'Haven't you heard of the magical EVM machines? They can negate all our votes.'
'There is no hope. Modi is India's Putin.'
Jyoti Punwani reports.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
Any reporter on an election story must know the caste and religious composition of voters. Even without asking, every party spokesperson breaks down voters into specific vote banks with predictable voting patterns.
But every now and then, you meet someone who defies vote bank logic. Like Ramesh Gaekwad of the Sambhaji Brigade. The very mention of the group brings to mind connotations of Maratha pride. So when Gaekwad, who looks every inch a Maratha, tells you that he does not support the Maratha candidate in Aurangabad's keenly fought contest, you sit up.
"We have tried to convince our community that just saying 'Maratha, Maratha' isn't enough," says Gaekwad regretfully. "In fact, it pushes OBCs, Dalits and Muslims away. An election can't be fought on the plank of one caste alone."
But Gaekwad didn't manage to convince even the 35,000 voters the Sambhaji Brigade is said to control in the Aurangabad Lok Sabha constituency.
All that mattered to them was that Harshvardhan Jadhav resigned his MLA seat in July last year after six Marathas committed suicide during their prolonged agitation for reservation. That he continued to enjoy the perks of being an MLA till eight months later, when his resignation was finally accepted, made no difference.
"Jadhav hails from a wealthy family. He's an MLA, so were his parents, his father-in-law and brother-in-law. Next in line are his wife and son. So what's our task here? Just to raise the Maratha flag for his family?" asks Gaekwad angrily.
He sees no hope in the other candidates either. The sitting MP from the Shiv Sena, Chandrakant Khaire, came out on the side of the Hindus during the communal riot in the city last year, in which one Muslim and one Hindu died, he says.
His rival, AIMIM MLA Imtiaz Jaleel, is a "good man, but projects himself as a Muslim leader."
"This election is all about identity politics," rues Vilas Gorhe, who introduces himself as a Dalit and a Sambhaji Brigade member. Seeing my look of surprise, he explains with pride: "The Sambhaji Brigade takes everyone along."
Conventional politics demands that Gorhe support Prakash Ambedkar's Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi, but says Gorhe, "The moment he teamed up with Asaduddin Owaisi, we pulled out. We cannot ally with such parties."
On January 8, 2018, a week after Marathas reportedly attacked Dalits and sparked off a riot at Bhima Koregaon near Pune, the Sambhaji Brigade took out a silent rally calling for action against the culprits and for harmony.
In that 'Shivray tey Bhimray' march, all communities and castes walked from the Shivaji statue to Dr Ambedkar's statue, both landmarks in Aurangabad.
"8,000 cases were filed in Maharashtra after the violence," points out Gorhe, "but not one was against any leader's son. Nor has any leader helped the accused."
Faraway in Kasaiwada, one of Mumbai's dirtiest slum clusters, Reshma Momin has the same complaints against identity politics and uncaring leaders.
Like Gaekwad and Gorhe, she knows she is part of a vote bank. But even while admitting that she, like her community, will vote for the Congress candidate, she cannot hide her anguish that Priya Dutt, daughter of the legendary Sunil Dutt, has a swanky office in Kasaiwada but hasn't cared to walk through its crowded, garbage-filled lanes and speak to its residents.
Momin runs a women's group in the slum. The women are vocal about their problems, for which they have been agitating for long: Overflowing gutters; disease; lack of a maternity home and a playground; dangerous illegal constructions.
"We wanted to talk to Dutt about all this," says Momin, "but I learnt that she was advised not to bother to visit us since Muslims would anyway vote for her. We have been reduced to a religious statistic. Don't we have any value as human beings?"
Momin's anguished words remind you of Rohith Vemula's heart-wrenching suicide note in which he wrote: 'The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.'
A long encounter with veteran Dalit Congressman Chandrabhan Parkhe brings home a sudden realisation: There was actually a time when men were treated as minds, when communities were not just vote banks, when parties tried to represent everyone in this diverse country.
For those of us who came of age in the pre-Emergency years, it comes as a shock to realise that it was the Congress that embodied this inclusive vision.
That's the Congress in which 63-year-old Parkhe, district vice-president from 1988 to 2003, has spent the major part of his political life. That background gave him the guts to introduce himself last year to the newly appointed Congress president with the words: 'I'm neither your follower, nor your mother's. I'm Indira Gandhi's follower.'
In the same encounter, Parkhe even advised Rahul Gandhi to marry if he wanted to be taken seriously as PM. 'You are 48,' the doughty old man told him. 'I remained unmarried till 32 and was shunned by society. The moment I got married, I was accepted everywhere.'
Parkhe claims he is the only Congressman to have been given a ticket without having applied for it. When he was told in 2009 that then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and then Congress president Sonia Gandhi had finalised his name as the Aurangabad West assembly candidate, he had precisely Rs 45 with him.
A Muslim Congressman was the first to bring pedhas to his house and garland him; his Brahmin classmate, a noted doctor, gave him the Rs 2,500 he needed as deposit.
His campaign remains a blur; he still doesn't know who paid for it. He got a respectable 43,797 votes, but ultimately lost thanks to sabotage by an influential local Congress bigwig, he says.
Parkhe is one of the disappearing breed of politicians comfortable with any kind of company, not dependent on the cocoon of their own caste/community. That's the reason he bristles with anger when you mention the current feeling of Muslim alienation with the Congress.
"What has the Congress not given them?" he asks. "Tickets, party posts, ministerships... Whose fault is it that they didn't speak up for their community once they got these posts? As Dalits, we did."
But as you leave Parkhe, you know that the party that exists in his imagination is not the Congress of today.
In today's vote bank driven Congress, retired policeman Anwar Shaikh, whose father decided that August 15 and January 26 would be the best birth dates for his two sons, can find no solace in it.
Perhaps the most unexpected encounter in this election was the Mumbai-based Tamilian father and son who had voted for Modi in 2014 because only he could "give a fitting reply to Pakistan."
Today, the duo, who run a vegetable stall, have nothing but curses for him, despite Balakot.
The reason? The forced acquisition of farmers's lands by the Tamil Nadu government for an expressway that will cut across farmland and hills, only to benefit Gautam Adani's proposed megaport. Aren't the farmers resisting?
"If you resist you are shot or you disappear or you are charged with sedition," they reply. "Your media won't tell you these things."
They are referring to the disappearance in February of environmental activist Mugilan, soon after he held a press conference alleging that policemen had colluded with officials of Vedanta's Sterlite plant to orchestrate violence during a protest in Thotthukudi against the plant. 13 protesters were shot dead by the police in May 2018.
Then your vote is your only weapon, I tell them.
"Haven't you heard of the magical EVM machines?" they laugh, in between handing over vegetables to customers. "They can negate all our votes. There is no hope. Modi is India's Putin."
If Putin has a meaning in the villages of Tamil Nadu, not all the identity-based politics can kill the stardust our voters are made of.