Excerpts From Rajdeep Sardesai’s Book, 2014: The Election That Changed India

On Rahul self-destructing, Kejriwal miscalculating and Modi strategising brilliantly. That and more from Rajdeep’s book.

WrittenBy:Rajdeep Sardesai
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The Big Fight: Amethi and Varanasi

Like her mother, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has always been an enigma. She carries the allure of the family surname, yet remains intensely private. Her dressing style is delightfully schizophrenic—she is sometimes seen in international-style designer wear at Delhi parties, and at other times goes native in handloom saris in Amethi and Rae Bareli. Charismatic, charming, good-looking and intelligent, she is a media favourite, an effortless occupant of newspaper front pages and TV headlines.

I first met Priyanka during the 1999 general elections. She was in Amethi, supervising Sonia Gandhi’s debut foray into electoral politics. We had a programme on NDTV called Follow the Leader and the consensus in the newsroom was that Priyanka would be an ideal choice for it. I telephoned Sushil Kumar Shinde, the senior Maharashtra leader who was then the party’s point person for Amethi, and asked if he could help arrange an interview. ‘I don’t know for sure, Rajdeep. Why don’t you come to Amethi and take a chance?’ he suggested helpfully.

When we reached Amethi, the security presence around the Gandhis was intimidating. Nor could we find a decent place to stay. I spent the night in a tiny dingy room with Shinde as my room-mate.

So, at 6 the next morning, anxious for my interview, I parked myself outside the Munshiganj guest house where the Gandhis were staying. I needn’t have worried. The moment Priyanka arrived, she appeared to recognize me (television does have its advantages!) and offered us a cup of chai. I mentioned that we wanted to spend the day travelling with her on the campaign trail. She readily agreed and almost instantly got miked up for her first media interview.‘Let’s go early morning to Priyankaji’s place. There is less security then. If she sees you, she might agree,’ Shinde advised.

For the next twelve hours, the young woman was pure television box office. She was wonderfully effervescent and spontaneous as she handled party workers and excited crowds with ease. She was able to strike an instant rapport with women in particular. Many of them would say, ‘Beti, aap toh bilkul Indiraji kee tarah dikhti hai!’ (You look a lot like Indira Gandhi.)

I must confess I was bowled over. We even had lunch in the middle of a field in Amethi with Shinde lovingly serving us parathas and achar, all of it captured on camera. A few years later when Shinde became Maharashtra chief minister, I teased him that it was his lunch service in Amethi that did the trick!

I asked Priyanka whether she would enter politics. ‘No, no. I am only here to help my mother. Otherwise, I am happy being away from it all,’ she said with a smile. It’s a refrain I would hear almost constantly for the next fifteen years. In 2004, when I returned to Amethi, she was there again, only this time she was helping her brother and mother who had now shifted to the neighbouring Rae Bareli constituency.

I kept in touch with Priyanka. She had kindly given me her mobile number, would always reply to an SMS and was helpful in fixing the odd meeting with Sonia. Occasionally, we’d bump into each other at a private gathering where she would be unfailingly gracious. The one time the equation seemed to sour was in 2012 when Kejriwal first raised the issue of her husband Robert Vadra’s land deals. I asked if she or Robert would like to respond.

Her response was terse. ‘Why don’t you journalists leave us alone?

Till 2014, it was clear that Priyanka had drawn a Lakshman- rekha on her involvement in politics. Whenever a Congressman publicly implored her to contest elections, her office issued a strong denial. ‘If I decide to enter politics, I won’t do it in some secretive manner,’ she would tell me. The 2009 election victory appeared to settle any doubts as to who would take forward the family legacy. A doting sister, Priyanka seemed content to remain in Rahul’s shadow, their us-versus-the-rest relationship most famously captured in the photograph of the siblings arm in arm in mutual consolation after the UP defeat in 2012. Do you know what impact all of this is having on my children?’ I had read stories of how Priyanka was a devoted mother who often attended her children’s sports events in school. She also strongly denied the Delhi gossip that she and Robert had separated. ‘Where do you guys get all these stories from?’ She sounded genuinely hurt and angry. I backed off a bit.

