not likely to shift en masse towards the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. “The Shia Ulema has declared its support to Mayawati,” he says, “The devout Shias will listen to him. But the moderate ones and especially young, who are in larger numbers, will move towards Akhilesh.”

Amidst the interactions, the name of Rahul Gandhi hardly comes up. When specifically mentioned, youngsters say they hope he does not interfere with Akhilesh’s work. The sentiment within Akhilesh supporters regarding the alliance is similar to what avid Nitish Kumar followers said in Bihar. They did not like the idea of collaborating with Lalu Prasad Yadav, but were not angry enough to desert him.

Mayawati, on the other hand, is lagging behind in spite of a sizable 20 percent Dalit population in Lucknow because the urban Dalit, especially the youth, is not exactly homogeneous. While even the quintessential voters of Samajwadi Party saying the law and order had been better under Mayawati, they believe voting for her in the urban region would benefit the BJP considering the manner in which the elections appear to be panning out. In rural Lucknow, however, the Dalits, including youngsters, say their preferred choice is “hathi in the state and kamal at the Centre”.

With Shia votes and around 30 perct of the upper caste population, BJP has always done well in Lucknow. The party has held the Lok Sabha seat since 1991, and in 2014, the BJP won it hands down.

The Shias might be moving away, but the majority of upper castes side with the BJP. Their loyalty has been fortified after the arrival of Modi, who remains a charismatic personality among a section of the youth. Prerna Shrivastava, a 20-year-old commerce student, says it does not matter if the BJP has not revealed its chief ministerial candidate. “Whoever Modiji appoints, it will be for the best of Uttar Pradesh,” she says, “He is a gutsy leader. The way he took on the black money is commendable.”

Prerna says she is most impressed with BJP’s social media campaign that has played a role in influencing her. She adds that her family has been supporting BJP for generations. Mohit Trivedi, a cabbie in his mid-20s, is less cagey. After praising Akhilesh for around 15 minutes, he says he favours the BJP.

Upon being asked why, he simply says, “Hum Pandithain.”

UP Election 2017: Ahead of 4th phase, cracks appear in forced Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 23 February 2017.

“UP ko yeh saath pasand hai, lekin Unchahar ko haath pasand hai (UP likes the alliance but Unchahar likes the hand),” emanates from a car campaigning for the Congress in Raebareli’s Unchahar constituency, as 55-year-old Sharda Prasad Saini laughs while serving chhole-samosa on the Allahabad-Lucknow road.

“They cannot even manage their own internal problems and are promising to develop a huge state,” he says.

Unchahar is a constituency where the Congress and Samajwadi Party have both fielded candidates, bamboozling its voters. The sitting MLA is Manoj Pandey of the Samajwadi Party, and contesting from the Congress ticket, campaigning against Pandey is Ajai Pal Singh, who belongs to the noble Arkha family of Raebareli and is a former MLA (2007-12) of the same constituency as well.

“I voted for the Samajwadi Party in 2012,” says Saini. “Now, I wonder whom to vote for. The vote would clearly be divided and there is no point in wasting my vote on these two. I will vote for BJP instead. Modi has not been that bad after all.”

It had become clear during the initial phase of negotiation that Raebareli and Amethi would be a problem when it comes to seat sharing. The two districts are bastions of the Congress with the Gandhis ruling the two Lok Sabha constituencies for an overwhelmingly major part of independent India, but in 2012 Assembly elections, Samajwadi Party had done exceedingly well in the ten constituencies falling under the two districts. Congress, on the other hand, had managed to win only two of those ten. In Sonia Gandhi’s Raebareli, the party did not win a single seat out of the six (in 2017, Raebareli has five as the seat in Salon comes under Amethi district).

With both parties claiming moral right to contest more seats, it has resulted in the defiance of the alliance. Out of the 10 seats in Amethi-Raebareli, in four of them, the partners are locked in a fight, clearly handing out advantage to BJP and BSP on a platter.

When asked, Ajai Pal Singh said the high command has his backing, without which he would not be able to contest on a Congress symbol. “I cannot comment on the issue,” he said. “The party leadership should be able to explain.”

