Nivedita Menon Says Two days with AAP in Varanasi on Kafila

Vanarasi, 4 May-2014,Nivedita Menon(Kafila): Varanasi is only the official name. Sometimes, to make a poetic point, someone may say Kashi.   But ‘Banaras’ is how Banarasis refer to their city.
Banaras ki parampara, they say. Or hum Banaras ke musalman.
Kaal Bhairav Banaras ke kotwal hain, says the mahant of the Shitala Mata temple. Kaal Bhairav (Shiva) is the keeper of the gates of Banaras.
And of course, Banaras ki chaat khaayi hai aapne? Banaras ka paan nahin khayenge?

Nivedita Menon Says Two days with AAP in Varanasi on Kafila

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Sticker on wall of home in Rajmandir, a Hindu locality (All pictures by JAMAL KIDWAI)

My old friend and comrade Jamal Kidwai and I were in Banaras to observe the AAP campaign, being supporters of AAP (me) and of Arvind Kejriwal in Banaras (Jamal), and to hang out with the (largely young) volunteers who have landed up – from IT and advertising, from colleges and small government jobs, from Bangalore and Mumbai, from Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh – to map Banaras with their feet. So this does not purport to be an objective account – unlike journalists’ accounts of the ‘Modi wave’, which do claim to be purely factual. As Professor Randhir Singh is fond of reminding us – in Paris in 1968, the first question the students would hurl at all speakers was always – “Where do you speak from?”

We know now where the media speaks from. We wanted to go see another Banaras, about which we could find no accounts except in the social media, and observe it as honestly as we possibly could – despite the immense, heartfelt desire that so many of us now vest in this ancient city that finds itself all of a sudden, the Ground Zero of the 21st century in the battle for India’s soul.

At this point, it felt as if every Banarasi is geared up to be asked by some random outsider at some point – Aap ko kya lagta hai – kaun jeetega? Who will win, do you think? Of course, that was the first question we flung at the hapless, polite young manager of the hotel we stayed in.

“Modi was winning Ma’am…”, was the despondent answer.

Was winning?”

“Yes, didn’t you see on TV? Modi was winning, but now…everybody is out to get him. It’s like any bugger should win, except Modi…”

“But how do you know he was winning?”

He was incredulous – “Don’t you watch TV, Ma’am? He was winning.”

“What about Kejriwal?”

He made a disgusted face. “Don’t talk to me about him…”

We were there for two days, we decided to join in the door to door campaign of AAP, and see how things went. In the AAP campaign office, a flat in a new 11 storey apartment block near Guru Ravidas Gate, (belonging to a supporter), teams are being despatched at 9 am, with two kinds of forms. One for details of people who offer to  be booth managers, one to list every single house they visit in terms of number of voters, contact numbers and in terms of whether they are A, B or C.

I ask Kanushree, taking a break from her advertising work, who is managing operations here – what are these categories?

She explains. After a conversation with the people in the household, if they appear to be supporters, that’s A  – Apne. Ours. These will be invited to volunteer in the door-to-door campaigns, to be booth managers, or at the very least, ensure that everybody in their neighbourhood gets out to vote.

If they are clearly hostile, and no headway can be made at all, they are B – Begaane. Not-ours. No further effort will be made with these.

But the largest number of households they encounter at first contact, she tells me, are C – Confused.

‘Confused’, it turns out, is a sharply political category

These are people who ask more and more questions about AAP, about what they stand for, what difference are they going to make, why did the AAP government resign in Delhi. These are people who have always voted for Sapa (Samajwadi Party), for Congress, for Bhajpa (BJP), for Baspa (BSP) – largely along religious and caste identity lines. They are Yadavs, Muslims, Dalits, Brahmins, Banias. The ‘confusion’ is that their pre-scripted loyalties that have locked their religious and caste identities into rigid party formations, are dissolving.

They want to know more about this party with its earnest young volunteers, which seems to be attracting more and more local volunteers, they want to know more about that man who could pass unnoticed in a crowd of aam admi, but who shook Nayi Dilli to its corrupt, decaying old roots.

These households will be returned to, more conversations will take place.