The year 2014, though, was different. The Congress was in serious trouble and Rahul’s leadership was under the scanner. Priyanka was still unwilling to play a formal role in the party’s decision-making, but it was clear that her involvement was growing beyond Amethi. She would be spotted visiting Rahul’s house while strategy meetings were on and she had been involved with the Congress advertisement campaign with every creative being shown to her. ‘She may not have been hands-on, but she certainly wasn’t hands off,’ is how a Congress insider describes her presence.

From early April, Priyanka was in Amethi and Rae Bareli. Her brother and mother were the party’s main campaigners elsewhere; she was needed to keep the family turf secure. Amethi was no longer a safe constituency—in the 2012 assembly elections, the SP had won three of the five segments, the Congress just two (they had lost all the Rae Bareli seats too). Rahul had done some good work in the area—most notably, a women’s self-help group project—but UP’s perennial issues, especially bijli, sadak, pani and shiksha troubled the residents here as well. ‘Sir, yahan toh andhera hi andhera hai’ (There is darkness everywhere),’ is how one Amethi resident put it to me.

I never quite understood why UP’s VIP constituencies like Amethi and Rae Bareli haven’t seen greater progress. One only has to look towards the Pawar bastion of Baramati in Maharashtra to see what a VIP constituency can look like. In sharp contrast to Amethi, the Pawars had turned a sleepy village into a dynamic agro-industrial hub. The Gandhis clearly hadn’t shown the entrepreneurial vision of the Pawars in transforming lives in a backward region.In fact, one could sense a growing frustration amongst the people about Amethi’s stagnant condition. At more than one ‘Nukkad Sabha’ that Priyanka addressed, she would have to listen to irate villagers speaking out: ‘Priyankaji, dus saal ho gaye, Rahulji ke aane se kuch nahin badla’ (Ten years have passed, nothing has changed with Rahulji coming here). The Indian voter is still attracted by the family name; the Nehru–Gandhi brand has a magnetic appeal in their bastion. But voters in Amethi are no different to their peers elsewhere and they can no longer be taken for granted by promises without delivery.

Perhaps there was just something in the air of the Gangetic plain that retarded growth. It was almost as though the sharply polarized politics here had placed caste and community above vikas. Or maybe there were just well-entrenched interests and mafias committed to keeping the industry of backwardness alive and thriving. Certainly, the adversarial relationship between the state and Central governments didn’t help. My own view is that the Gandhis, like many feudal politicians, were trapped in a mai–baap culture and that the odd public sector project can never be a substitute for long-term infrastructure (Amethi’s roads are designed to rupture the backbone).

The BJP had sensed that the breeze of parivartan that was blowing through UP could, if not sweep, then certainly challenge, the Gandhi family dominance in this eastern UP pocket. For years, the Opposition had been accused of giving the Gandhis a soft landing in their pocket borough. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah were determined to change that perception.

Which is why the party dramatically announced the candidature of Smriti Irani from Amethi. A television soap star-turned-neta, the feisty and fearless Smriti was ready for a new role. Smriti had once spoken out against Modi on the Gujarat riots but then quite successfully (and uniquely, I might add) had been able to win him over. Modi liked Smriti’s unflinching spirit and communication skills (I rather think he also saw her modern woman in a sari–sindoor image as a potential long-term counter to Sushma Swaraj whom he did not like). On prime-time television, we journalists appreciated Smriti’s willingness for a fiery joust—she always came to shows well prepared and spoiling for a good fight. As a Rajya Sabha MP taking on Rahul, she had nothing to lose. ‘I am going to Amethi to win—it’s not a token fight,’ she told me.