Samajwadi Party candidate Manoj Pandey could not be reached. He did not respond to phone calls and text messages.

Zeeshan Haidar, Congress spokesperson in Uttar Pradesh, said it is a negligible issue and he is sure one of the two would win in the seats in question. “It is true the election is closely fought but we have managed to arrive at a common ground on over 400 seats,” he said. “There were other seats too where both parties had fielded candidates and we have sent show cause notices to some. But in some cases, by the time we could arrive at a conclusion, the last date of withdrawal had already passed.”

The party leadership may make it sound like a minor glitch but the sentiment of ground level workers, at least in Raebareli and Amethi, reflects how the alliance is a forced marriage.

“Even though we are campaigning individually here, we still have Akhilesh and Mulayam on our posters,” says a Congress worker in Unchahar. “But Samajwadi Party does not have Rahulji. Abhi Ajai ji toh raja hai, woh kaise nahi ladenge?”

Congress workers complain that Samajwadi Party has not given enough respect or importance considering the stature of the party, while SP cadre feels the Congress needed the alliance more than they did. A worker of the Samajwadi Party said the way Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi patronised Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in one of the earlier press conferences has not gone down well with the cadres. “He spoke of good niyat and room for better implementation,” he says. “Rahul is trying to be big brother in the alliance when clearly he needs Akhilesh more than Akhilesh needs him.”

Both the party workers, however, said they wonder what to say when dumbfounded electorate asks them about the dichotomy of being partners in the state but campaigning against each other in a constituency. Commentators believe it is indicative of how the alliance is a forced marriage and could raise concerns of its durability, if at all they form the government. “It is reflective of how messy and ill-planned the alliance is,” says Shivam Vij, journalist who is extensively travelling across the state for the elections. “These are not friendly but unfriendly fights. In most places, Samajwadi Party workers are not campaigning for Congress workers and vice-versa. This is only one of the many reasons why alliance was a bad idea.”

UP Election 2017: With caste identities blurring, social media influences are high among first-time voters

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 February 2017.

“The social media campaign is voluntarily conducted by our supporters. They are doing it on their own and they would not speak to the media,” said an office bearer of a regional political party. “Please take a look around our social media centre,” said one affiliated with another regional political party. “I will explain how our team works.”

For anyone who is following the high profile, tempestuous Uttar Pradesh elections, it is not difficult to figure out the two political parties in question here.

At the Samajwadi Party office in Lucknow’s Vikramaditya Marg, a section in the vicinity is dedicated to the social media team. Secluded from the bustling main campus of the party office, the social media team operates with their building being a good two minutes by foot. In four rooms on the first floor of the building, more than 50 people spend 18 hours of their day gazing at TVs or computer screens with earphones plugged in.

“The idea is to run a synchronised campaign, to drive home the message to the voters,” said Aashish Yadav, a former BBC employee, who is running the show. He is joined by Manoj Yadav, songwriter of films like Raees, Piku and Azhar, who has penned campaign songs. Gozoop CEO Ahmed Aftab Naqvi is the chief digital strategist and Anshuman Sharma, fellow from Harvard University, is handling research. “We reach around 25-30 lakh people in Uttar Pradesh on a daily basis through WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. WhatsApp gets most traction. It is the easiest to operate. Twitter is least penetrating.”

There are close to 10 people monitoring the news and social media to keep an eye on the prominent handles. “We counter the critical commentary with facts, depending on the stature of the leader,” said Aashish. “If Modi or Amit Shah say something, we respond. In case of Ravi Shankar Prasad, or say Shahnawaz Hussain, we let it go.”

On the other hand, Mayawati’s OSD Pawan Sagar was unwilling to accept the importance of social media. “Ours is a cadre based party and we believe in direct communication,” he said. “We do not need social media to form the government.”

When BSP workers first ran a seemingly synchronised campaign in November, it attracted a lot of eyeballs. Tweeting party statements, doing Facebook live on the speeches made by party leaders, propping pages on Facebook of the prominent members of the party…it seemed to indicate Mayawati is moving with time.

