Archive for the ‘2019 Elections’ Category

By Sonia Sarkar

As election results started indicating the Hindu nationalist BJP’s landslide victory by Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “India wins yet again!” It is important to understand which India he is referring to. It is not the secular and liberal India whose Constitution guarantees “freedom” and “equality” for all.

It is a new India which Modi started building little before the previous parliamentary elections in 2014. When he proposed to build this new India, he projected, “development” as its core agenda. But during his tenure in the last five years, this new India is being built upon polarization and chest-thumping muscular nationalism.

This India is not shaken by huge job losses because of demonetization and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), a government agency, the unemployment rate was at 6.1 per cent in the period of July 2017-June 2018, the highest since 1972–73.

This India could be easily taken into fold with grand advertising campaigns on flawed government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched in haste. This India doen’t question why only 60 lakh houses have been built so far against the target of constructing one crore rural dwellings by March 31, 2019, since the scheme was launched on November 20, 2016. This India doesn’t question, how do the rural poor sustain to cook using LPG with the rising prices of gas cylinders, even if they got free cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojana.

This India is not bothered that Modi had promised to double the farmers’ income but owing to huge debts, over 12,602 farmers and agricultural laborers committed suicide in 2015, as per the last available official data.

This India believes only in alienation.

This is a divisive India which believes in “othering” the minorities in the country, especially the Muslims, who needs to be shown their place.

This India doesn’t blink an eye when hundreds of Dalits and Muslims get lynched by state-backed self-styled cow vigilantes for trading cattle or for allegedly storing beef at homes.

This India celebrates when a Kashmiri is tied to the jeep of an Indian soldier who uses him as a “human shield.”

This India loves the barrel-chested Modi who has the guts to say, “Ghar pe ghuskar marenge( Will enter their home and kill them)” while referring to Pakistan. This India laps up BJP’s narrative of being the savior of the nation. This India, which voted for the “interest of the nation, “ is convinced by Modi’s claims that Indian Air Force carried out surgical strikes at the “terrorist nation” Pakistan, weeks before the elections, in retaliation to Pulwama attacks by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad.

But ironically, this India also elects a terror accused, Pragya Singh Thakur, BJP’s candidate from Bhopal, to the Parliament, with a huge margin of over three lakh votes. The fact that she carried out a blast at Malegaon, a Muslim-dominated area in Maharashtra, perhaps, was the motivating factor behind electing her. There could be counter arguments that Bhopal has been the traditional bastion of BJP, and therefore, Thakur’s win was inevitable. A question which some liberals are asking is, even if it is BJP’s traditional seat, how could people vote for someone who hailed Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi? But that’s the real essence of Modi’s new India, nobody is encouraged to think. It’s the herd mentality which rules supreme, be it when a Muslim is lynched on the street or a terror accused is elected to Parliament.

This India has also elected 28-year-old lawyer Tejasvi Surya from south Bangalore, who too won by almost three lakh votes. The face of educated urban and elite India, Surya, once tweeted, “BJP should unapologetically be a party for Hindus.”

Pundits have already dubbed Modi’s victory as the rise of Hindutva 2.0. Indeed, it is. This new India believes in the ideology of the BJP’s fount, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which advocates for a “Hindu Rashtra (an exclusive land for Hindus).”

Now speculations loom large over the next five years of Modi’s second term. A section of Indians who were always worried about this new India, being built over hate and bigotry, are asking some pertinent questions — Will there be jobs now? Will farmers get their debts waived off? Will there be normalcy in Kashmir? Will it be easier for Muslims to live in this country?

Modi has made an attempt to answer such questions by tweeting — “Together we will build a strong and inclusive India.” But these words have found no resonance with his new India. His cheerleaders have already started stressing democracy is all about majoritarianism, no space for dissenters, who are a minority now in new India. The sentiment is well-articulated in this tweet by a Modi supporter — “Take it or leave it, this is New India ready to take on the world… India is in good hands.”

Clearly, hatred and intolerance would continue to remain the lifeline of Modi supporters, even in the next five years.