Also fighting from Amethi was the AAP, which put up Kumar Vishwas, another TV-savvy neta. Unlike Smriti who saw Amethi as another step up the political ladder, Vishwas was looking for his fifteen minutes of fame. A Hindi poet, he was a great favourite on Hindi news TV because of his quick wit and sharp one-liners. I told him once in an interview that he was being seen as a ‘joker in the pack’ in Amethi. Pat came the reply: ‘Circus mein sabkee nigahein joker par hee toh hotee hai!’ (In a circus, all eyes are on the joker.)

Rahul and Priyanka versus Smriti versus Vishwas—Amethi had suddenly become a made-for-TV high-profile contest. Priyanka knew she was in a contest this time, which is why she decided to raise the pitch. The moment she stepped out to address rallies, she became the Pied Piper of Amethi. Cameras would follow her everywhere. It became a media circus. The message to the newsroom was that one reporter must track Priyanka all the time—you never know what she would say where. Chasing Priyanka wasn’t easy for the swarm of journalists. They had to fight not just the heat but the SPG as well.

My former colleague Shreya Dhoundial was assigned the task of trailing Priyanka. She describes to me a typical day. 9 a.m.: stand outside the Munshiganj guest house; 10.30 a.m.: thrust your mike at the car window as Priyanka’s car leaves the gate but with no luck; 10.35: start chasing the car with around fifty other crew and OB vans, with the SPG fleet as an immovable barrier in the middle; 11 a.m.: Priyanka stops to meet people, so you stop, try and shoulder your way through the circle of towering AK-47-wielding commandos, get your mike as far forward as you can towards her, she just smiles and drives away. ‘Finally, we struck a deal. If Priyanka spoke to us once every morning for even thirty seconds, then we would leave her alone for the rest of the day,’ Shreya told me later.

I remember asking Priyanka’s secretary Preeti Sahai whether it was worth my coming to Amethi and seeking an interview. ‘For now, no interviews. She will only give sound bites while on the campaign,’ I was firmly told. 2014 was no 1999. Then, there were just a handful of cameras. Now, with hundreds of news channels around, getting an exclusive with Priyanka was that much more difficult.

The sound bites, too, were well choreographed, designed to create just enough news to keep the hungry bite-soldiers (as we referred to our reporters) feeling happy and also to take potshots at the BJP leadership: ‘You don’t need a 56-inch chest to run India but a big heart!’ ‘How can a person who snoops on other women respect the Indian woman!’ Her best Indira Gandhi-style regally dismissive remark about the BJP was that they were ‘running around like panic-stricken rats’. For news channels, these sound bites made perfect headlines. Priyanka Gandhi taking on Modi became an almost regular sideshow for about a fortnight in the larger electoral battleground.

Priyanka’s punchy remarks seemed to get under Modi’s skin. He hit back and, unsurprisingly, Robert Vadra was the Achilles heel he targeted. ‘The UPA model of governance is RSVP (Rahul, Sonia, Vadra, Priyanka). How did one person multiply his earnings from one lakh to 400 crores in five years?’ he asked. The BJP’s media department even prepared a video detailing Vadra’s land transactions.

Right through her campaign, Priyanka did not take any direct questions on her husband—a dismissive gesture with the hand and a suggestion that this was a ‘bunch of lies by panic-stricken people’ was all that she was willing to say. I got the sense that one reason she didn’t want to do a lengthy interview was the fear that the Vadra question would inevitably crop up.

I had briefly encountered Vadra at a couple of social events but never really spoken to him. Often dressed in black, with a tight belt, manicured moustache and a well-toned body, he looked more like a trendy dance show contestant in an India’s Got Talent show than a businessman (I am told Priyanka was swayed by his dancing charms when she first met him!). Robert had sent rejoinders to the media, but the charges just wouldn’t go away. The fact that many of his windfall profits had been acquired from deals in Congress- ruled states like Haryana and Rajasthan was a reality he could not escape from. He simply needed to answer more searching questions. Till he is willing to do so, Vadra will remain a cross that Priyanka will have to live with if she ever enters electoral politics. Already, his name painted on every security-exemption list at airports had enraged the aam janata as a symbol of undeserving VIP privilege.