Behen ji ko aane do,” a slogan was made viral on social media along with Mayawati’s photograph. The slogans highlighted the problems of law and order, education and so on. The party even recorded a campaign song, which Kailash Kher sang. After the first phase of polling on 11 February, the party workers upped their game further. “Chor-chor mausere bhai”, a jibe at the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, “phisal gaye to har har gange”, highlighting the BJP’s return to Hindutva, and a few such attractive slogans went viral. Newspaper reports quoted Afzal Siddiqui, son of a senior BSP leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui, as the mind behind the social media campaign. “We realised our mistake and after discussing it with behenji, we turned our focus to it,” he told The Times of India.

However, Sagar said the volunteers are doing their thing without Mayawati’s directives. It is no secret that Mayawati did not believe in social media, and if they are using it now, it suggests she has been forced to move on with times. But acknowledging that would mean conceding an error in judgment, perhaps the reason behind the BSP’s line of narrative.

Rajya Sabha member Ashok Siddharth, for example, reportedly said he does not operate his Facebook page with over 11,000 likes and it could be started and run by party supporters. Aashish Yadav, on the contrary, did not fail to mention that Akhilesh Yadav operates his Twitter and Facebook accounts himself, clearly indicating the difference in approach of the two regional parties towards social media.

There are close to 25 lakh first-time voters in Uttar Pradesh this time. With commentators saying the caste identities among the youth are being gradually blurred with education, the first-time voter could potentially swing the election. “Social media is a very effective tool to tap youngsters,” Aashish said. “We have managed to reach 90 percent of those with access to social media across the state.”

The BJP first used social media extremely effectively in 2014 general elections. It was a catalyst in the young voter gravitating towards Narendra Modi. The Samajwadi Party’s strategy seems to be inspired by the BJP’s success. However, Aashish denied it. “It is true the BJP used it efficiently in 2014,” he said. “But in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav had made “umeed ki cycle” viral on social media. Therefore, BJP could have been inspired by him.”

Then why did their campaign come alive only in late 2016? “When we thought we had done enough work to show for, we decided to go full-fledged. We do not indulge in negativity,” said Aashish, as he showed around their social media centre, or as they call it, war room. The team – most of which, Aashish said, is not charging a rupee including him – hardly looked up or moved their eyes away from the screen as the two of us engaged in a conversation. “Yeh ek tarah ka Yuddh hi hai. Sabki aahuti lag rahi hai yaha,” he said.

In Punjab’s Debt-Ridden Malwa Region, AAP Is Seen as the Only Hope

This story first appeared on The Quint on 3 February 2017.

In the remote village of Bhaini Bagha, about 60 km from Bathinda, Badal Singh, 43, shook his head in disapproval with eyes shut when asked his name.

Sitting on a khat on the verandah of his neighbour’s typical Punjabi house, which was enveloped in the early morning fog, Badal said the name invokes hatred in Bhaini Bagha.

As one travels deep into Punjab’s Malwa region from Majha and Doaba, the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal and the Badals – the family in charge of the ruling party in the state – turns into contempt and anger.

In fact, some of the things they say here are unprintable. Spanning the whole region lying on the Sutlej’s left bank and bordering Haryana and Rajasthan, Malwa is an overwhelmingly agrarian area. The majority of its residents are small and marginal farmers, living with the burden of debt palpably hanging around their neck.

Killer Farm Loans

By the time April 2016 had ended, 93 farmers had committed suicide in Malwa. One of them was Badal’s neighbour Gurtej Singh, 35. “He had taken a loan,which kept increasing due to interest,” said his 70-year-old mother Gurmeet Kaur, sitting under the photograph of her son in the room attached to the verandah. “When it reached 5 lakh rupees, he gave up.”

Unseasonal rains and erratic weather patterns negated the hard work and investments of Malwa’s farmers. The cotton crop that Gurtej had been cultivating on his 2-acre farmland dried up. He sold half-an-acre of the land, but that too did not ease his debt burden.

There is not a single farmer here who is not grappling with debt. The devastating crop loss was the last straw for my son.