The onus is on Modi now to prove that he understands the meaning of the term “inclusive” in its true sense. His words, spoken at the Parliament’s Central Hall — “sabka vishwas” should not turn out to be another “jumla.”

Bollywood’s jingoistic hero assures voters that he will stay put and work for the constituency

I must say I am a bit disappointed. I have been hoping to catch a glimpse of the macho man who felled many an enemy — to say nothing of the gruesome Pakistani villain — in Hindi cinema. But here he is, steering clear of all those jingoistic dialogues that made his films such hits.

Sunny Deol is on the road, canvassing for votes in Gurdaspur, a constituency in Punjab once held by Vinod Khanna, his senior in the Hindi film industry and in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, which lost the seat in a by-election after Khanna’s death, hopes to wrest it from the Congress. And Deol is seemingly just the right candidate for a party fighting the Lok Sabha polls on the proud plank of nationalism.

A dialogue from the blockbuster Ghadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) is being played at public meetings. In the film, Deol plays a truck driver who fights Pakistanis to bring his wife back to India in the film. Speakers blare out the line: “Hindustan zindabad thahai aur rahega (Hindustan was, is and will remain free)”.

But Deol, who mostly waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his car, may have realised that the voter is more concerned about development than filmi dialogues. He does not speak much about nationalism and the enemy across the border. He no longer dons the saffron turban or the military camouflage cap he was seen wearing earlier in the campaign. He doesn’t repeat the line “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot)” at the rallies.

“I don’t want people to vote for me because of my nationalist roles. I am connecting with people to genuinely serve them,” he tells BLink.

For the BJP, 62-year-old Deol is a potent symbol of the establishment. He has played the role of a soldier, cop and spy — in Border (1997), Indian (2001) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003) respectively. “Nobody else has done patriotic films like Sunny Deol has. He would work for the country just as (Narendra) Modiji does,” says BJP’s Gurdaspur president Bal Krishna Mittal.

The constituency in Gurdaspur, a district that shares a 110-km border with Pakistan, has its own set of problems. Heroin is smuggled in hollow pipes that come floating on the River Ravi from Pakistan’s Narowal, 50km from Gurdaspur. Two militant attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot were believed to have been carried out by terrorists from Pakistan. Speculation is rife about the revival of a movement for Khalistan — a homeland for Sikhs — with alleged support from Pakistan.

“Being a sensitive border constituency, the BJP wants to use the nationalism card in its favour,” political scientist Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University says.

The constituents, however, are watching the electoral play with a fair dose of scepticism. They would rather the BJP addressed issues of unemployment, farmers’ debt and drug trafficking. Sugar cane farmers allege that sugar mills are yet to pay them their dues worth 85 crore for the previous crushing season. There is agrarian debt, and 60 per cent of Batala’s cast iron and foundry production units have shut down in recent years.

“BJP’s nationalism won’t give us jobs, but new factories will,” says Jugraj Singh, a 25-year-old voter who lost his job in a sugar mill in 2017.

But Deol has his supporters, thousands of whom wait to catch a glimpse of him at rallies. His campaign trail, mostly road shows, carries on for 12 hours every day. Men want to shake hands with him and kids run alongside his white Land Rover on the highway. “When I meet people, I see the love and affection they have (for me),” he stresses.

Since the actor and now would-be politician came late into the fray — he joined the BJP last month — he has had very little time to cover his constituency’s nine assembly segments before the May 19 poll. He looks fatigued but despite his hectic schedule, takes out 40 minutes for a workout every morning.

“People become health conscious when they look at me. They want to be family-oriented and obedient the way I am. They are taking the right path of life,” he says. He also believes that his films have influenced the young to join the Army: “I have been unknowingly influencing people.”

Dressed in a denim shirt and a pair of blue jeans, Deol stresses that his focus is on education, jobs, health and farmers.