I find it revealing that now that the media has belatedly started recognizing that something is churning in Banaras, they focus exclusively on Muslims. For example, this morning the Times of India carries a story titled ‘AAP upsets some old equations in Varanasi ‘. Yes, we discovered that too, but it turns out the story, illustrated by pictures of two anonymous women in full, face-covering burqas and of Modi, Rai and Kejriwal, is only about the Muslim voters.

Of course, there is no doubt that the Muslim community is galvanized by AAP. On the first day, we accompanied Deepak, who never takes his AAP topi off in public, to Omkaleshwar ward, where he was to meet AAP volunteers of two neighbouring wards as well – Pathani Tola and Chittanpura. These are localities of the Bunkars, the weaver community and the famed zardozi (gold thread embroidery) workers of Banaras. In the course of the day, chief volunteers from these three wards, in all about 15 young men, trooped in and out of the workshop and home of Ikhlaqbhai, still a member of Congress, but fully in support of AAP. The nitty-gritty of booth management was explained by Deepak, the need for daily walks around the neighbourhood, ensuring that everybody votes – all of which was received with enthusiasm and some impatience – yahan sab AAP hi ko vote denge. Roz roz morche nikaalne ki zaroorat nahin hai. Everybody will vote for AAP here, no need for daily marches.

Deepak with volunteers

Deepak with volunteers in Ikhlaq bhai’s house

(Incidentally, just before the evening morcha in Omkaleshwar, Rajdeep Sardesai was seen in the neighborhood, and some people came up to us muttering angrily. Apparently all those being interviewed were saying is baar sub Kejriwal ko vote de rahe hain, hindu ho ya musulman, (everyone is voting for Kejriwal this time, Hindus and Muslims) but then he turned to the camera and said in English – ‘Muslims are voting for AAP.’ I wondered whether, if a group of Hindus had declared that Muslims are doing this or that, their opinion would have been totally ignored like this. To be fair, I must add that I did not see the final programme.)

What about Mukhtar Ansari and his support for Congress? The response varied from “Did you notice that he said he supports Congress, not Ajay Rai” to “Ansari kya samajhta hai, voh jaisa kahega hum vote dalenge?” Does Ansari think he will tell us whom to vote for and we’ll just do it?

Of course they are very clear about one thing. AAP cannot win on Muslim votes alone. Yahan aap ko milenge vote, said Ikhlaq bhai. Lekin Hinduon mein bhi kaam kar rahe hain, na? You are working among Hindus too, right?

Deepak with volunteers

Ikhlaq uses the time spent on the meeting, to cut freehand, each identical to the other, the paper shapes on which zardozi, embroidery with gold thread, will be carried out. These shapes, seen embroidered below, are for US Army caps!

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

The women, they must get out and vote, says Deepak. At this, there is skepticism expressed by the older men – “yahan ki auratein…” But the younger men sound more determined. One of them says, “Aap chinta mat kijiye, yahan junoon aisa hai ki chhota baccha bhi apni ma ke haath kheenchkar vote dalwane le jayega .” Don’t worry, the passions are running so high that every little child will pull his mother by the hand to the voting booth.

And transportation for the women to vote? Deepak says, as other AAP volunteers clearly have before him, that the party cannot help them financially at all. One of the volunteers laughs –“haanh, haanh hamein pata hai, yeh party hamein paise nahin degi, balki hum apne paise lagayenge party mein!” Yes, we know, this party will give us no money, instead we will put our money into the party.

Everyone expects some bawaal, violence, on voting day – the intimidation and physical violence by BJP on AAP volunteers has been public and relentless. The day we arrived, a volunteer’s arm had been broken during a public nukkad meeting which was disrupted by about ten people. Everyone emphasizes – vote early in the morning, the moment the booths open, and be done with it. News of bawaal will scare off voters.

All this intimidation is working to the benefit of AAP. The mahant of Shitala Mata mandir, whom we meet the next day, Jagdish Dube, says – “yeh sab jo Kejriwal par beet rahi hai, sharm aati hai hamein. Koi mandir se nikal raha ho, aur uspar ande phekna – yeh hamare Banaras ki parampara nahin hai. Kaise Hindu hain ye!” All these attacks on Kejriwal, we feel ashamed. Someone is coming out of a temple, and you throw eggs at him – this is not the tradition of Banaras. What sort of Hindus are these!