Gurmeet Kaur 

Small and marginal farmers – with land holdings of up to five acres – make up for almost 80 percent of the farmer suicides. In Punjab, such farmers – as well as farmer suicides – are concentrated in Malwa. With variable costs like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, diesel etc increasing, and additional fixed costs, even a good crop barely delivers a satisfactory profit margin. This makes agriculture economically unviable for Malwa’s marginal farmers, compelling them to turn to commission agents (called arhtiyas), who charge interest rates of up to 36 percent for loans.

Single-Crop Culture Adds to Woes

Sukhpal Singh, senior economist at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, said the state’s agrarian sector is burdened with Rs 80,000 crore debt.

Per household, it (debt) comes to around Rs 8 lakh. An average income of a farmer in a good year does not exceed Rs 5 lakh.

Sukhpal Singh, Senior Economist, Punjab Agriculture University

Malwa predominantly suffers from the mono-crop culture, or growing a single variety of crop. This is why the government introduced a policy of diversifying cropping patterns. However, agriculture experts believe, merely announcing a policy without offering any incentives like a minimum support price would have no real impact, as a farmer would not risk a change of crop. Further, with no measures to deal with climate change, the farmers’ plight has only intensified with time.

Sukhpal said despite Punjab having been an overwhelmingly agrarian state, it is bizarre it does not have agro-based industries in rural areas that would process and market crops. He added that agro-based industries would generate employment as well.

Forget creating a suitable atmosphere for farming, the government has virtually discouraged people from persisting with it.

After the whitefly attack that destroyed the cotton crop in 2015, the government had provided pesticides at subsidised rates. While farmers said the pesticides were bogus and only worsened crops, agriculture minister Tota Singh accused them of buying spurious pesticides from “outside sources”.

For the crop loss that ran into lakhs according to Gurmeet, the government’s compensation of Rs 8,000 only rubbed salt into their wounds. “It does not even cover the cost of the fertilisers we buy,” she said with a wistful smile that deepened her wrinkles. “The people running the state are having a good time while we are dying. It’s our fault that we elected them twice.”

The Road to Power Runs Through Malwa

The anti-incumbency against the Badals in Malwa is palpable and has been galvanised almost single-handedly by the Aam Aadmi Party. The relatively muted AAP campaign in Majha and Doaba springs to life in Malwa, with bike rallies and tractor parades being seen through the region.

AAP has captured the imagination of the region, which can be safely called the road to power in the Punjab Assembly. Most of the Chief Ministers of Punjab have come from Malwa. Out of the 117 Assembly seats, it accounts for as many as 69. And AAP would be targeting around 45 of them, with a reasonable share from Majha and Doaba seeing them through the halfway mark.

The whole village of Bhaini Bagha is set to “vote for Arvind Kejriwal”, who is seen as a messiah over here.

The village holds a meeting and we vote for the same candidate after consulting each other. We think only he (Kejriwal) can rescue us from the goonda raj of the Badals. He is a simple man who thinks of the poor.

Gurmeet Kaur

Shinder Pal, 35, a cab driver in Bathinda, said the state has only seen a two-way electoral contest till date, and it is now in shambles with no law and order or employment.

Though the Congress is far better than the Akali Dal, that does not say much about the party. The benchmark for political parties is already so low that AAP’s arrival cannot make it any worse.

Shinder Pal, cab driver

AAP, A Strong Contender

Malwa has often dominated Punjab politics and even in this election, some of the most intriguing battles are being fought here. In Jalalabad, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has locked horns with AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, who has managed to get under the skin of the Badals. The family that practically runs the state has been subject to contempt and criticism but Mann, with his humour and unique ability to attract crowds, has reduced them to a bunch of jokers. Ground reporters say he has his nose in front at the moment.

In Lambi, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is engaged in a three-way fight with Congress’ CM candidate Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP heavyweight Jarnail Singh. The split of votes between AAP and the Congress should ensure the CM holds on to his bastion, which he had first served as it’s youngest sarpanch at the age of 19. Nonetheless, participants at his recent rally in Lambi spoke out vehemently against the family, which is indicative of the mood in the entire state.

Jitendra Singh, who sells samosas and noodles in the village, said Parkash Badal is a good man but his son Sukhbir has ruined the image of the party.