The Priyanka factor meant that, for a few days at least of the election campaign, the media gaze appeared to shift from Modi. When I interviewed Amit Shah later, he caustically remarked, ‘Priyanka may be good for your TRPs, she will have no impact on this election.’

On 2 May, Shah made a sudden visit to Amethi to review the campaign. The feedback he got astounded him. Smriti, with her oratory and boundless energy, was making rapid gains. The general feeling was that the party had a real chance to cause a big upset in the constituency. ‘We really felt it was a kaante ki takkar [tough fight],’ says Sudhanshu Mittal, one of the BJP leaders who had based himself in Amethi.

An excited Shah rang up Modi. ‘I think you should do one rally in Amethi also. It could be just what we need to spring a surprise.’ Amethi had not been on Modi’s original itinerary—there had been a tacit understanding among the Opposition to avoid a direct conflict with the Gandhis. Modi, though, was itching for a fight.

The 5th of May was the last day for campaigning in Amethi. That was the day Modi decided to make his late charge into Rahul’s turf by cancelling another scheduled public meeting. Almost overnight, an ad film detailing Amethi’s woes was prepared (see chapter 7). Shah asked the RSS–VHP–BJP local leaders to galvanize the cadres from the neighbouring areas. On the ground, Smriti’s workers reached out to as many villages as possible. Trucks and Boleros were loaded with expectant crowds. ‘Let’s give it our best shot—we have nothing to lose,’ Shah told his team.

Modi’s speech in Amethi was probably his fiercest attack ever on the Gandhi parivar. Each line dripped with anger and sarcasm. ‘For forty years, one family has destroyed the dreams of three generations of Indians. I will ensure your dreams are fulfilled’; ‘I can go back to selling tea if I don’t become PM, what will Rahul do?’; ‘My choti behen Smriti can give you the names of 100 villages of Amethi, the Gandhis won’t be able to give the names of more than ten.’ Never before had any politician dared to take on the Gandhis with such a frontal assault, that too in their family fortress. A BJP leader summed it up for me rather well. ‘It was a bit like Sehwag hitting Shoaib for a six in Pakistan!’’

The Modi onslaught forced Priyanka to react. She accused Modi of dragging her late father Rajiv Gandhi into the election battle and claimed the BJP leader was engaging in ‘neech rajniti’ (low-levelpolitics). It was an unfortunate expression to use, especially in a part of UP where the word ‘neech’ was a derogatory reference to the lower castes. Priyanka to be fair hadn’t made the reference in caste terms, but it was enough for Modi to seize upon. Affirming his OBC status, Modi accused Priyanka of insulting his caste identity. This was typical Modi-style ‘rajniti’—ingenious spin doctoring, seizing the words of the opponent to turn the tables on them and capture the political advantage in a flash. For Priyanka, it may have been a wake-up call.

Before leaving Amethi on the last day of the campaign, Priyanka thanked the journalists who had been chasing her for a fortnight for their support. Most of them had been swayed by her charm and candour. For one last time she was asked if she would take the political leap. She replied, ‘I have to drop my son off to school. Doon has strict rules. When you come from a family like mine that has seen personal loss, your priorities are different. Your family is everything.’

Perhaps, that one remark signifies the dilemma of the new generation of Nehru–Gandhis. For Motilal and Jawaharlal, the freedom movement was a magnet that pulled them away from the luxury of Anand Bhawan towards street agitations. Indira Gandhi learnt her politics by the side of her father, even if her style may have been dramatically different. Sonia, too, to some extent benefitted from constantly observing her mother-in-law.

Priyanka and Rahul, by contrast, had lived a sheltered existence—family tragedy and perhaps personal choices had made them wary of the daily hardships of politics. Priyanka, for example, was married at twenty-five and became a mother two years later. Politics in the twenty-first century demands a near-complete blurring of the lines between your private and political life. The need for privacy is an obstruction for an individual seeking to win the unrelenting battle to capture hearts and minds, and in the end family concerns invariably give way to political ambition. Modi, Mamata, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Naveen, Nitish are all good examples of the modern neta—single men and women for whom politics is all-consuming.