Shri Jagdish Dube urf Goodad Maharaj, the mahant of Ma Shitala Mandir, Rajmandir.

We hear stories from different parts of Banaras – AAP volunteers setting up a projector for screening a film in a neighbourhood, and some men landing up to threaten and intimidate them, unplugging the projector, about to smash it, when local people intervene, ask them to leave, and help AAP to carry on with the screening.

A women’s meeting going on in a home in a Hindu locality, BJP men come in, call the woman of the house out, “bhabhiji, chai pilaaiye”, they say, settling down. She smiles accommodatingly, and leaving them sitting there in her front room, comes back inside to calmly continue with the meeting. “I would have made chai for my husband or his friends. Who are these people to demand chai?”, she asks indignantly.

This intimidation is also the reason, says Varun, the campaign manager of AAP, why if directly asked by a stranger or the media, people may not say the truth. Often he said, they found that people in casual conversations in shared rickshaws and so on, would begin by saying of course Modi will win, but upon further clarity about who the questioner is, would take out a topi from their pocket and say,  actually hum vote jhaadoo ko denge. Varun called this the silent vote, which in his estimation, is larger than we think. After all, he reminds us, BJP had only 14 percent of the vote of the population of Banaras, and Mukhtar Ansari lost by only 17 thousand votes to Murli Manohar Joshi in the last elections.

Meanwhile, by evening in Omkaleshwar, the team for the evening pheri assembles, topis in place, and off we go. There are no women in our group, but they come out to their doors look, to smile at me. A swarm of little children scamper around us, joining shrilly in the slogans that ring in the narrow winding lanes: Inquilab Zindabad. Long live the revolution

Niklo bahar makaanon se/ jung lado beimaanon se. Come out of your homes/fight the battle against the dishonest

dilli mein sheela haari hai/ab modi ki baari hai. Sheela has lost in Delhi, now it’s Modi’s turn

bhrashtaachar ka ek hi kaal/ kejriwal kejriwal. The one destroyer of corruption – Kejriwal.

Earlier, when we were wandering around the neighbourhood with Deepak, in his cap, and later, as we were leaving the locality through the bustling market – again and again he was hailed, people held his hand, and offered him a facial expression and a hand gesture (a sort of nirbhaya mudra) we recognized – “Phikar mat kijiye“, was what it meant. Or they would ask him, why did Kejriwal resign?

On this question –  why did he resign – we heard some interesting responses in both localities we visited – the other was Rajmandir, a Hindu neighbourhood, previously a stronghold of BJP.

Some said, “chhodna nahin chahiye tha, pehli baar ek imaandar aadmi kursi pe baithe the“. He shouldn’t have left, for the first time there was an honest man in power.

And “achha kiya chhod diya, dekha, janta ko nazarandaz nahin kiya, kursi ko nazarandaz kiya”. Good he left, look, he didn’t ignore the people, he ignored power.

He should not have left – because he is ours, he is honest, who ever leaves the kursi?

In Rajmandir we recognized a quite different way in which this was referred to, more in the style made familiar by the media – “Kaun hai yeh Kejriwal, sarkar banayi aur bhag gaya“, said a middle aged man in a starched white kurta pyjama. One of the volunteers said, smiling, “kahan bhag gaya, aap ke saamne toh khada hai.” But they didn’t pursue it. He was clearly a B.

It took us about an hour to negotiate a ten minute walk out to the main road in Omkaleshwar after the march around the neighbourhood – Deepak was mobbed like a film star. Earlier during our afternoon walk in the neighbourhood, an elderly man called out to us, identified himself as a Congress functionary. “Hum aapke saath hain” he said. Sonia, Rahul, Priyanka, they are good, he said, but the rest…Yahan party aap ke saath hain, he repeated. (No wonder a reporter friend who met Ajay Rai told us he seemed dispirited. “Dekhen kya hota hai” was all he could offer.)

clothes for gods

Zardozi on clothes for Hindu gods in a small workshop in Omkaleshwar

That day in Banaras (May 1st), AAP teams were doing a couple of different things in the evening – a clean up campaign in a neighbourhood, a music event at a nukkad by Play4Change. People just think of things to do, and carry them out. A report in a newspaper said that AAP has taken permission for more public events than any other party. In fact, apart from BJP caps worn largely by rickshaw drivers, there is hardly any activity that we saw by any other party in the city. We also asked the local people, have any other parties come to you like this? The answer was always no. Clearly, the traditional parties are following traditional ways of preparing for elections – big rallies at which the neta is seen in the distance, the lobbying and buying of sardars who will each mobilize a number of votes, at most a meeting or two with local leaders on stage. Going directly to the people is something only AAP has dared to do.