The kind of people Sukhbir has been encouraging is deplorable. They are all goons who have the government’s support.

Jitendra Singh, Stall Owner

Raking Up Khalistan

Realising this trend, Sukhbir tried to paint Kejriwal as pro-Khalistan. Referring to the blast that killed 6 in Bathinda, the deputy CM said Kejriwal’s ascent would mean the resurgence of radicals. While the AAP has been entertaining radicals, Malwa’s electorate are facing too stark a problem to fall for the Akali propaganda. Living with extreme poverty and debts, they have pinned their hopes on AAP as “the rescuer from the swamp in which the Akali Dal has pushed them”.

With the government’s failure to create jobs, farmers say it makes it even more difficult to explore other opportunities. Yet, two lakh marginal farmers have hung up their boots in the last five years, said Sukhpal. “It has led to consolidation of land with big landowners, while small farmers have become poorer,” he said.

In June 2014, Sukhdev Kaur, 50, leased out the farmland after her son Gurpreet Singh, 29, committed suicide by consuming pesticide, succumbing to the pressure of debt. Sukhdev, who lives in the lane adjacent to Gurtej’s house in Bhaini Bagha, said she will do odd jobs and ensure her other son, Gurjeet, 19, gets a proper education. “No matter what happens, farming is a no-no,” she said. “I have lost one son. I do not want to lose another.”

With Factories Being Shut, Unemployment Echoes in Punjab’s Doaba

This story first appeared on The Quint on 1 February 2017.

To what extent can one go to avoid coming back to one’s own country? Prabjot Sood, 28, got married. After he completed his matriculation from Jalandhar, he headed to Canada on a two-year education visa to pursue mechanical engineering, which proved too arduous for his abilities. He dropped out and began driving a truck instead. “I realised I could make more money than what my friends did back home with their fancy degrees,” he said.

However, he ran into trouble after the visa expired. “The only way I could have remained in Canada was to get married,” Sood said. “And I did.”

‘Impossible to Find a Job in Punjab’

But Sood did not get along with his wife. The marriage ended, and so did the stay in Canada. In January last year, Sood was deported back to his hometown of Jalandhar, which falls in Punjab’s Doaba region that covers the area between Beas and Sutlej rivers.

However, Sood is not the only one to have been deported. In the last three years, 6000 residents of Doaba have been deported from US and Canada for entering illegally, forging documents or overstaying their visa. “It is impossible to find a job in Punjab,” said Sood. “Jalandhar, Ludhiana used to be hubs of industries and factories. They have all shut shops over the years. Where does one work now?”

Doaba Region Hit by Deindustrialisation

There are 23 crucial seats in Doaba, and when Punjab goes to polls on 4 February, unemployment of youngsters would be a critical factor on the electorate’s mind, for it has been ailing the whole state for a long time. The Congress has campaigned on the plank of promising a job per household. AAP’s 51-point manifesto is called “for the youth, of the youth and by the youth”.

Both the parties are trying to capitalise on the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal, which has been governing the state for a decade, and has done nothing to stop the slide. In 2014, newspaper reports said 18,770 factories have shut down since the Akali government came to power. Observers say it is a conservative number, and many more have followed suit in the last two years.

While Majha and Malwa regions are overwhelmingly agrarian, the tremors of de-industrialisation have been most severe in Doaba, which consists of towns like Ludhiana – once known to be a steel hub and manufacturers of cycles – and Jalandhar, where sports goods industry used to prosper.

Mass Exodus of Factories

In a narrow lane running through the Lasudi mohalla in Jalandhar West constituency, families are busy weaving footballs for different factories that are still operational. The women weave, while the men do the coolie work. Raj Rani, 50, has been making footballs for the past 27 years. “I got married in December. Lived like a princess for a month. And since February, I have been making footballs,” she described her married life in three lines. “I used to make 200 rupees per day 20 years ago. Today, I still make 200 rupees.”

Rani said Jalandhar had close to 800 factories back then, but there are hardly 50 today. The sports industry has moved to Meerut and cycle-makers like Hero and Avon, for which Ludhiana used to be a den, have expanded elsewhere, creating a massive void of jobs.

