Hitting the trail

India’s status as the world’s largest democracy, but also one of its least developed, means campaigning before an election can be a rough and ready experience. Courtney Trenwith spent a day on the trail with Digvijaya and Jaivardhan Singh in rural Madhya Pradesh to find out how the father-and-son team connect with the electorate.
Even in 2014, election rallies remain a mainstay of Indian campaigning, particularly in regional areas.
By Courtney Trenwith
Sun 11 May 2014 09:43 AM

The dust is still settling and the helicopter rotor blade continues at rapid speed, but Digvijaya Singh and his 27-year-old son Jaivardhan are already on the ground with their arms in the air, waving to the throng of people eagerly awaiting their arrival at Bhilwaria, a rural village of about 2,000 people.

The father-and-son political duo are quickly whisked into a four-wheel drive but they continue to reach out to the villagers through their windows and several times order the driver to stop so they can receive the blessings of men and women now lined on the side of the dirt road.

Security personnel softly push the people away with bamboo sticks. The Singhs are on a tight schedule, each with up to 10 villages – spread over hundreds of kilometres - to visit today.

While neither of them are running in this election, their respective positions in the national upper house and state assembly mean they not only have party obligations to campaign but their presence can be enormously influential on votes.

Digvijaya is a general secretary of the incumbent Indian National Congress party’s central decision-making body and the longest- serving chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (1993-2003), so he is particularly well received.

And in a country where politics is practically ruled by dynasties, Jaivardhan is immediately popular.

At the town centre at least 1,000 men, women and older teens are already waiting, squatting on the dirt floor under a light canopy.

Before the crowd has time to settle into place, Jaivardhan, who was only elected to the state assembly as the member for Raghogarh in November, as the youngest ever MP, leaps to centre stage and immediately begins a passionate appeal to voters.

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He has been in the job for barely five months but he appears to have learnt from his father, a 40-year political veteran.

The Columbia University graduate rapidly draws in his audience, many of them Dalits (untouchables). He makes the most of recent revelaions that the local BJP candidate has been accused of stealing from fair price shops in nearby villages – “that’s the biggest news in the area at the moment” – before using a cricket analogy to coerce voters to support the Congress.

“They all love cricket here, so I tell them the voting day is like the last over of a cricket match. You can work as much as you want before that but if you don’t get the number of runs on the last over, meaning if you don’t get enough votes for the Congress on voting day, you don’t win,” he says to me.

After a few minutes, Jaivardhan takes his turn to sit cross-legged on the stage, while his father makes his own passionate plea for votes.

Digvijaya is followed by the incumbent local member, Narayan Sineh Amlabe. The turban-wearing Hindu is the only member of the Lok Sabha – the lower house of India’s national parliament, which is presently going through elections – to herald from a small rural village and he is expected to win.

When the rally is wrapped up, constituents rush to surround the men, who are reluctantly forced into cars to continue their long series of rallies, just three days before this area will go to the polls during the fifth phase of voting in India’s five-week voting process that ends May 12.

Their campaigning is vital to Congress’ hopes in the Rajgarh constituency, which takes in Jaivardhan’s Raghogarh state constituency. The Singh family has been involved in politics here since before independence.

Digvijaya’s father, Balbhadra Singh, contested the first Indian election in 1951 and was the last raja – or prince – of Raghogarh before the abolition of royal families. For three centuries, the Singhs were the landlords of what was a princely state under the pre-independence system.

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Jaivardhan and his cousin, the mayor of Raghogarh, still live in the 350-year-old fort perched on one of two hills overlooking the village.

Digvijaya’s younger brother, Lakshman Singh, is also in politics and holds a neighbouring seat.

But they insist the family status is not taken for granted.

“[The continuity of the leadership] depended on the behaviour of the landlord/prince, how he dealt with his subjects,” Digvijaya says during the helicopter ride to Bhilwaria. “So if he was popular, then the legacy continued but in a family like ours the legacy goes good for only one election, then you have to build it back up on your own.”

Digvijaya is now passing on that lesson to Jaivardhan - who says he made an independent choice to continue the dynasty - by vowing not to campaign for his son during future elections.

“He has to do it himself,” Digvijaya says.

His own father had passed away before he was 25, the minimum age to contest an election, and he says it was the appeal of the local community that propelled him into politics.

“Because of our background, they looked up to us to sort of help them out in whatever capacity. So I thought why not?” he says.

A lot has changed in campaigning since Digvijaya entered politics in the 1960s. Development and communication have seen greater political awareness, party budgets have soared and personalities are now being contested as much as issues.

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“There’s more political awareness in the people; people are more grounded now, they’re more aware, their expectations are much higher now, so it’s much more difficult,” he says.

“One has to be on their toes all the time, 24/7. My mobile phone is on 24/7 ... and each day I answer almost 100-150 messages in the morning and about 10-15 mails.”

Voting this year is taking place electronically and Digvijaya, who says he will retire when his term ends in 2018, is not convinced the computer system can be trusted.

“My take is that in the age of modern technology, nothing is tamper proof and in a democracy, if you allow the possibility of tampering then there’s no democracy left. Therefore I don’t trust these machines,” he says.

Rajgarh constituency is one of the largest and most sparsely populated in the national elections but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Digvijaya had the use of a helicopter for campaigning.

After the first rally, he takes off again, leaving Jaivardhan and I to travel by road to less accessible villages. Splitting up is the only way they can manage the workload.

The majority of the roughly 1.2 million voters in the constituency live in one of the 3,000 villages, with less than a third living in urban areas.