While Priyanka focused on her children, the BJP’s priorities were very different. The party had achieved what it had set out to do— send out a message that no seat anywhere in UP, not even Amethi, was unwinnable in 2014. But there was one even bigger battle that the Modi–Shah duo had their eyes firmly focused on—the battle for Varanasi.

Varanasi, Kashi, Banaras—many names for one of the most ancient and complex cities in the world, nestled on the banks of the great river Ganga. A city of poets and pandits; of sages and mafia; of philosophers and politicians. Ancient Hindu texts describe Varanasi as heaven on earth; a modern-day traveller is more likely to associate this corner of eastern UP with the idea of a living hell.

The Ganga feels holy at dawn, by dusk it resembles a sewer. Banarasi saris look gorgeous at weddings, but the weavers who make them work out of tiny, powerless tenements. You feel a sense of tranquillity at the ghats during the Ganga aarti, but your stress levels will rise while dodging the city’s outrageous traffic. The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) once produced scholar-statesmen; now it is trapped in sloth and decay. You can live here in awe of the city’s intellect but also in fear of the gun-toting gangs. And yes, you can worship the cow, but how do you deal with the piles of dung on the streets?

A city of a million stories, in 2014 Varanasi was preparing to script an epic political battle. Narendra Modi had been named the BJP candidate from here, a decision that had spurred the AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal to also announce his candidature from the city. The Congress had put up a local strongman (bahubali as they call them in eastern UP) and a sitting MLA, Ajay Rai (a section of the UP Congress was hoping Priyanka would stand from Varanasi, but she had no such intention). It was billed as the ‘mother of all battles’.

The decision to field Modi from Varanasi was taken as far back as August 2013 even before he was formally made the party’s prime ministerial candidate. In a meeting with the RSS, Amit Shah had suggested that Varanasi was the ideal location for Modi to make a pitch as a true national leader. ‘Modiji will of course contest from Gujarat, but contesting from Varanasi is even more important,’ Shah told the RSS leaders.

The Sangh readily embraced the idea. Varanasi, after all, was the ultimate repository of Hindu civilization. As Diana Eck says in her classic account of Varanasi, Banaras: City of Lights, ‘Here all the Hindu gods have emerged from the shadows into bold relief, as people have come to understand them, have seen their faces and created their multi-form images.’ If Modi was indeed a Hindu Hriday Samrat, then Varanasi was a natural choice as the capital of his kingdom. Shah had another, more pragmatic political reason for the decision. In his analysis of UP, it was Purvanchal or eastern UP that worried him the most. Of the twenty-five seats in the region, the BJP had won just four in 2009. The SP and BSP had become the dominant forces here. If Mission 272-plus was to be achieved, a dramatic shift was needed in Purvanchal and the adjoining Bhojpur belt in Bihar. What better way than to get the BJP’s mascot to contest from the region? ‘I was convinced this would enthuse our workers and send out a strong message to the voter,’ Shah later told me.

Kejriwal, too, saw political benefit in contesting from Varanasi. Having suddenly, and mistakenly, resigned as Delhi chief minister in mid-February, the AAP leader was in danger of isolating himself. His decision to contest over 450 Lok Sabha seats hadn’t really taken off and AAP workers appeared to be in a state of drift. Kejriwal was looking to position himself as the principal challenger to Modi; he also needed to seize the media mindspace once again. Varanasi was the place to do so. This would be another David versus Goliath fight—Kejriwal was convinced he had nothing to lose.