“The amount of work has gone down drastically,” Rani said, while weaving the ball. Her hands worked in harmony, like a flight on an autopilot mode. “The whole mohalla was into it. Now we are all struggling to make our ends meet.”

Industrialists and businessmen lay the blame of this mass exodus by factories squarely on the Akali Dal government in alliance with the BJP, and more so on the CM’s son Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the party and Deputy CM of Punjab.

Requesting anonymity, a businessman, who became a member of the Akali Dal ten years ago, said it is impossible to do business in Punjab if you are not close to the Badals. “Sukhbir is greedy,” he said, sitting in his office, which had a photograph of him and Sukhbir.

If a business is doing well, he (Sukhbir Badal) would ask for a cut. It reduces your margins significantly. And if you have a fallout with him, he makes your life miserable.

A businessman on conditions of anonymity

Further, activists say that since most of the state’s businesses that generate substantial revenue belong to Badals or their proxies, many do not pay taxes, resulting in the state being starved of funds, which is why it has to compensate from elsewhere.

Educated Youth Forced to Do Odd Jobs

While other states lure industries to set up their factories, Punjab charges Rs 8 per unit for electricity – other states charge around Rs 4-5. On power bills, Punjab charges Octroi and Cow Cess. It drastically increases the production cost, and has reduced the purchasing power of the people.

Lakhs of educated youngsters are thereby languishing, doing odd jobs. Anmol Gulathi, 18, a bright young college student, drives an auto at night.

A friend of mine has done B.Tech. He works as a delivery boy and earns Rs 6,000. I get Rs 9,000. There are so many like him as labour here has become dirt-cheap. We are all waiting for the opportunity to go abroad and settle down.

Anmol Gulathi, student

Consequently, English-speaking course, or IELTS, have proliferated across Punjab, which basically train the youngsters to get out of the state. Click a photograph of a random skyline and it will not be without the IELTS signboard.

The electorate holds the Badals accountable for the quagmire, and Congress and AAP are fighting hard to gain from it. The youth in Doaba is tilting towards the fresher because it does not carry any baggage. Anmol said Punjab needs a fresh face, which will enthuse voters.

The Congress is corrupt as well. They do not have the ability to expose the Akali scams. The Akalis will manage them. Only AAP can put the ones who are ruining the state behind bars.

Anmol Gulathi, student

AAP’s Charm Depends on Age Group

Rita Cheema, 31, residing in Kartarpur constituency on the outskirts of Jalandhar, said AAP speaks the language of the people. “They seem concerned about the people,” she said. “I cannot say the same thing about the Congress. Akalis are not even worth mentioning. AAP deserves a chance.”

Moreover, even though the unemployment has intensified during the last decade, situation prior to that, when Congress was in charge, was not hunky dory either, which AAP has harped upon, knowing Congress is their main opponent. In June 2006, Tribune India had written an editorial titled “Spectre of unemployment looms large in Doaba”.

However, as the age group changes, AAP’s charm wanes.

The pro-Khalistan chunk, which is disillusioned with the Akali Dal, and would never vote for Congress, are backing AAP. The NRIs are lobbying for them like never before. But commentators say these NRIs are the ones who fled Punjab during the militancy, and are now using AAP to regain significance. Doaba is the most politically aware and socially conscious region of the three, and the way AAP is entertaining radicals has not been received well here, raising concerns for the long run.

AAP Pandering to Radical Elements

Surjeet Kaur, 60, said she fears the Khalistan slogans would be heard again if AAP comes to power. “If Kejriwal is using them, they would expect something in return,” she said.

If he (Kejriwal) concedes the SGPC and Akal Takht, we might see the resurgence of radicals. Having lived through the period, I dread that. Captain Amrinder, on the other hand, is an experienced cog, who would know how to deal with all sections of the society. I wonder if AAP is capable of handling a complex state like Punjab. They are inexperienced.

Surjeet Kaur

Dalit Advantage for AAP

Doaba has over 40 percent Dalit votes with noticeable BSP followers. They are en-masse gravitating towards AAP, because they have recognised BSP as a spoiler. But the head of the dera of Ravidasa sect among the Dalits, which has a following of close to a million in Doaba, has tacitly extended its support to the Congress, which means the Congress has its nose ahead in the region.

