Will the political heat amid this election season draw a wedge between two dear friends? Rediff.com's Swarupa Dutt tries to find out.
At the Sonu Dhaba in Rae Bareli, two 22-year-olds seem oblivious to the smothering heat at 9:15 pm. They have more immediate concerns -- deciding on mutton stew or the mutton roganjosh. They agree on the stew. In fact, they've rarely disagreed on anything ever since they first met at nursery school.
There is just this little thing they've agreed to disagree on -- politics.
Ashwini Srivastav is a Bharatiya Janata Party supporter, will vote for the party, and worships Narendra Modi, its prime ministerial candidate.
Mohammed Istiyaq Zabbar hates the BJP. He will vote for Sonia Gandhi and the Congress.
"We never talk about politics, but since you've asked us, we'll tell you. I hope we don't get into trouble," says Ashwini. "I have a lot to say, but I don't want to cause riots here," adds Mohammed.
Excerpts from a conversation on Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi, Modi and yes, friendship.
Ashwini: I'll be frank, in Rae Bareli, the sentiment is for Sonia.
Mohammed: Yeah, DNA mein bas gayi hayi Sonia aur Congress party (Sonia and the Congress is in our DNA). But look at that road, it is a national highway, look at the condition. Part of the NH 24 is incomplete, they repair it and it takes just 10 days for the surface to erode.
Ashwini: Yeah, there is nothing going for this place. I did my engineering from Muzaffarnagar, but I work as a quality inspector for Extreme Lubricants in Rae Bareli. There are no jobs here for engineers, nor are there engineering colleges here.
Mohammed: I did a course from the Footwear Design and Development Institute at Fursatganj at Rae Bareli. I worked in Noida and Mumbai for two years at Rs 9,000 a month. Can you survive in big cities on that salary?
So I had to come back, and there was nothing here either. I've joined my papa's business (transportation and construction), but that's not what I set out to do.
Ashwini: But everyone doesn't have a family business to fall back on, na.
Mohammed: Yeah, so? Where am I saying that? I'm saying Rae Bareli is a ruin.
Ashwini: Yes. The Indian Telephone Industries factory here hasn't received a single order for years now, but the few people who work there still get paid.
Mohammed: That is why it is important for Sonia to win. She ensures the salaries. If any other party comes to power here, whatever little there is, will go. Every house has a BTech, a management graduate, but there are no jobs here.
Ashwini: That is why we need Narendra Modi and a BJP win from here. All we have to do is to get the Gujarat model in place here. Things will change.
Mohammed: So those who dont vote for Modi should go to Pakistan? Will you 'send all Muslims to Pakistan? (Referring to BJP leader Giriraj Singh saying 'those opposing Modi will have to go to Pakistan').
Ashwini: Give the party a shot, and then let's talk about it.
Mohammed: No, I don't agree. I will never ever vote for the BJP, they are communal; all they know is mandir-masjid politics. And riots. Do you know how the Gujarat model works? I don't, it may be just a BJP propaganda.
Ashwini: You know, it's not. Why do you say these things? And what riots? When someone is on the rise, there are a million others waiting to pull him down. Jo bhi hua hai, ho chuka hain (whatever has happened, has happened), why can't they move on?
Mohammed: Is it really that easy? I have not been personally affected by the riots (post-Godhra riots of 2002) but I can't imagine what they (the victims) must have gone through. You can't move on.
Ashwini: Hmmm, do you know, why there were riots?
Mohammed: I don't know.
Ashwini: It's because of those innocent people who were burnt alive in that train (the Sabarmati Express at Godhra station). Nobody hears their cheekh (anguished cry). Everyone only talks about the other victims, weren't these people innocent too? Galat kiya to galat hua. (You will pay for your misdeeds). Anyway, I don't want to talk about this.
(Gets up to wash his hands)
Mohammed: I don't know what will happen if the BJP comes to power. Yes, may be I am a little scared.
(The conversation meanders away to the Aam Aadmi Party when Ashwini returns.)
Ashwini: I don't know why they bother to put up a candidate? Do you know who the person is?
Mohammed: No, it doesn't matter. They are just names, they will lose their deposit. But it is sad, it is an honest party, but (former Delhi chief minister Arvind) Kejriwal should not have quit. People will never forgive him. I wanted to vote for the AAP, but he should have first set an example by governing Delhi.
Ashwini: Big mistake, but good, the BJP will get a clear mandate.
At this point, Anjali Verma, a school teacher, asks if she can interrupt the conversation. Holding on to her husband's hands, she says, "Whatever party comes, the youth should get employment. Young boys here can't get married because they don't have jobs. Lucknow has become a khandahar (ruin), may be a beautiful ruin with all those parks, but why didn't she (then UP chief minister Mayawati) spend that money on creating employment opportunities?" she says and leaves.
Ashwini: I had considered going to Gujarat for work, but my parents are here, my sister is here. I can't just go up and leave. The Congress has done nothing for women here.
Mohammed: No, it has made Rae Bareli safer. Earlier, women would hesitate before stepping out at night. Men would tease them, they would pass lewd remarks. Sonia Gandhi has changed that.
Ashwini:: I agree. But the Congress has done nothing for 10 years, the BJP should come to power in Rae Bareli and at the Centre.
Mohammed:: And what Narendra Modi wave were you talking about? Shouldn't it be a BJP wave? It just shows that he thinks he is above the party. The best politician I have seen was (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee -- secular, a visionary.
Ashwini: Yes, but L K Advani was his second in command. They were like Ram-Lakshman. Why is there no lehar (wave) for L K Advani? It's because Modi is the bigger leader.
(After a pause) See, that is why we don't talk about politics. It's OK. All five fingers are not the same, so he can have a different opinion, but I will tell you this, whatever happens we will always remain friends.
Mohammed: Nothing can change that. Politics can never affect friendships. We go back a long way.
Ashwini puts his arm around Mohammed's shoulder.
Ashwini: Yeah, we will always be there for each other, come what may. (Grins) But I will still vote for Narendra Modi.
Image: Friends Ashwini Srivastav, left, and Mohammed Istiyaq Zabbar. Photograph: Swarupa Dutt/Rediff.com