“Villagers really go with us [the Congress]...urban shop keepers normally go with BJP,” Jaivardhan explains.

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But the trend is changing as young villagers increasingly move to bigger towns in search of work and opportunities beyond farming.

Also against Congress’ favour is the national pro-BJP wave after ten years of Congress rule, plus the fact that the BJP has been elected to its third term in office at the state level.

“That means the BJP has a very strong network now,” Jaivardhan says. “Once you are ruling the state, you’re the prime minister of 80 million people, so he commands all the officials, all the networks of government staff, etc. That goes against the opposition in the state.”

Jaivardhan doesn’t expect the prime ministerial race – the face-off between Rahul Gandhi and Narenda Modi – to cause a swing of more than 5 percent locally, but even that could spell a loss.

“It’s still a big number and can actually be a margin between winning and losing,” he says.

He’s hoping the introduction of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose Raghogarh candidate is a former member of the BJP, will help split the centre-right vote.

In this part of India, the simplest daily issues are key battle grounds.

“They’re coming to you with issues of land, pensions, getting their subsidy card,” Jaivardhan says. “We end up taking care of healthcare costs for thousands of people every month, any medical issues they have they come to us, admission for school they come to us, so it’s very different. That’s why they look a lot more at that candidate because they depend on them for their daily needs.

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“There’s so much to be done, there’s no limit to development, especially in rural places; there’s so many people living below the poverty line [and] youth who are looking for a job.”

Religion and caste also play a key role. “People are very religious here, they don’t inter-mingle very often, only according to their caste,” Jaivardhan says, stopping to accept the blessings of those waving down his car.

In Congress’ favour, Amlabe’s caste is highly represented in the Rajgarh constituency, with as many as 200,000 voters, while the BJP candidate can probably only rely on 70-80,000 caste-related votes. “For the rest, it depends on who are his allies,” Jaivardhan says.

Such is the sensitivity of caste, in Bada Aamlya, the second village we stop at, Jaivardhan accepts the hospitality of both of the village’s caste leaders following yet another enthusiastic rally.

He is there to call on all their votes but it is he who is thanked for visiting.

Now sweating under the heat of the Indian summer and the weight of a traditional safa ceremonially tied around his head by village elders before his speech, Jaivardhan is passed plates of almonds, sultanas and Indian sweets inside the home of the first caste leader.

He patiently spends the customary time chatting before moving onto the second leader’s house, where a 16-year-old boy is waiting to show his hand-made remote controlled toys, incredibly crafted with broken pieces of pen and scraps of metal.

His engineering genius, despite his poverty, so impresses the state MP he takes a photo on his mobile phone and promises to look into opportunities for the boy to go to university.

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Jaivardhan makes a similar pledge when he’s stopped in the village street by a young girl who says her father can’t afford the 75,000 rupee ($1,225) annual bill to send her to college.

“She wants to make a living, what can you say?” he says.

Driving out of the village, a man standing in the middle of the road with his hand raised in front of him forces the car to stop. He approaches the window and pleads for a job. Behind him, a group of desperately poor families from a nearby village are hovering in a field. They’ve come to the larger village in hope of even a little work. It appears they have none today.

An old woman also reaches through Jaivardhan’s window, first blessing him before asking for an operation to rectify her near-blindness.

The young man takes the requests and reassures his constituents.

Eventually, he continues to the next village, Gaori, another half-an-hour away.

He’s greeted by a drummer who leads the pack surrounding Jaivardhan through the village streets, in a scene reminiscent of the Pied Piper. Jaivardhan confidently streams past the clay houses and small shops, waving at those who have come to their doors – merely a foot from the path – or are hanging over their open rooftops to watch the semi-celebrity grace their village. His two personal bodyguards subtly follow.

At the village square, the drummer ends with a few rapturous hits and then Jaivardhan takes the microphone to belt out yet another campaign rally.

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Not even a cow soldiering through the standing crowd can deter attention from the man promising their lives will improve if they vote for the Congress party.

With the sun already fading, Jaivardhan hurries through the post-speech formalities. He has another eight villages to reach and is unlikely to finish before midnight. But villagers will wait up for him, eager to greet a member of parliament and voice their concerns. Jaivardhan, too, doesn’t mind the long day, especially if it helps his party win. “We don’t just want to win, we want to win by a margin and keep that margin,” he says, back in the car.

For him, it’s only the beginning of what could be a long career continuously striving for the hearts and minds of people who just want a brighter future.

“I’m now doing what my father did 40 years ago,” Jaivardhan says.

“When I came back to my constituency people always used to ask me ‘when are you coming back here for good, when are you going to start working with us and really take the work that your father has done forward?’

“I really wanted to take up the challenge. [But] my father’s reputation and his background and achievements can make it tougher as well, because people expect you to do the same, but in a way it’s the best source of motivation because you see what is your benchmark and you clearly have that in front of you whether it’s politically or in terms of development. Because I have that in front of me I know what I have to do and how much effort I have to put in, which is what actually drives me.”

Jaivardhan won the recent election with a record margin but concedes some of those votes were off the back of his father’s name. With Digvijaya retiring soon and Indian demands for development only becoming more intense, campaigning is going to be increasingly vital.

Despite wiping away sweat, Jaivardhan doesn’t reveal any of the pressure as he travels on to yet another village.

Local history and rally crowds suggest Jaivardhan’s efforts will be rewarded. But whether it is enough to stop the BJP wave on a national level, only time will tell.

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