Disillusioned Youth Flocking to Foreign Shores

Akin to Majha, AAP suffers from a brittle local cadre, and has relied on the face of Arvind Kejriwal, who is seen as a messiah in the all-important Malwa region with 69 seats. The reports of an AAP sweep in Malwa are spreading, which could influence voters from Majha and Doaba ahead of the polls. AAP has thrown all its might in Malwa and only has to ensure a respectable performance in the other two regions to scrape through to the halfway mark.

However, one person who is least bothered about Punjab and its future is Sood. After having failed to find a job in Jalandhar for the past year, he has fallen back on his tried and tested strategy to escape the misery of his home state. He got married in January this year. His wife is a 20-year old B.Com student, who wants to study abroad.

The pre-conditions of the wedding was simple. Sood’s parents from their savings will bear the expenses for the MBA the bride intends to pursue. And Sood will tag along on the back of his wife’s visa. It has worked out well. Both are set to fly to New Zealand in May.

In Punjab’s Majha Region, Anti-Incumbency Wave Favours Congress

This story first appeared on The Quint on 30 January 2017.

Harjeet Singh arrives at the Golden Temple. He walks through the divine passage, removes his chappals, picks out a handkerchief and wraps it around his head. He heads down the steps and bows down as the majestic monument appears. He looks at it with reverence and throws a disillusioned glance at the Akal Takht – located in the same complex.

Politics in the Name of Religion

While the Golden Temple stands for spiritual guidance, Akal Takht – the highest seat of authority among Sikhs – is the symbol of dispensing justice.

In October 2015, several instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, transpired, which triggered widespread protests across Punjab. Amritsar, being the religious capital, saw most intense protests, which spiralled into the Majha region of Punjab, covering the area between the Beas and Ravi Rivers.

In spite of the agitations, the state government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal in alliance with the BJP has not been able to nab the culprits, which still rankles the Sikhs here. Further, the fact that the Jathedar of the Akal Takht did not speak out against the failure of the Badals – the family in charge of the Akali Dal – deepens their scar.

It is shameful the way Jathedar sahib has become a pawn of the Badals. His stature is no less than that of the pope. There was a time in Punjab when Jathedar’s word would be gospel. Now, nobody takes him seriously.

Harjeet, a rickshaw-puller

Dilution of the Akal Takht’s Autonomy

Over the last decade of the Akali rule, the Badal family has prospered while driving the state to ruins. Parkash Singh Badal is the Chief Minister. His family members control important portfolios in the state cabinet. The family, locals say, has taken over the state. But among the orthodox Sikhs, who have been the Akali Dal’s traditional vote bank, the dilution of the autonomy of the Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) is an unpardonable crime.

The SGPC – which is considered the custodian of Sikh religion and works towards promoting it while monitoring Gurudwaras and the schools and hospitals it runs across the country – also remained conspicuously silent during the sacrilege of 2015.

A member of the SGPC, requesting anonymity with folded hands, said, that out of the almost 200 members of the committee, 180 are Akali Dal stooges. “Our tongues are controlled by the SGPC president and Jathedar,” he said in a hushed voice at the fourth floor of a hotel room in Amritsar. “Both dance to the tune of Badals.”

Orthodox Sikhs Unhappy with Akali Dal

The politicisation, and thereby seizure, of revered religious posts has not gone down well with the orthodox Sikhs, or Garmkhayalis as they are called here, and it is apparent that they would express their anger at the ballot box. Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member, said they respected the president of Akali Dal even more than the CM of Punjab. “There was hardly any remorse from him,” he said, sitting at a haveli in front of which a lush green farmland spread out.

A true Sikh will not vote for the Akali Dal.

Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member

Allegations Related to Drug Cartel Will Backfire

Another reason why the electorate will ensure the Akali Dal does not get another term is the burgeoning drug trade. Bikram Singh Majithia, brother-in-law of Akali president Sukhbir Singh Badal and the revenue minister in the state cabinet, is named as one of those running the illicit trade.