Kejriwal’s entry upset Shah’s calculations once again. He had been hoping for an easy ride for Modi; now Varanasi was becoming a more complicated seat than originally anticipated. Shah’s first problem was within the party. The sitting Varanasi MP was Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, the veteran BJP leader who saw himself next only to Vajpayee and Advani in the party hierarchy. Dr Joshi’s loyalists would often tell me, ‘He has all the credentials to be the party’s prime ministerial candidate. You people must project him better.’

Few others within the BJP, though, seemed to share Dr Joshi’s opinion of his own capabilities. His self-image may have been of a scholarly voice with a doctorate in nuclear physics from Allahabad University, but on the ground, he had no real support base. In Varanasi, where he had won the 2009 elections by just 17,000 votes, the anger against Dr Joshi was palpable. ‘He should spend less time talking about WTO and more time here in Varanasi dealing with our local problems,’ they told me. When Dr Joshi was denied re-election from Varanasi, he initially sulked but then realized he was better off in moving to Kanpur.

Shah’s other difficulty in Varanasi lay in the sheer demographics of the constituency. With a population of nearly 3 lakhs, Muslims comprised nearly 15 per cent of the voters. OBCs and Dalits made up sizeable chunks too. The upper castes were the backbone of the BJP, but Shah needed to make a dent in the other social groups to offset the likely Muslim consolidation. A tie-up with the local Kurmi-dominated Apna Dal, which has a strong base in and around Varanasi, was only the first step (see chapter 5). But Shah knew he needed something bigger to set the Ganga on fire. It was time for a Big Bang event.

The nomination filing process in an Indian election is a customary show of strength. Candidates rustle up their supporters, hire jeeps and crowds, and move in a cavalcade to the collector’s office amidst a shower of garlands and petals. The mahaul (climate) of victory has to be created is the underlying assumption. But what happened in Varanasi on 24 April was not just any other roadshow—it was the mightiest ever display of political power during any nomination journey in Indian elections.

The planning for Modi’s nomination began almost a week to ten days before D-Day. ‘We had a series of meetings and did several trial runs to ensure absolute perfection,’ says Nalin Kohli, who was the BJP’s media coordinator in Varanasi. High-end platforms were set up at vantage points along the road for the large media contingent to use. A mobile van equipped with cameras and satellite equipment would be placed in front of Modi’s open truck so that frontal images of the leader waving to the crowds could be constantly beamed live. All local BJP leaders were told to ensure that their supporters congregated in large numbers. The entire journey was mapped to ensure both maximum crowds and maximum security.

In an effort to give the event an ‘inclusive’ appeal, the BJP even tried to get Varanasi’s Bharat Ratna, shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan’s son, Zamin Hussain Bismillah, as one of the proposers for Modi’s nomination. He refused. ‘We have been a Congress family for years. Besides, my father’s music was always above politics,’ he told me later. It was perhaps the only misstep in the BJP’s preparations.

Even the chosen date appeared to have been carefully calculated. The 24th of April happened to be the sixth phase of polling, with 117 seats at stake across twelve states and union territories. Central UP, too, was polling that day, apart from the whole of Tamil Nadu, Mumbai and parts of Rajasthan, MP and Bihar. ‘We knew that if we created a mega television event, the cameras would focus on Modi and we could capture eyeballs even while the voting was on,’ confessed a senior BJP leader to me. The other reason, of course, was to make sure that eastern UP knew that Varanasi was now the new political capital of the country. And Modi its putative emperor.

Modi landed at Varanasi’s Lal Bahadur Shastri airport a little before 11 a.m. He was taken by chopper to the BHU campus, then driven to the statue of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Varanasi’s most revered freedom fighter. After the garlanding of the statue, the chopper took him to the Kashi Vidyapeeth where he garlanded a statue of Sardar Patel, and then set off in an open truck towards the collector’s office. On a normal day, the journey would not have taken more than half an hour. That day, it took almost four hours. BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was accompanying Modi in the truck with Shah, says it brought back memories of the anti-Indira JP andolan in the 1970s. ‘I had never seen this kind of frenzied enthusiasm during an election, never,’ he later told me.