The actor knows that Gurdaspur, once a Congress bastion, was won four times by Khanna largely on the plank of development. Khanna was known as “pulon ka badshah” (the king of bridges) among the locals for having built a bridge over the Beas, connecting the neighbouring Mukerian with Gurdaspur. After Khanna’s death, the BJP, along with its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, fielded a security guard company boss, Swaran Salaria, in the 2017 bypoll. Salaria lost to the Congress’s Sunil Jakhar — son of former speaker Balram Jakhar — by 1,90,000 votes.

“A combination of factors may work for Deol — his patriotism in movies, his Jat identity as Jats are in large numbers here, and the legacy of Vinod Khanna, the man from Deol’s fraternity,” says Kumar. And it helps that Deol’s father, actor and former BJP Bikaner MP Dharmendra, belongs to Ludhiana.

What may also help him is that Jakhar has not kept his poll promises of providing the youth with smartphones or creating jobs. There are also whispers linking him with illegal mining. But Jakhar’s answer to Deol is that once he returns to Mumbai, the actor will do nothing for the people.

Deol is fighting not just Jakhar but the rumours that he will not be seen after the poll. “They say: He is an actor. He won’t come here, he won’t stay here, he won’t do this, he won’t do that,” Deol complains. “I want to make people believe, I will be here, for them.”

I fear that as a line, it is not quite as effective as some of his fiery dialogues.

This story appeared in Hindu Business Line’s BLink on May 17, 2019

A group of 15 men proudly salute a saffron flag hooked firmly onto an iron rod. The flag belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist group that claims it has more than 6 million direct or affiliate members and is the ideological mothership of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Our flag is our guru, our identity,” says 30-year-old dentist Vikram Dhillon, a resident of Supreme Towers, a high-rise apartment complex in Noida near New Delhi.

It’s a sentiment the RSS — whose early leaders publicly admired Hitler and Mussolini — feared it was losing a decade ago among Indian youth, a group that is becoming increasingly urban, globalized and middle class. But a 21st-century upgrade, from a new uniform to modern recruitment tactics, is helping draw young engineers, doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, bankers and journalists into the fold, especially in upscale neighborhoods where supporters traditionally felt the need to hide their allegiances.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity also helps, RSS leaders say, at a time when nationalist forces are bringing once-fringe conversations to the mainstream globally. As Modi seeks reelection — results will be declared this Thursday — these new recruits are emerging as some of his biggest cheerleaders.

Over the past two years, the RSS has witnessed a 20 percent increase in most neighborhood units (shakhas), which offer daily and weekly milans (gatherings) in suburbs and cities dominated by young upwardly mobile professionals. Noida has seen 120 new shakhas emerge since 2017, compared to around 100 in the same period before 2016, says RSS volunteer Pankaj Kapil. Between 10 and 20 volunteers attend each shakhadaily, with more on weekends, he adds. In Gurgaon, another Delhi suburb with offices for global financial and tech firms, at least 80 new shakhas and milans have started in the past two years in high-rise apartments, says Vijay Kumar, the regional RSS in charge. In Bangalore, 160 new milans for information technology professionals have started in this period. And 90 new shakhas and milans have come up in the Mumbai neighborhoods of Andheri and Lokhandwala, and in the satellite township of Navi Mumbai since 2016.

Many of these fresh recruits have studied at elite schools. They tend to make more than $100,000 annually, work for multinationals, go on international holidays and send their children to global schools. Yet, they’re finding meaning as members of the RSS, which advocates for a Hindu nation.

“Now, you can be tech-savvy and upwardly mobile, yet support sectarianism,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. “Earlier, it was politically incorrect to be a part of shakhas. Now it is not improper to publicly say [that] Muslims need to be shown their place.”

For some recruits, shakhas  — where volunteers sing prayers, chant nationalistic slogans and perform physical exercises — are primarily attractive as pathways to fitness, discipline and a reconnect with Indian “family values.” Others concede they want to edge closer to the ruling BJP through the RSS. For several volunteers, such as Dhillon, the RSS is also fundamentally about doing something for society. “Social work is part of the RSS’s Hindutva package,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, referring to the group’s guiding philosophy.