Talking of netas at a distance – on the afternoon of the second day (May 2), we went to Bachchaon Bazar outside Banaras, from where Kejriwal started a series of small nukkad meetings on the road into Banaras. At each of the small 10-minute meetings, people would come up excitedly to shake his hand, and one even hugged him. Kejriwal seemed taken aback, but smilingly hugged him back.

In the night, a huge meeting was held, by which time we had come back to Delhi. But you must all have seen the coverage in the newspapers and on television. No? Odd. They were all there, in person at Bachchaon Bazar- Shekhar Gupta, Prannoy Roy, Ravish of course (who has done the only real coverage of the election rather than a Modi campaign), Surjit Singh Bhalla.  Looking impassively at the stage from which Kejriwal was lambasting the Ambanis. How do I know it was a ‘huge’ meeting in the evening? From Facebook.

Benaras 3 May 2

Banaras, May 2, 2014 from Ravi Avasthi’s FB page

At night, in our hotel, we asked our waiter the inevitable question. He beamed at us – “Modi ji, aur koi hai hi nahin”.

So how true was this new media spin – oh-oh, things are changing, there is some support for Kejriwal, but from Muslims. We decided to visit a Hindu neighbourhood that was supportive of AAP, and the next day we accompanied Vipin, a former Congress Councillor from Delhi, to Rajmandir. The AAP point person there, Ghanshyam Singh, had contested as an Independent in the local elections and won.

Is it true that there isn’t much support from Hindus for Kejriwal, we asked. Everybody standing around was incensed. How can you say that, who is saying that, come with us, we’ll show you, they said, and we set off on a couple of hours of meandering around the locality. People who had voted for the kamal, for BSP, for SP, for the Congress – all declaring proudly, is bar chalegi jhaadoo.

We walked into the ‘dhobion ki gali’, and met people there, elsewhere we met people called Yadav and Mishra and Singh – all of them would smile at us and many would make the gesture of sweeping – is baar chalegi jhaadoo.

Someone complains that they saw people in AAP caps in town, selling AAP topis at one rupee each. The volunteers are troubled, but also wondering if it’s BJP trying to discredit AAP. They talk about looking into it. All I could think was – people are willing to buy AAP caps for one rupee? Would they be willing to buy BJP or Congress caps? Do they think this money is going to our party, a party that needs our resources, while other parties buy us off?

Deepak had told us the story of a man cleaning a car in the parking lot of a posh colony in South Delhi, while he was doing door-to-door campaigning for the Delhi elections. The man called out to him, recognizable in the cap he never takes off when outside, and told him he wanted to contribute something to the party. He reached into his pocket and took out ten rupees. As Deepak started to prepare the receipt, he said wait, wait, dug into his pocket and pulled out everything he had – sixteen rupees.

This is so precious, said Deepak, this is bigger than an individual. This is what we must sustain and protect.

shitala mata
Shitala Mata

At the Shitala Mata mandir, Mahant Jagdish Dube, a vocal supporter of AAP, asks us – did we know that Shitala Mata holds a jhaadoo in one hand. The jhaadoo is the symbol of swachhata, cleanliness, and of Lakshmi, because cleanliness brings wealth. The mahants of the Kaal Bhairav mandir are also with AAP, we were told, but we did not meet them.

Meanwhile the morcha had begun around us, with some volunteers from different parts of the country and some local people. Young Kalpana Yadav from this neighbourhood has just finished studying computers, and plans to write the civil service examinations. We met a couple of other civil service aspirants too – an honest bureaucracy in the making? As we move along, in a procession very much like the one in Omkaleshwar, right down to the excited children shouting the same slogans (except that there were women here),  we run into a woman whom Kalpana proudly introduces as her Ma’am. Usha Tiwari has become famous in her neighbourhood for asking a sharp question to the Bhajpais when they came there to do a meeting.

