Varanasi shows Gandhian methods alone don’t win elections

It’s a good start, but not enough.
It’s a good start, but not enough.
Image: Reuters/Pawan Kumar
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Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September of 2012, US President Barack Obama said: “It’s time to heed the words of Gandhi: ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit’.”

Although Obama has been a regular purveyor of violence—a kind of violence in which you don’t even get your hands dirty—he is ironically the only current world leader who admires and quotes Gandhi frequently. In more twisted irony, he even won the Nobel Prize for peace.

But what happens when someone actually walks the talk?

Former Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal took on Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi in India’s most keenly fought general elections since 1978. Modi was finally declared the winner by the Election Commission of India after midnight on May 17—Kejriwal had a deficit of 371,784 votes.

First they ignore you

The former Indian Revenue Service officer first announced that he would fight Narendra Modi if he contested from Varanasi at the Freedom Park in Bangalore, but not many people took that as a serious challenge. The diminutive leader and his fledgling party’s performance in Delhi were seen as a fluke, and they were considered minnows in the national election race. In Varanasi and its outskirts, Modi’s volunteers had already been working for months, even though he had not formally announced he would contest from there. The AAP was an unknown entity.

When 27-year-old Shashank Kumar and his fiancée Renuka reached Varanasi on March 25, AAP was operating out of a tiny room in Loha Mandi. That day Kejriwal announced at the Beniya Bagh grounds that he would file to fight elections from the holy city.

“We were the first volunteers to reach Varanasi. We didn’t even get in touch with AAP and just started campaigning for Arvind on our own,” Renuka said. She told clients of her web design company WebHugh Technologies that the company would be shut for two months, because she would be away campaigning. Her fiancé Shashank shut down his real estate firm Property Sites for good and became a full-timer for the party.

“But I am sad to say something about the media. It completely ignored us or wrote biased stories against us,” Renuka said.

At one of the press conferences addressed by AAP leaders Yogendra Yadav, Ashutosh and Sanjay Singh, I saw reporters from only two major newspapers and one local television camera. None of the big television networks were present.

“The media is not just biased, but sold out,” says Bangalore-based artist Pushpamala N, an AAP sympathizer who says even celebrity endorsements such as musician Vishal Dadlani and actor Gul Panag were not barely by the press. “I was part of Gul Panag’s (motorcycle) rally. It was a fantastic, vibrant atmosphere but I barely saw a mention of it in the media.”

Then they laugh at you

Within days, hundreds of AAP volunteers from across the country landed in Varanasi. They became a laughing stock for the BJP and Congress workers, who started saying that AAP was getting only outside support. No self-respecting local of Varanasi would work for a bhagauda (renegade), they said. “We don’t know how many volunteers were there or who they were. We got to know some. They just came. Some stayed for a few days, some for weeks. They would come to the office, collect campaign material and head out on their own,” says Pankaj Gupta, AAP’s national secretary. “They worked so hard that in the last three days of campaigning, we gave our rivals a run for their money,” Gupta said, before the results were announced.

The volunteers’ strategy was simple – knock on every door possible, again and again, and explain painstakingly what AAP stood for, why Kejriwal had to resign as Delhi chief minister, and why change is necessary. “We did at least 50 houses a day,” says Shashank, who was later given charge of 40 polling booths and the responsibility of finding volunteers to man them on polling day. They would tell people that it was not enough to curse politicians, he explained. It was important to join in if they wanted to make a difference.

Gradually, their message and the unrelenting hard work the volunteers put in began to sink in, and Kejriwal and his band of youngsters (who hung out at busy crossroads wearing the inverted-boat shaped caps holding brooms) became a topic of drawing-room conversations. The cap itself became a fad and even the BJP and Samajwadi Party copied it in their own colors. The AAP campaign was  analyzed at `Adis’ or tea-shop congregations, a good barometer of what’s exciting the people of Varanasi.

Then they attack you

When Kejriwal landed in Varanasi, he was greeted with cheers for Modi, eggs and black ink. That was followed by attacks on volunteers. On May 7, AAP’s media coordinator Prerna Prasad tweeted a picture of party volunteer Amit Bansal, who was beaten up. The reaction to the tweet was even more hostility. One commentator said it was a fake picture because Bansal didn’t seem to have any wounds. Another asked how she could be sure they were BJP workers.

Yet another one said: “Stopping to feel sorry n beginning to feel repulsive for AApians who r willingly giving up their right for self-defence. Resist.” Prasad herself was attacked when she was traveling in a car the next day. But the volunteers kept their cool despite being heckled everywhere.

“The only thing the leaders told us was even if we get hit, we should not retaliate. We have to reach every door and we will lose time if we picked fights,” says Renuka. National secretary Gupta says that even one incident would have damaged AAP’s image of a non-violent party which wants to fight corruption peacefully.

Then you don’t win

In the Muslim-dominated area of Madanpura, the AAP had some support to begin with, but it became overwhelming as the campaign progressed. “We like the AAP volunteers. They are very nice. Even after getting beaten up and heckled, they continue to smile and never lose their cool,” according to Sami Ullah who runs a business of threading gold in saris and garments.

Muhammad Riyasuddin, a Samajwadi Party supporter for 30 years, cast his vote early morning on May 12. “I am connected to Mulayam [Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party] in my mind but my heart is with Kejriwal. He is an honest person and he had the guts to file an FIR against [Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh] Ambani and [Adani Group’s Gautam] Adani. This time I have voted for him,” he said.

Shashank, who was campaigning in the area near Kachahri and was in charge of 40 booths there, said “By the last day of campaign we had about 80 to 90 people going door to door. Only three of us were from outside.”

On the evening of May 12, polling day, as I waited at the Varanasi airport, I met Arvind Kejriwal who was taking the same flight. I asked him what he considered his chances were. The so-called renegade had replied: “Anything is possible”.

In hindsight, Kejriwal’s hope seems misplaced, and perhaps kindled by the intensity of the last days of campaign. Nonetheless, the party won four Punjab Lok Sabha seats and came second in all seven Delhi constituencies—an honorable national debut that equals a 2.1% vote share and over 11.3 million supporters.