He adds, aspirational young middle class has many anxieties – economic, religious and cultural – RSS is only cashing in on it. “RSS’s solution to all problems is chest-thumping nationalism which gives them a sense of security,” says Visvanathan.

Founded in 1925, the RSS has long counted India’s urban middle class as a key base, with shakhas in neighborhood parks a common sight throughout India. But that relationship was beginning to snap with a millennial generation that found the organization’s rigid hierarchical structure outdated, and the daily physical exercises boring, says Mukhopadhyay. As liberal, left-leaning education and politics dominated India, the RSS came to be seen as regressive among the English-speaking elite of the country. Dhillon’s neighbor, 42-year-old Supreme Court lawyer Bipin Bihari Singh says that people didn’t want to be identified as shakha participants.

That’s now history because the RSS is adapting — except its ideology — with the times. After consulting a top fashion designer, it swapped its khaki shorts in 2016 for smart brown trousers and made the uniform optionalThe RSS now recruits door-to-door and offers weekend and virtual events for those who can’t attend daily meetings. In meetings, Sanskrit lexicon is now occasionally replaced by English, and the RSS has launched 65 new affiliate bodies targeting specific professions. Since 2016, an average of 100,000 new recruits have signed up through just the website each year, compared to just over 60,000 annually before that, according to the RSS.

Abhishek Junnarkar, a 38-year-old assistant vice president for a multinational company, says the RSS “trains us how to save our country from people who want to overpower us.” That sense of threat from an often-unspecified source — be it Muslims, Christian missionaries, Pakistan, communists or secular liberals — is at the heart of the RSS training.

Take the common shakha game Lahore Kiska Hai (Whose is Lahore). The group leader asks, “Lahore kiska hai,” and players shout back, “Lahore hamara hain (Lahore is ours).” Players then push each other to grab a stone that’s meant to symbolize Lahore. The RSS vision for India, after all, includes most of South Asia as a single nation.

The urban middle class in India largely subscribes to RSS ideology to proliferate and dominate by eliminating the ‘other’ to overturn country’s secular consensus,” says Visvanathan.

Modi’s muscular nationalism which is based on this principle of alienation fits this narrative. “People want to work for the nation the way he does,” says Ajay Mudpe, RSS publicity head in the Konkan region. But working “for the nation” can mean “othering” those the RSS sees as outsiders. A WhatsApp campaign in a Noida neighborhood, for example, led to a boycott of Bengali Muslim household helpers who were en masse labeled  illegal migrants from Bangladesh.”

Meanwhile, the National Voters Forum, an affiliate of the formally apolitical RSS, has been urging professionals to vote for a party that works for the “interest of the nation” — code for the BJP.

Back in Supreme Towers, Dhillon says he’ll stay with the RSS no matter how the BJP does this week. The deep roots the organization has put down in India’s high-rise apartment blocks aren’t going anywhere. “Once in RSS, always in RSS,” he says.

(A version of the story was published in Ozy on May 21, 2019: )

The Gurdaspur candidate has begun distancing himself from the nationalistic rhetoric


By Sonia Sarkar

The rich and resonant voice of Sunny Deol has mellowed down. He is barely audible. His sleep-deprived eyes are half-open. The 40-minute morning workout hasn’t really helped. He drinks a glass of lassi to boost himself. “It has been a little hectic because I came in pretty late,” says the 62-year-old Bollywood actor. He is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from Punjab’s Gurdaspur, pitted against incumbent Congress MP Sunil Jakhar.

Deol is flooded with visitors at the courtyard of a guesthouse at Nawan Pind Sardaran Di, about six kilometres away from Gurdaspur town. Mill workers who have been laid off, want their jobs back. Farmers want their debts paid off. Young men want selfies with him. Deol interacts with them for about 15 minutes, and then goes inside. “I am trying to understand everything; I am battling,” he says candidly, while fiddling with a string of white beads on his right wrist.

