UP Election 2017: What the millennial voter wants

This piece first appeared on Firstpost on 4 March 2017

Much like Bihar, a reporter’s job in Uttar Pradesh is made easier by the electorate, for one hardly comes across a person unwilling to talk about politics. Over the course of two weeks, I interacted with scores of youngsters from different districts. Not one seemed like he has not assessed his candidates and the parties they represent. It would be safe to say the millennial voters in UP are much more politically alive, and socially curious than their counterparts in my hometown of Mumbai.

Before landing in UP, I read up as much as I could on the state. There were a few articles suggesting the youth is breaking caste barriers and voting solely on the basis of development. Upon asked if caste is an influence, every millennial voter responded with an emphatic no. But it is quite a coincidence that the Tripathis, Mishras and Pandeys said they would vote for Modi on the basis of development while Muslims and Yadavs said they would vote for Akhilesh because of his developmental work. A teacher at Lucknow University shed more light on the coincidence. “Conceding they vote along caste lines in front of the media is unfashionable,” she said. “Everyone wants to be politically correct. You scratch the surface behind closed doors, and it all comes out.”

Indeed she was right.

Ask them about their views on reservation and it does not seem like caste is something they have never considered. Upper caste Hindus complained against “the discrimination and bias” towards Yadavs, while the Yadavs furiously disputed the “false narrative”. Everyone knew the caste wise divide of the candidates of different political parties.

However, it will not be long before the caste lines are palpably blurred. Even in the ongoing elections, a noticeable chunk of millennials who come from traditionally BSP or BJP families, seemed to be gravitating towards Akhilesh because of his appeal, which is merely a hint of what to expect in 2019.

One should not be surprised if millennial voters defy caste equations and vote for Narendra Modi, who seems to be the biggest catalyst in breaking caste barriers. Those who would be ready to vote in 2019, but are not eligible yet, blush while naming Modi as their favourite politician. It doesn’t matter if their parents are staunch Yadavs or quintessential BSP voters.

What makes Modi so popular even after three years into his relatively mediocre tenure?

Notebandi.

It is remarkable how an economic disaster has turned out to be a political masterstroke. Economists have dissected every angle of it to prove it has achieved little while rupturing the lives of many, but it hardly matters to the electorate. The most important thing is, those who should be most upset with it, are hailing the move because it supposedly took on the rich. “There is effort, and the intention is good,” they say. The mocked-at Mann Ki Baat on Twitter is quite popular as well, suggesting he is probably the best communicator one has seen in quite some time.

There is no doubt Modi seems to be the vehicle through which caste lines could be blurred in a sub-national state of UP. But the religious divide is increasing at the same time and Modi has played an instrumental role in it. In Faizabad, for example, it was striking how the youngsters did not mind VHP workers campaigning for Ram Mandir with communal overtones. “It should be built,” they said with a straight face. It did not matter if a masjid once stood at the location. On the other side of the divide, insecurity among Muslim youngsters is on the rise. Not everyone conceded that but a fair number of millennials, either candid or naive, said they would vote for the person who would “protect them”.

The issues concerning the youth vary from district to district but the crisis of unemployment is the one gnawing at each of them. The percentage of millennial voters who expressed their desire to migrate out of UP should make the establishment worried — to say the least. And they have pinned their hopes either on Akhilesh or on Modi, among whom the honours are split and Mayawati is clearly third.

Rahul Gandhi is not even fourth. I had to prod the millennials to get them to speak about him, suggesting he is not even considered important enough to be criticised. His own constituency of Amethi is not an exception.

As far as the outcome of the election is concerned, I remain as clueless as I was before I arrived here. The theories suggesting polar opposite outcomes sound legitimate. I am not going to pick one and put my neck on the line. For now, I’m glad to have seen a part of the fascinating state of Uttar Pradesh through the eyes of those my age or slightly younger to me. “UP nahi dekha toh kya dekha,” they used to say. They could not have been more accurate.

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.

Environment be damned, Modi to lay foundation for Shivaji statue in Mumbai sea

This piece first appeared on Catch News on 23 December 2016.

After renaming Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), the Maharashtra state government has moved on to another burning issue.

On Saturday, 24 December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for the much-delayed memorial of the Maratha king Shivaji in the Arabian Sea.

 

 

The 192-metre statue, roughly 1.5 kilometres from the Raj Bhavan and 3.5 kilometres into the sea, is supposed to be the tallest in the world. However, apart from spending more than Rs 3,500 crore of the taxpayers’ money, it is likely to result in a lot of trouble for the city of Mumbai.