My colleague Bhupendra Chaubey was on the ground while I was in the studio. In the studio, we were a little sceptical—we thought the crowds may have been hired. But Bhupendra had a different take. ‘This was not a paid janata. The atmosphere was festive, people had come because they just wanted to catch a glimpse of Modi. I met someone who had taken a six-hour bus journey from Bihar just so that he could take a photo of Modi!’ he said in astonishment.

Rose petals were showered on the truck, youngsters sported saffron caps and Modi T-shirts and masks, thousands lined every street corner. It was a political Maha Kumbh. And it was being played out live on television. The news agency ANI had as many as seven 3G satellite units along the route just to ensure that no image was missed. In the studio, my producer kept asking me if we should move away and show pictures of voting taking place in other parts of India that day. ‘Shahrukh Khan has come to vote in Mumbai—should we cut to him?’ she asked. I thought about it for a moment, and then sighed, ‘I guess the real Bollywood show is being played out in Varanasi today with a star who has become even bigger than Shahrukh!’

Like Shahrukh, Modi once again revealed himself as a master of the TV moment, never short of a memorable sound bite or a bit of political theatre. Having filed his nomination, he provided yet another quotable quote. ‘Mera mann kehta hai mein aya nahi hoon, mujhe bheja bhi nahi hai. Mujhe Ma Ganga ne bulaya hai!’ (My mind tells me I have not come, nor been sent, Ma Ganga   has called me here.)

But the final punchline of the day was reserved for the less voluble Shah. ‘The Modi wave has now become a tsunami,’ he told the throng of journalists. The Congress hit back, pointing out that the tsunami which hit the Tamil Nadu coast in December 2004 had only brought death, destruction and grief. But this could no longer be a debate over semantics. The fact is, the political earth of India had begun to shake and there was a tectonic shift taking place on the ground. The Modi nomination had been another masterful act of political choreography, but this was no longer just a manufactured ‘wave’. The spontaneous upsurge of support was unmissable. The camera was not lying.

What explains this craze for Modi? He was, after all, at the start of 2013 just another chief minister, that too from a state with a relatively small pool of MPs. Within eighteen months, he was the mostsought-after national figure. No state leader has ever been able to make the transition so quickly and effectively. Yes, there was a leadership vacuum in Delhi, and the invisibility of the prime minister and Rahul’s immaturity had led to a desperate longing for change. The economy was in a downward spiral and big-ticket corruption had alienated the middle class. The UPA’s demise was certain.

But why was Modi preferred to any other prime ministerial aspirant? My belief is Modi’s USP was his staunch promise to shatter the status quo—his undiluted aggression appealed to a new India. In the 1970s, Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man persona was suited to a film-going public tiring of chocolate-box heroes. In 2014, Modi’s image as a robust ‘man of action’ gave him a decisive edge with voters who were sick and tired of being told by a slow-moving government that ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’. As the man who had travelled six hours by bus to see Modi in Varanasi told our reporter, ‘Modiji toh desh ko bachane aaye hain!’ (Modi is here to save the country.) He could well have been echoing a dialogue from a Bachchan film.

I arrived in Varanasi in the first week of May to shoot a ground report. The campaign was at its peak. BJP leaders and workers were everywhere. In the hotel where I was staying, I bumped into Gordhan Zadaphia, the Gujarat politician who had once rebelled against Modi but had now quietly returned to the fold. I asked him what he was doing in Varanasi. ‘I have been assigned the task of reaching out to Gujarati voters in the city,’ he told me. The reality was that every BJP leader, big or small, needed to put in an obligatory face show before the all-powerful Modi–Shah duo. ‘We had so many leaders assembled in one place, we didn’t know what work to give them!’ one of the BJP’s campaign coordinators admitted to me later.