Clearly, his colleagues in the BJP haven’t briefed him enough about his constituents. It seems they are only keen to milk the barrel-chested Deol’s muscular nationalist image from the silver screen for Gurdaspur, which shares 110 kilometres of international boundary with Pakistan. This is the same constituency that saw two terrorist attacks four years ago. As Gurdaspur goes to the polls on May 19, the party wants to project Deol as a “tough man” who has taught Pakistan many “lessons” in films such as Border (1997), Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Maa Tujhhe Salaam (2002) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003).

Several patriotic dialogues from his films are a huge hit even today. This one from Gadar – “Hindustan zindabad tha, hai, aur rahega,” which is heard in his rallies, was tweeted by even Prime Minister Narendra Modi after Deol met him last month. BJP leaders call him the sachha deshbhakt (true patriot). Initially, Deol too used to parrot, “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot).” But, after he betrayed his ignorance over recent Indian Air Force strikes on Pakistan’s Balakot in a media interview, he seems to be distancing himself from the nationalist rhetoric.  “I didn’t do those films because I wanted to do patriotic films. They just happened. I am not trying to cash in on that image — no way — I will never do that,” he clarifies.

While patting his forehead gently with a white towel, the actor adds, “People just didn’t understand Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was a love story.”  He stresses, “In that film, I fought for my family — I didn’t fight for India.”

Slowly, he is picking up issues that matter to his constituents. On arsenic contamination of groundwater in Gurdaspur, he says, “We have to stop farmers from using fertilisers.” His solution to the region’s drug addiction problem is this — “We need to divert the attention of the youth towards sports.”

But he isn’t speaking much at the rallies. He moves with a fleet of SUVs around villages, waves to the cheering crowd and shakes hands with a few enthusiasts from the sunroof of his white Land Rover. At rare times, he opens the door of his car, interacts with people. He nods when they share their problems with him, but he isn’t offering any solutions for now. Many find him honest, but are not convinced he would be around if he wins. After all, his father, actor Dharmendra, also a BJP man, remained a ‘missing MP’ in Rajasthan’s Bikaner.

His opponents allege he is fighting elections under pressure from the BJP to escape an income-tax raid, and that he has jumped into politics because his film career is virtually over. In fact, his latest release, Blank, where he plays an anti-terrorist squad (ATS) officer, isn’t doing well at the box office.

Are the allegations true, I ask?

He is irked. Now, I can hear the familiar intense voice. Without badmouthing his rivals, the actor, who has declared assets worth Rs 87.18 crore in his nomination papers, asserts: “My purpose of getting into politics is not for gaining anything… I am doing pretty well, where I am. I want to serve the people.”

Traditionally a Congress bastion, Gurdaspur was won by late Bollywood actor and BJP MP Vinod Khanna four times, till he died in 2017. Jakhar defeated BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) joint candidate Swaran Salaria in the by-elections. Rumours are that the BJP didn’t have a candidate who could match the charm of Khanna. So, at the last minute, it turned to this macho Jat Bollywood hero.

When I ask whether Khanna’s legacy would help him, he doesn’t have a straight answer. “There will be factors, which might work in my favour and also go against me,” Deol says. “I want everything to go against me, and I will still emerge a winner.”

His voice lacks conviction, though.


Published in Firstpost:

  • Sunny DeolThe 62-year-old actor has made a name for himself portraying soldiers, spies and police officers in a series of hypermasculine blockbusters
  • But will his on-screen anti-Pakistan persona prove popular among those who live in neighbouring Punjab state?

Read my EXCLUSIVE interview with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra where she speaks about husband Rober Vadra, her children and her childhood.

By Sonia Sarkar for The Telegraph, India

It is 42 degree Celsius at Rae Bareli. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s face is burning red. A stream of sweat trickles down her chin. As she opens a bottle of refreshment for a sip, a man comes running towards her, accuses her men of snatching away his phone. She remains calm, sends two of her staffers to look into the matter. “Just see there is no violence,” she tells them. Her programme is disrupted for a while. But that doesn’t take away the quintessential smile from her face. “You can’t take yourself too seriously, you have to learn to laugh at yourself a bit,” she tells me, turning her head to the right as I sit behind her in the car.