Destroying marine habitat

Environmentalists say it will severely affect the 110-km coastal area, along with rupturing the marine life and consequently destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.

Stalin Dayanand of the NGO Vanashakti said the pollution control board needs to monitor the soil used for the construction of the project. “If you are going to reclaim land, you have to use marine soil by law,” he said, adding if the authorities indeed use marine soil, the project would never be concluded because the cost would be drastically multiplied.

“The metro project is going to generate 5.4 million tons of mud, and there is no disposal plan for it. It will be used for the Shivaji memorial, making the sea turbid with foreign particles. Marine life will be ruptured and fishermen will be the hardest hit.”

Around 80,000 fishermen’s livelihoods depend on it, and they do not have an alternate source of income, said Damodar Tandel of the Akhil Maharashtra Machimar Kriti Samiti (AMMKS).

“The 42-acre bed planned in the sea is a prime fishing spot for us,” he said. “It is also a breeding spot for big fish. Prawns, lobsters and 40 types of crabs are found there. Out of the Rs 2,000 crore worth of fish Maharashtra exports per year, half comes from the two docks in South Mumbai. We are not opposed to the memorial, but we are terrified by its location.”

About 450 small boats and 1,500 large ones, which do daily business in the sea, will mount black flags when Modi arrives to lay the foundation stone, said Tandel.

“Three main wholesale fish markets – Sassoon dock, Bhaucha Dhakka, and Crawford will be shut,” he said.

“Fishermen across Maharashtra are supporting us. The 100-odd retail markets will also be on strike, and fisherwomen will form a human chain at Marine Drive and show black flags to Modi.”

Tandel claimed the police were threatening his workers with legal action, but the fishermen’s community is in no mood to capitulate. “We are exercising our constitutional right,” he said.

Did environment bodies aid statue?

Last month, Vinayak Mete, head of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, the group appointed by the state to implement the project, termed the allegations by fishermen ‘baseless’, and cited clearances by the Environment Ministry, along with favourable reports by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).

However, there is a case pending in the National Green Tribunal where lawyer Asim Sarode, who is representing the petitioners, has pointed out flaws in the state’s defence.

“The NIO suggested mitigation measures while saying there is no harm to the environment. Is it not contradictory?” he asked. “The organisation is losing credibility because it is using its knowledge for the purposes of government.”

In February 2015, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report was prepared for the state’s public works department by the NIO and NEERI. The year-long study noted that the project would increase congestion on roads, air pollution and solid waste generation.

Sarode further challenged the process through which the government got exemption from conducting a public hearing. “The project did not involve rehabilitation and resettlement of the public, and since it was located away from human habitation, the public hearing was dispensed,” reads the affidavit of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Further, environment clearances say there should be no dredging at all. “But the government will require water for construction, as salt water cannot be used,” said Sarode. “The government contacted the maritime board, which said a tunnel duck is required inside the water. But any kind of tunnel cannot transpire without dredging.”

On 22 December, the government asked for more time to submit its reply to the NGT. The next date of hearing is 31 January.

Other problems

Apart from environmental hazards, the memorial is likely to intensify problems like the already congested traffic situation in South Mumbai.

“If you are creating a tourist destination with access from Marine Drive, you will have to create parking spaces,” said Stalin. “The entire Colaba and Marine Drive area would be choked. To conquer that, problem, I fear they will again reclaim the sea along Marine Drive to create parking spaces. They are out to ruin the marine environment.”

Simple matter of politics

Commentators believe that by holding the foundation stone ceremony right now, the BJP government is laying the foundation for the upcoming Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai polls.

Stalin said the Shivaji Memorial is a “meaningless expenditure to indulge in cheap vote bank politics”. “If you want to seriously pay respect to the great warrior, spend one-tenth of the amount and maintain the Raigad fort,” he said.

An online petition at change.orgwith close to 15,000 supporters says the money could be spent on “something better – education, infrastructure, food”, especially when the state is reeling from starvation deaths and an agrarian crisis, among other problems.

But speaking in the legislative Assembly, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said: “Since we do not ask our father how much money he spends on food, how can we think about the cost when it comes to building a memorial for Shivaji Maharaj? He is our pride and it would only be right to build a grand memorial in his name.”

The CM has not relented. And since the PM has obliged to lay the foundation stone, he too seems to be okay with the quagmire fishermen find themselves in, as well as the environmental perils pointed out by experts.

However, it leaves Tandel with a poignant question. “Our PM keeps visiting developed countries. Does he not see how they invest in protecting their environment?”