Candidates reach out to voters with late-evening neighbourhood meetings
Ashish Mehta | December 13, 2012
Last week, it seemed as if the visible (and audible) part of the Gujarat assembly elections will travel only by the highway, from Vadodara to Chhota Udepur and this small village of Achhala will not get any action. This week, the campaign has finally come to Achhala, albeit in a low-profile manner.
Jeeps have been traversing the narrow road touching the village that connects the neighbouring Tejgadh and Devgarh Baria. Half the time, these campaign vehicles blare away Hindi film songs and when they do canvass for a party or a candidate, it is difficult to catch the words from the field.
As a vehicle passed the small road about 200 metres away, we could not make out which party it was campaigning for. Suresh Rathwa left his small grocery shop, walked up to a vantage point, took a hard look and told us, “It seem to be from the Congress.” He was right. A couple of youngsters soon arrived with a pamphlet listing out all the Congress promises.
Such pamphlets and handbills that the jeep-riding canvassers litter on the way of course are picked up, but given the limited literacy in the village, only the symbol is recognized. “Phul (flower, meaning lotus),” Katiya Deshing noticed in a torn pamphlet lying under his charpoi.
Meanwhile, Modi masks, saffron caps and neck scarves called khes too have arrived in the village. Children of Ravji Rathwa and their friends had a good time playing with the paraphernalia, and posing before me for photographs donning the masks and waving the party flags. Where did they get it from? No answer. One of them indicated shyly that Ravji, their father, brought it from the town.
It was a dark night
But the mainstay of the campaign is the night meeting. The candidate through party channels or clan connections approaches one of the two or three leaders of this village for a meeting. Arrangements are made, invitations sent out by word of mouth and the late in the evening, when the village is largely sunk in darkness, the candidate comes and addresses the small crowd in the open.
Conspicuous by their absences at such meetings are the campaign material: no banners, no hoardings, no distribution of khes, not even handbills. Without mics, the candidates and/or their supporters talk, rather than address, the audience. The meetings come in two varieties, with or without dinner. Congress candidate Mohansinh Rathwa had the large one last week, BJP’s Gulsinh Rathwa went for a budget version on Tuesday.
Probably because there was no free dinner to be had, far fewer people turned up at Suresh’s shop, and a single SUV arrived there at 8.35. People had got the hint, I had not, that the candidate himself is not coming. In his place, district and village panchayat representatives of the party did the needful. They made short speeches, beginning with Bharat Mata Ki Jai and ending on the customary Jai Bharat.
Their common theme was development, and how the development over the past 15 years had changed the lives of adivasis. They spoke of the benefits they had received of the welfare package from the Narendra Modi government called Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana (announced ahead of the 2007 assembly elections, with a purse of Rs 15,000 crore).
Just as a couple of villagers had compared the Mohansinh Rathwa meeting with a baraat, there was a similar simile here, coming from a speaker. Dineshbhai, a local-body representative, told the villagers, “We are like the intermediaries who come to you with a marriage proposal for your son or daughter. When you get a proposal, you discuss with your wife, elders and make inquiries. But once you are sure of the other party then you take the call. Now you take the call. And just as you inform your family of your decision, you tell them about BJP.” The comparison amused all. The message too will go home, Dineshbhai hoped.
About sixty people, including ten women and five children, sat on a black tarpaulin in front of Suresh’s shop and listened to the five speakers who kept receiving calls on their mobile phones that the next village in their itinerary was waiting. So, the meet was wrapped up in half an hour plain. But for the waiting crowd at the next stop, they would have entertained questions and confusions too, the leaders said.
Flower, hand – and arrow
Arjun Rathwa, a Janata Dal (united) candidate, reached out to Achhala on Sunday, with not one but two meetings – in two neighbourhoods on the either side of the road, becoming the only candidate whose face people have seen right at their doorsteps. Arjun, 39, teaches English at a college in nearby Pavi-Jetpur, which happens to be run by the Congress strongman Mohansinh Rathwa. Arjun was a trustee and the director of the Adivasi Academy in Tejgagh, who went to the Leeds University, UK, to do his masters in development studies, and has returned home.
He told people what his party’s president Sharad Yadav was telling tribals in south Gujarat that day: that after more than six decades of independence, tribals had seen little improvement in their lot and though the two big parties had their claims and counter-claims, it was clear that neither had bothered about the concerns of the tribals.
“Our problems are not the kind that can be solved by the flower (that is lotus, meaning BJP), nor they can be solved by the hand (Congress). They can be solved only by an arrow (his election symbol, of course). Press the button in front of arrow if you agree with me, otherwise the two big ones will keep taking their turns and we will remain where we are,” he said.
Signs and symbols
In spite of his hard work and eagerness to reach out, however, many villagers still though the contest was only between ‘phul’ and ‘haath’. Bhulabhai, for example, told me there were two candidates in the fray, Mohansinh and Gulsinh. The rest, even for those who knew, would be classified as ‘apaksh’ independents and the former BJP rebels’ Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) faced this identity crisis more than others. Some thought Parivartan and GPP were two separate things and all called its local candidate Shankar Rathwa an independent – though the man who represented the constituency for BJP during 2002-07 remained popular.
After Tuesday’s night meeting, it was Shankar’s meeting that was awaited, while it was clear that BJP’s Gulsinh was not going to step in the village now for canvassing. The fifth candidate, Somabhai Nayak, who really is independent, is somebody nobody here had heard of.
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