The man in question is from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and possibly looking to disrupt her programme. “These things look trivial but they get blown up,” says Vadra as she finishes the fourth meeting of the day at Gurha. Last week, a video clip of her from Amethi went viral. The clip shows her listening on as local children chant “Chowkidar chor hain”, but when they start to chant something abusive about the Prime Minister she reprimands gently, ‘Achchhe bachche bano.” She has been served a notice by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights for involving children in her election campaign. Says Vadra, “I am a mother. I never teach anything bad to my children, why would I ever teach anything bad to any child.”

The 47-year-old talks a lot about her own children. She tells me she has finally made an entry into politics with due “permission” from them. “Rahul and I didn’t have a normal childhood. We witnessed so much violence. We couldn’t go to school after the age of 12 [they were home-schooled because of the security threats]. But I wanted my children to have a normal childhood. They are grown up now. I am here with my children’s permission,” she laughs.

Her children — Raihan and Miraya — didn’t have to witness any violence, but they had to witness the vilification of their father, Robert Vadra. He has been accused of money laundering and has been summoned by the Enforcement Directorate many times in the last five years. “What has been conducted against my husband is a full-blown political vendetta. Obviously, it has consequences in terms of creating stress for the children and for all of us,” says Vadra. She pauses and adds, “But it is part of politics and we will deal with it.” As we speak, she fiddles with the pink stripes of her green cotton saree which looks crushed now.

This interview is done in three parts on the same day. The last bit happens in her car. In between answering questions, she turns back to see if I am comfortable at the back with three other people, is my car following me and so on. At her first meeting of the day at Amawan in Rae Bareli she had told the crowd, “Sonia Gandhi has a lot of love for the people of Rae Bareli and she has worked hard for them.” Not everyone in the crowd agreed though. Rae Bareli is considered one of the backward districts of India, and villagers complain about lack of clean drinking water and poor power supply. Vadra, however, lists out a range of small and big work her mother has done as an MP in the past 15 years — construction of roads, construction of classrooms, installation of taps.  She accuses BJP of impeding some of her mother’s dream projects. “The All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Rae Bareli set up by the UPA is running an outdoor-patient unit only, no expansion has been done by BJP,” she points out.


Vadra rolls out a fresh set of promises to villagers — Congress will give Rs 72,000 payout for the poorest in the country under the Nyuntum Aay Yojana scheme, otherwise known as NYAY; it will fill four lakh central government vacancies before March 2020; there will be a separate kisan budget every year. She could well be repeating herself but she is a good orator, weaves stories of other villages, draws parallels to the lives of the people here. But is this newly appointed Congress general secretary of Uttar Pradesh (east) going to disappear again after elections? “Now I am not going to disappear anywhere,” she asserts.

But she is yet to take a plunge into electoral politics. There were speculations that she might engage in a face-off with no less than the Prime Minister himself  in Varanasi. But ultimately Congress fielded five-time MLA Ajai Rai from the seat. And now BJP is saying she is scared of Modi. “I am not scared of anyone,” she retorts. She adds, “Initially, we were all sort of saying, why shouldn’t somebody fight from Varanasi? Media built it up to be a more serious thing than it was.” According to her, the party didn’t want her to be restricted to one constituency. “Here I am responsible for 41 constituencies. I believe if I am doing party work I should stick to doing party work,” she says.

Vadra thinks on her feet, her responses are sharp and she never dodges any question. Will she fight the by-elections at Amethi if her brother Rahul Gandhi has to choose between Wayanad and Amethi? “We haven’t really discussed what would be the course of action if Rahul has to vacate one seat,” she says. It seems her sole target is to strengthen the party presence in the state before the 2022 assembly elections. “We have to be very strong in the state for which I have to do lot of travelling,” says Vadra.