However, the CM, president of Akali Dal and Narendra Modi, supremo of its ally BJP, have denied or downplayed the crisis, despite a whole generation being destroyed.

Anti-Incumbency Wave in Favour of Congress

In the corner of a remote village of Jhander in Amritsar’s Ajnala town, Gurumeet Kaur and her ailing husband Badkar Singh wonder whether to laugh or cry at these statements. Their son, Resham Singh, 32, has not returned home for a few days but they do not seem to be worried. “He does that every now and then,” said dark-coloured, wrinkled face Badkar, sitting on a khat with a blanket wrapped around his body to weather the chill in the air.

Gurumeet and Badkar found out their son was a drug addict when he was 24. “We got to know because a friend of his did it,” said Gurumeet, serving a hot cup of tea. “He started stealing money from the house, our jewellery disappeared. If his elder brother had not been working, we would have been sleeping on the road.”

There is not a single person in this state who is unaware of Majithia’s involvement, said Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant. “The reason Arun Jaitley lost the Lok Sabha elections even during the Modi wave is because Majithia was his campaign manager,” he said. “While the drug menace is decaying the whole of Punjab, the border areas in Majha are the villages through which it is smuggled.”

Riding on the anti-incumbency in Majha, where 25 out of the 117 seats fall, is the Congress with Navjot Singh Sidhu proving to be a star campaigner. Contesting from the East Amritsar constituency, Sidhu’s presence has propelled the Congress, along with Captain Amarinder as the CM candidate. “He is an honest man,” said a shopkeeper in East Amritsar. “We would have voted for him even if he had been in the BJP.”

AAP Should’ve Declared a CM Candidate

AAP, on the other hand, is lagging a bit behind, because of the lack of a credible Sikh face. The team of MLAs in Majha, say observers, does not invoke confidence. Upkar Singh Sandhu, who is now in the ranks of AAP, is a former Akali district president, seen to be close to Majithia.

There are a few more defectors who are dicey. If AAP had declared a CM candidate with Kejriwal resisting the urge to jump ships, they would have swept.

Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant

Commentators believe that someone like HS Phoolka, who has been fighting for justice for 1984 riot victims, would have been an ideal choice, but insiders say he refuses to toe the line of the head command – the reason behind his marginalisation. If AAP had struck a deal with Sidhu, it would have increased their chances, as his popularity cuts across age groups.

Because AAP has not empowered its local leadership, “the party has not effectively influenced the religious votebank,” said Sarabhjit. “The interplay of politics and religion plays a crucial role here. I do not think we are still ready to have a non-Sikh CM.”

Even then, the radical Sikhs, who are disenchanted with Badals, will not vote Congress because of Indira Gandhi’s operation Blue Star and the 1984 riots that followed. “That vote will go to the AAP,” said Amrik Singh, head of Damdami Taksal, a radical Sikh group, who refers to Akali Dal as “Badal Dal”. Sitting in his office at Ajnala adorned with photographs of Bhindranwale, he said AAP deserves a chance, with the Congress and the Akalis having already been in power.

Congress Needs Momentum for a Comeback

But the radical voters are outnumbered by mellowed religious Sikhs who are likely to express their anger against the Akalis by voting for the Congress. Baldev Singh said the Captain is a trusted old school lieutenant who knows the state better than AAP. “He has worked in Punjab for so many years,” he said.

“He knows our culture and rituals. He would bring back rule of law in the state while preserving our ethos.” Badals, in the meantime, struggling to tackle the anti-incumbency, are hoping for a split in votes. Congress had lost out in Majha during the previous elections with 16 of the 25 seats going to the Akali Dal. AAP is reportedly well ahead in Malwa, which has 68 seats.

For the Congress to make a comeback in Punjab, it needs to further consolidate the momentum and ensure a remarkable performance in this region. However, one strata of society which it has failed to woo is the labour class. Harjeet, the cycle-rickshaw driver, said the Congress and the Akali are in cahoots with each other. “There is only one man who can ensure justice in this lawless state right now,” he concluded. “Arvind Kejriwal.”