Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com Archana Masih/Rediff.com in Arthala, District Ghaziabad
A chat at the chai, halwai, barber and tailor shops reveal more insights into the thinking of the Indian voter than any opinion poll or analysis could.
In raw, simple reasoning, they tell you as it is and are proud of the strength of their vote.
"Yesterday, I shook hands with Rahul Gandhi."
"It was the first poll rally I attended. I wanted to see him. Hear what he had to say."
"He seems like a nice man. He will do good work. Kattarvadi soch nahi hai uski (He doesn't have a fanatical mind)."
Raees Ansari, a tailor at the Arthala village in Ghaziabad, wears pristine white. He sits behind a table covered with thick cloth, used for cutting material for shirts and trousers.
A measuring tape lies carelessly. Behind him a man is stitching a kurta on a sewing machine.
"But Rahul Gandhi hasn't done much in spite of being in politics for 10 years?" I ask.
"Log dus saal laga detey hai chillum bharney mein, aur aap Rahul Gandhi key dus saal ki baat karti hai."
"Baakio ko dekha hai? Bees-tees saal se rajneeti mein baithe hue hai. Kya kar liye unney?/em>"
("People spend ten years just filling their pipes for smoking and you're talking about Rahul Gandhi. What about those others who have been in politics for 20, 30 years? What have they done?")
General V K Singh, the BJP candidate for his constituency, has just gone past his shop after holding a meeting at the end of the road. Raees Ansari will vote for the Congress's Raj Babbar.
"What did Raj Babbar do for Agra as MP?" I ask.
"Are you going to vote for him for his work or because he is a celebrity?"
We are standing inside his small shop near the mosque where he stitches around 100 shirts and trousers every month.
Rs 250 for a trouser. Rs 150 for a shirt.
"Celebrity toh hai, par damdaar bhi hai Raj Babbar. Dimple Yadav ko haraya hai Firozabad mein. Koi kum baat nahi hai, jaan lijiye."
("Raj Babbar is a celebrity, but he's a powerful candidate. It's no mean feat to defeat Dimple Yadav".) (Dimple Yadav is Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's wife and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav's daughter-in-law. Babbar won the Firozabad Lok Sabha by-election in 2009.)
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'I shook hands with Rahul Gandhi'
Photographs: Reuters Archana Masih/Rediff.com in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh
Raees Ansari is typical of the voters one meets in UP or Bihar. Well-tuned into politics, aware of the history of contesting candidates and passionately opinionated.
A chat at the chai, halwai, barber and tailor shops reveals more insights into the thinking of the Indian voter than any opinion poll or analysis could.
Raw, no holds barred, they tell you as it is and are proud of the strength of their vote.
"For me it's fixed. In the big election I vote for the Congress; state election I vote for the Samajwadi Party and local election -- I look at the candidate's face and vote," he says.
"But this time it is going to be a tough fight in Ghaziabad."
Raees Ansari quietly passes some money to Mohammad Ansar Khan, 25, standing beside him. A bottle of Sprite is brought and poured into plastic glasses.
"Rahul Gandhi has said he will bring 17 crore people who are above the poverty line and below the middle class into the middle class," says Ansar, who works at the box office in a Ghaziabad multiplex.
He says his basic salary is Rs 8,100 and gets around Rs 7,000 in hand. "Rahul seems sincere. Kuch karega zaroor (he will do something for sure)," he says.
The men tell me they had been asked by local Samajwadi Party workers to come for a Samajwadi Party rally too, but they refused.
"We wanted to see Rahulji live. Have seen him on TV, of course," laughs Raees, dialing the number of another friend who had accompanied them to the rally.
'Military ka aadmi imandar hota hai'
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com Archana Masih/Rediff.com in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh
Comprising two wards, the men say Arthala has a sizeable Muslim population. The famous Grand Trunk Road passes by the district, while the Dabur and Mohan Meakin companies are headquartered in the district of Ghaziabad.
"There used to be other factories but they have shut down. Mohan Meakin is also half shut," says Mahavir Singh who is firm that he will vote for General Singh.
"Military ka aadmi imandar hota hai. Tatra truck ka jo ghapla tha inhoney rukwa diya wahi. Cent per cent he'll win," he says sitting outside a shop.
("Militarymen are honest. Didn't he stop the Tatra truck scam there and then? He will definitely win.")
"Most parties select candidates according to the caste-community equation. There are 144 Thakur villages. He is also a Thakur, so you can imagine how many votes he has there."
"Mulayam Singh ne jaatiwad phaila rakha hai. (Mulayam has spread caste-ism.) People first see their community, then the candidate."
"Nahi chacha, people are seeing Modiji's leadership also this time," interrupts another man.
"No, jaatiwaad is still more dominant," says Mahavir Singh, "If you make a Muslim stand from a Hindu community, do you think he will win?"
The younger man nods, and says this time his vote is for Modi's leadership. Nothing else.
"Nashta-paani karo. Aapne chai-wai pee?" Mahavir Singh gestures towards his home, where a woman stands complaining about the influx of outsiders into their village.
"90 per cent people are now from outside. There must be only 5, 6 homes of the original inhabitants," she says, shaking her head in disapproval.
'This is first time there is a celebrity from our constituency'
Archana Masih/Rediff.com in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh
Back at Raees Ansari's tailoring shop, his friend Abrar Ahmed, who had also attended the Rahul Gandhi rally, has arrived.
He is flamboyant, wears a snug shirt, tight pants. His hair is cut stylishly.
A law student at the local college, he says that Raj Babbar is a four-time MP and has a 'standing' as an MP. But Ahmed is also excited about his celebrity status.
He was too young to see Babbar's films as a lead actor, but he did see him play Kareena Kapoor's father in Bodyguard. I wonder how many movie-goers will remember Raj Babbar in that film, but Abrar does.
"This is first time there is a celebrity from our constituency. I saw his daughter Juhi Babbar and wife Nadira also at the rally."
"Only Crime Patrol didn't come," he says, laughing.
Television actor Anup Soni, the star of the television show Crime Patrol, is Juhi Babbar's husband.
This election has a large number of minor and major celebrities in the fray, and Abrar Ahmed's excitement reveals the power of their grasp on India.