But many say her charm doesn’t extend beyond Rae Bareli and Amethi — basically the only two seats out of UP’s 80 that the Congress won in the 2014 elections. Analysts say Congress would have fared better electorally if there was an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But then, only recently, BSP supremo Mayawati said that Congress and BJP had a tacit understanding and were contesting against her alliance together. And then again, at a rally in eastern UP’s Barabanki, Rahul Gandhi said that Modi can suppress Akhilesh-Mayawati but he not is afraid of Modi. So what message is Rahul trying to convey, I ask Vadra. “The message is very clear — he is saying he is not afraid,” she replies. “Perhaps they are [SP and BSP] and that is why they didn’t form an alliance with us. Forming an alliance would have meant, BJP would have stood no chance in UP.”

It is too early to say if BJP can be defeated, but I point out that BJP’s hyper-nationalism has resonated with the people of India. Vadra says, “We are all desh bhakts. But it is important to address farmers’ distress and gross unemployment. That’s my nationalism.”

Even if she doesn’t believe in BJP’s brand of nationalism, it seems Vadra has fallen into BJP’s trap of Hindutva politics. She was recently seen sporting a red tilak on her forehead and offering prayers to a banyan tree. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in fact, accused Congress leaders of being “chunavi Hindus”. Her reaction to that? “I have been visiting temples for the past 20 years,” she says.

I prepare to get off the car, her staffers want Vadra to have lunch. I ask her about those videos that show her playing with snakes in Rae Bareli. Was that a photo-op, a trick Modi is said to resort to in order to go viral on social media. Vadra says, “Somebody stopped me on the side of the road, took me into his village. He happened to be a snake charmer, so he took out his baskets full of snakes. Do you think all that was orchestrated? I am sorry, I am not an actor.”

Did she mean there is someone else in the current political scenario who could be called one, I was left wondering. But I had no time to ask this.

The interview appeared on May 4, 2019 in The Telegraph — Link:


By Sonia Sarkar

World’s largest democracy, India, is electing the representatives for its next Parliament but a large section of people in the Indian–administered Kashmir has chosen to boycott. Amid the unprecedented deployment of security forces and internet shut down, nobody came to vote at 122 polling booths in Kulgam of Anantnag constituency on Monday.  The trend was similar in other two constituencies – Srinagar and Baramulla.  No votes were cast in, at least, 107 polling booths there a fortnight ago.

Srinagar-based Asma Firdous, who had taken to streets against Indian security forces with Franz Kafka in her bag and stone in hand, refused to get her finger inked in the ongoing elections. This 26-year-old postgraduate student, who often chanted slogans of  “Azadi (freedom)” on the streets, says –“We don’t consider ourselves as Indians, nor do the Indians consider us as one of their own, why vote for India, then?

Like her, many Kashmiris allege, India is only concerned about retaining Kashmir as its territory but never considered them as its own people. This disillusionment has been growing among Kashmiris ever since the Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – came to power in 2014. The party articulated its core agenda to abrogate Article 370 and 35 A, which give autonomy to Kashmir and permanent residency to state subjects under Indian Constitution, respectively. Kashmiris allege, BJP is trying to change the demography of Muslim-dominated Kashmir, the strife-torn Valley of India over which at least two wars have been fought with Pakistan.

Poll boycott in Kashmir is a stern message to New Delhi and Narendra Modi that Kashmiris don’t trust them, Srinagar-based political scientist Sheikh Showkat Hussain says. “This is also an indication that the alienation has reached at such a level that people have become indifferent now.”

In 2014, BJP also formed a coalition with Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to govern the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thereafter, it intensified Army excess – crackdown, detentions and killings. At least 100 civilians were allegedly killed and hundred more were blinded by pellet guns when they protested against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, a Kashmir boy. Human rights activists claim, at least, 57 civilians killed in 2017 and 80 in 2018 allegedly by security forces during street protests. In 2017, an Army officer even tied up a Kashmiri to the front of his jeep and used him as a human shield to ward off stone pelters.

Kashmiris argue they have no reason to vote for a country which uses its brutal forces against them.  “India is a land of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, the peacemaker. Why vote for a country run by fascists?” asks human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who was detained for 76 days on charges of being an “instigator “of violence three years ago.

