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'Modi is the headmaster trying to instil discipline'

By Arindam Majumder
May 18, 2019 04:56 IST
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The election campaign finally ended on Friday, May 17.
Arindam Majumder reveals what he discovered on the election front on a long rail journey.

The Brahmaputra Express

A long train journey can often reveal a variety of aspirations of the traveller; it's even more pronounced in the poll season.

Premlal Munda, a daily labourer at the Bandapani tea garden in North Bengal's Alipurduar, who is travelling in the unreserved general compartment of Brahmaputra Express, is upset with Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as his family hasn't received the subsidised 10 kg of rice for three months.

Abhijit Chatterjee, 27, a biker from Siliguri seated in the second AC compartment, wants the next government to improve roads in Tawang so he can go biking there.

Others talk about the Citizenship Bill or complain about the lack of jobs and basic health care facilities.

The 40-hour, 1,500-km-long journey from Guwahati to Delhi buzzes with conversation around the elections and who should win and who deserves to lose.


As the train chugs out of Guwahati and makes its way across the lush green valleys of Assam, it becomes clear that the largest state of the north east will likely vote on the issues of the Citizenship Bill, which seeks to ease the citizenship criteria for non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the National Register of Citizens, which seeks to identify 'illegal immigrants'.

Krishna Ray, a retired government employee from Badarpur in Assam's Karimgunj district, says he supports both.

"Assam could become like Kashmir due to the influx of Muslims. You go to Badarpur, and there is a mosque every 500 metres," he says, echoing the sentiment of many Bengali Hindus in the Barak Valley region which consists of the Karimganj and Silchar Lok Sabha seats.

But another passenger, Sirajul Haque of Lakhimpur, retorts, "Why should there be a Citizenship Bill only for Assam? Implement it across the country and send L K Advani back to Pakistan," he exclaims angrily.

Haque says that families who have built their lives in this country for years cannot be suddenly called foreigners "because of the whim of one party".

The Assamese nationalist parties are trying to drum up support against the bill, saying it would trigger large-scale migration from Bangladesh into Assam, thereby threatening local culture.

The train is now going through the Upper Assam region, dominated mostly by the Ahomia ethnic groups.

In 2014, the BJP won all but one seat here. It replicated the success in the assembly election of 2016.

And if Manohar Gogoi, 43, a postman from Bongaigaon, is to be believed, the party could sweep the polls this time as well.

Development projects have never been completed as quickly as they have been under the BJP, he says.

"Under the Congress it was all unfulfilled promises, but it's just the opposite with the (Sarbananda) Sonowal government," Gogoi says, citing the example of the 4.94-km Bogibeel Bridge over the Brahmaputra, India's longest rail-road bridge.

But won't the BJP's stand on the Citizenship Bill have an impact? "These are political gimmicks," Gogoi shrugs. "The BJP will never pass the bill after it wins. Modi is a clever politician."

The unreserved compartment swells with people as the train enters North Bengal through Alipurduar.

This is the tea belt of north Bengal, where the economy has been wrecked with several gardens closing down.

The tea garden workers are angry here and many of them are leaving in search of greener pastures.

"What vote? Which vote?" asks Premlal Munda with disgust. "The Left promised to improve our lives. So did didi (Mamata Banerjee). Our demand of Rs 250 wage has not been fulfilled; the tea garden owner wants us to work 10 hours for Rs 150. So we are leaving," says Munda, gesturing to a group of 10 other men.

The anger against other parties may help the BJP in this area, feels 26-year-old Nepal Pramanik of Cooch Behar, who works at a garment factory in Delhi.

"Mamata is good, but she doesn't have any control over her hooligan party workers," says Nepal, who wants to return to Cooch Behar to start a poultry business.

"I have heard that Modi is good for business," he says.

At New Jalpaiguri, Nirmal Lepcha, who works for the state-run petroleum company ONGC in Siliguri, says he is proud that the prime minister gave a strong response to Pakistan's act of terror.

Will the BJP win from his constituency in Darjeeling? Lepcha is not sure.

"Last time there was this sentiment for an independent Gorkhaland. But despite being at the Centre, the BJP did nothing. People are now tired of repeated strikes and fights. The Gorkha andolan is not an issue anymore," Lepcha says, adding that Mamata has been making an effort towards peace, thus improving the party's image there.

Abhijit Mukherjee, who has a transport business, echoes Lepcha.

Mamata is the only alternative to Modi, he declares, adding that Congress President Rahul Gandhi is not fit to fight the elections.

"But the problem with the BJP is that it doesn't trust local people and always fields outsiders as candidates. This time they have put up a multi-billionaire from Darjeeling. What will he understand about the problems of a hilly region?" asks Mukherjee, referring to Raju Bista, the BJP's candidate in the hill seat and managing director at Surya Roshni Limited, a leading Indian company.

The Brahmaputra Express's speed slackens as it enters Bihar.

The compartments are now full of local passengers -- both labourers and government employees en route to their daily work.

Most of them feel their quality of life has not improved in the last five years.

Yet, most of them are don't consider Rahul Gandhi or Tejaswi Yadav as credible leaders.

Some are, in fact, convinced of a Modi win. While the lack of jobs is on their minds, they are not bothered by demonetisation as it did not directly impact them.

And along with Modi, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar too seems to enjoy a lot of goodwill here.

"Sarkar will not change our lives. We will have to work for that. Many toilets have been built in our village. Modi built them," says Moninul Haq from Kishanganj, showing the picture of a toilet on his cell phone.

Haq is travelling to Delhi to take up a waiter's job. Does he feel India has become unsafe for Muslims? "Such small skirmishes happen and have happened under previous governments too," replies Farid Alam, Haq's brother.

Government employees are unhappy, with most of them complaining about the new pension system.

Many of them say their monthly pension has been reduced to Rs 700 to Rs 800 a month while the old system guaranteed Rs 9,000.

"The BJP government has always been anti-middle class. But the Congress is also not taking up our cause," says Shyamlal Yadav, a railway engineer from Buxar.

As the train enters Uttar Pradesh, the popularity meter splits between Akhilesh Yadav and Narendra Damodardas Modi.

Surekha Devi, 27, who works as a Shiksha Mitra in Allahabad, is angry with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's government as her salary has been halved.

"Akhilesh had given samman to so many women through these schemes. The Yogi government has failed us. You ask anyone -- they will say Akhilesh was an efficient CM," Devi says.

However, the perception that the SP is a "goonda force" works against him.

Niraj, a businessman from Mirzapur, is happy with the "miraculous" speed of development work done by the current government.

"You must have heard about Anurpriya Patel, our MP. No more power cuts in Mirzapur, and a super speciality hospital is also being built. All we saw during Akhilesh government was a lot of gunfights," he says.

As the train nears its final destination of Delhi, Sanjay Srivastava is on the phone with his partner, furiously discussing when their shoe shop can reopen.

"The tanneries were shut during the Kumbh Mela. It hit all the local leather garment shops. It should have been done in a better manner with prior notice," he says.

Isn't he angry with the government? "No," he says. "The tanneries were not following the rules. We Indians are like spoilt children. Modi is the headmaster trying to instil discipline. He is good for the nation."

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Arindam Majumder
Source: source