When they declared “Saugandh ram ki khaate hain, mandir vahin banayenge“, (we swear by Ram, we will build the temple there) she asked them – “kya mila? Ram Lalla toh tent mein pade hain na, itne saalon se? Vahan sab kuchh tha, mandir bhi tha, taale bhi khul gaye the, hamari bhi pooja ho rahi thi, unka bhi chal raha tha – kya mila vahan masjid tod ke? Ram Lalla ko bahar kiya na, tent mein?”

What did you gain? You have brought Ram Lalla out, he’s been in a tent all these years. Everything was fine, there was a temple, the locks were open, we could do our pooja, they could carry on too, what did you get by destroying the mosque? You have dragged Ram Lalla outside into a tent!

I was reminded of Varun telling us that Banaras has a long proud history of social movements – this history is what AAP is tapping into.

A dignified elderly gentleman, Madanji, is another pride of the locality. An artist who paints exquisite murals in the small temples around, he has started doing political paintings of corruption being vanquished and so on, which are taken around during campaigns. I asked him if he has ever been politically active before. “Ek zamaane mein communist tha”, he says smiling wistfully, ‘Ab ek muddat se koi judne layak andolan hi nahin mila“. In another age I was a communist. For ages there hasn’t been a movement which I wanted to be part of.

Andolan. Movement. That’s a word used by many of AAP volunteers. This is not a party, it’s a movement. They also often identify insaniyat, humanity, as the core ideology of the party.

Another thing, I heard many of them say – Arvind Kejriwal is not the point. They clearly respect him, love him, but he is not the point. One of them said to a new volunteer – “why are we here? we’re here because we are aam admi, and we’re going to the aam admi. we want to fight corruption and bring in honesty and humanity. Arvind Kejriwal bhi yahan hai, voh apne matlab se aaye honge, lekin yeh andolan unse bada hai.” Kejriwal is also here, he may have his own reasons, but this movement is bigger than Kejriwal.

Later, at the nukkad meeting in Bachchaon Bazar outside Banaras city, I saw this volunteer enthusiastically leading the sloganeering – Bhrashtachaar ka ek hi kaal, Kejriwal, Kejriwal.

AK at Bachhaon bazar
Arvind Kejriwal at Bachchaon Bazar

Back at the Kal Bhairav mandir in Rajmandir, a woman selling flowers waved her hand dismissively at the AAP toli – sab bakvaas hai. Yahan yeh sab nahin chalega. 

One of the volunteers went up to her with a copy of Aap ki Kranti, the party paper. “Padhiye, mataji, Kejriwalji kya kehte hain. Ya kisise padhvaiye. Bhakt ho jayengi aap unki.” Read this, mother, see what Kejriwalji says. Or have someone read it to you. You’ll become his devotee.

When was the last time we heard a politician being advertised for his thoughts?!

Why Kejriwal? We asked again and again. Why AAP?

Imaandari topped the list. Honesty.

Bhrashtachar mitana, of course. But Ikhlaq bhai put it most poetically:

Hum kabootar paalte hain, udti chiriya pehchaante hain. kejriwal kabhi beimaan nahin ho sakta.

I have bred pigeons, I recognize the bird from its flight. Kejriwal can never be dishonest.

For AAP, this is not a battle that will end with the elections. Even the booth managers are meant to be the AAP representatives in their localities after the elections, to play an important role in the swaraj through mohalla sabhas that will emerge, regardless of victory or defeat in the election. The forms for booth managers say this explicitly.

But Deepak also tells us that the process of selecting booth managers has not been carried out with the care it requires, with larger local consultations, because of pressure of elections. AAP activists from Kejriwal onwards, often engage in this kind of critical introspection – a self-criticism of course, picked up sensationally by the media to discredit AAP. But this continuous self-criticism is what could protect AAP from becoming a sclerotic traditional party like all the others.

Meanwhile, Kejriwal declaims from a stage in Banaras – main aap jaise aughad hoon! – and there is a huge roar of approval and laughter. I am aughad like you.

Aughad  is used in Banaras to mean a combination of stubborn and principled, someone who refuses to take things lying down.

Aughad toh hain, ye log! Of that there is no doubt. [ Input source: Kafila]