The latest bone of contention of Kashmiris is the gag order from New Delhi banning civilians from travelling on a key highway, which connects Kashmir to its twin city, Jammu, twice a week. The ban came after Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Kashmiri militant killed 42 Indian soliders in a suicide attack on the same highway. Kashmir doesn’t like this high-handedness by New Delhi. It started an arms movement pressing for the right to self-determination in 1989. After a lull period in the mid and late 2000, youths have started joining militancy again – 191 joined in 2018 and 126 in 2017, as per Army records. But the anti-India sentiment is so strong especially among the educated middle class that they call them “our boys,” not terrorists. A common narrative is – “If there is terrorism in Kashmir, it is in the hands of men in uniform.”

It is this hatred against India that pulls  them  away from the democratic process of polling. Kashmir never witnessed huge turnout in parliamentary elections — it was 50 per cent in 2014 — highest as compared to 40 per cent in 2009 and 35 per cent in 2004. But this year, it looks abysmally low so far. Out of the six parliamentary constituencies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, three –Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag – are in Kashmir Valley, others in Jammu and Ladakh. The voter turnout was 34.1 per cent in north Kashmir’s peaceful Baramulla constituency, still five per cent less as compared to the last general elections in 2014. Barring the Congress bastions of Dooru, Kokernag and Shangus, the turnout was exceptionally low in militancy-hit south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency, where polling is scheduled in five phases, last one slated for May 6. Anantnag’s Bijbehara, the home turf for PDP head and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, recorded only 2.04 per cent voting as opposed to 36 per cent in 2014. No votes were cast in 40 polling booths in Bijbehara. Fearing resentment of people, who feel betrayed by PDP for joining hands with BJP, Mehbooba couldn’t campaign there. It’s a different story that the allies fell out and Kashmir is under President’s rule now.

In an exclusive telephonic interview, Mehbooba Mufti tells me, her party’s “credibility has been tainted.” “People are angry and disillusioned. They feel democracy is limited to elections, there is no democracy after elections,” she says.

People allege, both mainstream politicians –Mehbooba and her rival Omar Abdullah of National Conference – never kept their promises of demilitarization. “People know these leaders can’t do anything in Parliament without orders from New Delhi,” says Parvez of Srinagar, where the voter turnout was 14 per cent as compared to 26 per cent in 2014.

Barring a routine boycott call by Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmir chief Riyaz Naikoo on social media and a press note on the same by separatist alliance, All Party Hurriyat Conference, there has been no organised campaign on poll boycott unlike previous years. “At this juncture, people don’t need any leader to decide for them, they boycotted voluntarily,” says Firdaus Ahmad Shah, chairman of Democratic Political Movement, part of the alliance.

It is believed, those who voted are party cadres, relatives of political parties and tribals in the hilly terrain. Political activist Javaid Trali of Tral in south Kashmir, Burhan Wani’s home district, says, he would vote on May 6 because he “believes in exercising his democratic right.”

People who vote are stigmatized as “traitors” by many.  “When people vote, India tells the world, Kashmir is with us, which is not true,” adds 35-year-old pharmacist Nasir Patiguru of Anantnag.

The participation of villagers, who vote for better roads, electricity, water, employment,  and not much influenced by the sentiment of “Azadi.”has been less too this time, “There is no promising candidate; even if we vote, they won’t do anything for us,” alleges 39-year-old Sarir Ahmed Bhat of Srandoo villange in Kulgam, where the voter turnout was 1.7 per cent on Monday.

Former civil servant Shah Faesal, who resigned to protest against “unabated killings” in Kashmir and formed his own political party- Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement – says, many villagers moved around the polling booths, finished their daily jobs but didn’t go to vote.

There are some who voted to register this dissent. Government clerk Ashiq Hussain Bhat of Srinagar, who voted for NOTA (None of The Above) says, “I voted against poll boycott of separatists. I also voted against ‘mainstream’ politicians who are concerned about capturing state power and resources and don’t want any resolution of Kashmir conflict.”

Meanwhile, Mufti promises to do take up some “confidence-building” measures among people. Is this another poll promise?

(A version of the story with additional inputs has appeared in DW: