Why did you choose to contest from Sitapur?
I have been in Sitapur since 2004, but more as part of an NGO working with craftswomen. My ancestors hail from here and while my own life progressed, nothing much has moved in Sitapur, be it schools, hospitals, law and order etc. The area exists in a time warp. Sitapur is one of India’s poorest districts and the second- worst-performing district in UP. Most young folk leave Sitapur after graduation. I went back to offer an alternative to the people.
How did Sitapur respond to a modern, urbane, professional female candidate? Did you experience a cultural disconnect?
The people’s response was both good and bad. I did face resistance, especially from men and community leaders. I was often asked, “What do you know of our problems?” Then we’d sip chai and discuss why MNREGA payments were not coming through and why schools served rotten food and had no teachers. It was an iterative process of winning their faith. Very often they told me that they had given their word to someone else and would support AAP in the next election.
Intimidation has been an aspect of Indian elections. Did you experience it in anyway?
Yes, I did. Initially, I said no to security guards. However, on one particular evening during the campaign, my car was surrounded by goons at a place called Rampur Mathura. It took all the ingenuity and negotiation we could muster to get out of that scary situation.
I spoke to the Superintendent of Police, who told me to, basically, go to hell and ‘’talk properly’’. Next morning, I reported the matter formally and was offered security. I accepted it willingly. Yet, after late evening meetings, a Bolero full of people would often trail us. We were later told that they were spies from rival parties. Before I was provided security, on another night, at approximately 9 pm, a tree trunk, presumably chopped earlier, was flung across the road. Immediately, a gang of goons emerged from the bush. Had I not turned the car around, I might have been in trouble. Receiving random knocks on my door at 2 am were common occurrences too.
Your caste may have endeared you to the people of your own social group, that is, Brahmins. But in a caste-driven society, to what extent does the caste identity of a candidate, particularly one making a debut, becomes an obstacle in reaching out to other social groups?
Caste mobilisation seems to be a definite means of aggregating votes. However, ingenious new ways of leveraging votes through occupational groups are also emerging. During the last few days of campaigning, I was approached by several groups, caste, occupational and guild associations, who offered votes in exchange of cash. I think politics has advanced beyond caste, which is now just an aspect of vote-bank management. The overall strategy is multi-layered and multi-pronged.
Adhering to AAP’s strategy of reaching out to all people, I didn’t have set strategies to connect with specific caste groups. I did not hold special events for Hindus and Muslims, etc. Candidates from other parties did. They received a good response. So I’d be wrong if I said that playing the caste card didn’t get votes.
What is the role of money in elections? One heard stories of political parties buying votes.
Liquor, food and drugs are hot favourites. But these traditional methods of wooing voters are now being supplemented by innovative ways of transferring cash to vote-bank agents. These are the people who guarantee you votes from a particular caste or occupational association. They have significant control over their groups.
I had heard of what is commonly called the “Rs 10 transfer”. Apparently, at first, the vote-bank agent enters into negotiations with political parties, say, B and C. Negotiations, typically, involve bargaining. B and C are not the only parties in the race to buy votes. There are other outfits as well. The one that bids the highest is assured of votes by the agent. His capacity to transfer votes is verified before a party strikes a deal with him. Let us take Party B as an example.
So how does Party B transfer money to the agent? Party B’s manager meets the agent and hands him Rs 10. The agent is also given a mobile number. The agent is asked to text the serial number of the Rs 10 note to the number given to him. Within a few days, the agent receives a call from the manager and he reads out the serial number that is printed on the note. The caller asks him to come to a particular place and the promised cash is handed over. The going rate in UP in the last Lok Sabha election was said to be Rs one lakh for every 150 votes.
To what extent did AAP's paucity of funds became an impediment for you?
When I arrived in Sitapur I was handed over a bunch of phone numbers of those who supposedly had the list of volunteers. Sixty percent of these turned out to be bogus. Being a new party, AAP was known in just about 250-300 of the 1,600 villages in the Sitapur constituency. I could not cover my entire constituency in 50 days. Money was in very short supply and we leveraged whatever we could via donations and contributions, which was barely enough to cover a few hundred villages. To counter parties which collect huge funds, we need a much stronger fund-raising strategy.
Were you able to get booth-agents on the day of voting? Bigger parties reportedly bribe and intimidate booth-agents from smaller outfits into absenting themselves on voting day.
I managed to have booth-agents in about 400-odd villages that I could cover in 50 days. The bag AAP handed over to the booth-agent carried Rs 100 for food and miscellaneous expenses, the voter-list and the voter’s slip. The bags other parties handed contained Rs 1,000.
On polling day I went to each one of my assembly segments and found volunteers missing in many booths. In one assembly segment, the coordinator reported sick and disappeared. I can’t say for certain that my agents were bribed but some were definitely missing. This creates a lot of problems. For instance, I caught an agent from another political party entering a booth with a voter and helping her press a particular symbol. I reported this violation. Such incidents at other places would have gone unreported, for the booth-agent whose task is to keep a watch on such malpractices went missing.
Pundits say the AAP phenomenon is over. Doesn’t this dampen your spirit?
Far from it! Let me give you an example. Along with another colleague, I recently presented a report to Arvind Kejriwal on crimes against women in Uttar Pradesh. He was the first of many politicians we requested to take immediate and concerted action. Our meeting went viral. In one day we received 4.7 lakh views on a social website. So the AAP phenomenon is definitely not over. AAP is a movement. It’s not just about votes. For the public though, I know the AAP's true test will be in the next elections and we are preparing for it.
A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, to be released in September by HarperCollins India.