On the streets, the BJP’s war cry, ‘Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi’, was proving contentious. The Dwarka Shankaracharya had objected, claiming that the chanting amounted to deification of Modi and was against Hindu religion. Modi had even tweeted asking his supporters not to use the slogan. And yet, when we were filming with BJP–RSS workers out canvassing on a door-to-doorcampaign, we heard the chant repeatedly. The moment I raised the issue with the party workers, they quickly changed the slogan. ‘Har Har Modi’ was dropped, ‘Ghar Ghar Modi’ remained in place! I am sure when our camera team left the site, the original chant would have returned. As an overenthusiastic worker told me: ‘You can say what you want, Modi hamare liye Bhagwaan barabar hai!’ (Modi is like God for us.)

An entire floor in the Surya Hotel in the heart of Varanasi had been booked by the BJP and converted into a media centre. No party is as proficient at courting the media as the BJP. The organization was near faultless. Dozens of computers, endless cups of chai and samosas, a room for interviews to be conducted—keeping the large media contingent in good humour came easy to the BJP. I must confess I was a little surprised, though, to see how even veteran journalists were fawning over Shah. ‘Should I get you some extra ketchup, sir?’ one of them asked, while the famished campaign manager cleaned up a plate of cheese sandwiches.

Shah was taking no chances even after the spectacular success of the nomination roadshow. He had made Varanasi his base for managing the entire eastern UP campaign in the last stretch. One day, he received reports that the party workers had become complacent about victory and weren’t working hard enough. At 10 p.m. all local leaders were called and warned, ‘From tomorrow, I want to see all of you out on the road, no excuses.’ Shah is a great believer in the power of a door-to-door campaign in true RSS volunteer-style. Each leader was told to ensure that no house in their area was missed.

Kejriwal, by contrast, did not have the money power—certainly nothing to match the BJP election machine. Nor, this time, the media support. He had arrived in Varanasi by train in mid-April and set about trying to climb the steepest mountain of his political career. Just before arriving in Varanasi, Kejriwal had also travelled to Gujarat, where in a show of political bravado, he had marched almost up to Modi’s residence in Gandhinagar, apparently to seek an appointment. Clashes with BJP workers, detentions and acts of stoning had met him in Gujarat, where armed with a notepad he was seen jotting down the number of dysfunctional schools and badly staffed clinics to arrive at his conclusion of a non-existent Gujarat model of development. Kejriwal’s Gujarat trip may not have yielded political gain on the ground but was a symbolic show of strength—he was unafraid to enter the lion’s den.

In Varanasi, Kejriwal did manage to create a stir initially—with his campaign gaining some visibility after his supporters took on the BJP on the streets—but it was soon obvious that Varanasi was not Delhi. Many of his volunteers had come from other states. They were simply not familiar with the narrow by-lanes of this city where every alley has a different character. ‘I think we underestimated the scale of what we were up against,’ confessed an AAP leader.

The one group which seemed taken up by the AAP white topi were the Muslim weavers. Travelling through the weaver bastis, I was confronted by the sense of hopelessness that stared at the Indian Muslim in this election. The local artisans could spin magical saris, but their lives were caught in a cycle of neglect and relative poverty. A superior quality Banarasi sari could range from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 but the artisan would be lucky to earn Rs 5000 for his month-long effort while working out of a cramped little room. It was a terribly unequal world.

That sense of inequality had seeped down to political choices as well. The Congress, the weavers felt, had let them down. A number of promises and packages had been announced, but little had trickled down to them. The SP and the BSP exploited them as a vote bank with no obvious reward. A Modi-led BJP frightened them. ‘Woh toh danga karvatein hain’ (He stages riots). The AAP was a more enticing prospect. Wearing an AAP badge and cap, one weaver told me,‘Kejriwalji hamari bhasha bol rahe hain, BJP ko wahi ek takkar de sakte hain’ (Kejriwal is speaking our language, only he can give a fight to the BJP). Yet Kejriwal’s dilemma was that if he became a Muslim-focused party, the AAP would alienate the Hindus. The message of the public transport-using, sleeping-on-the-footpath common man up against a business-class Modi with his powerful corporate backers was far more politically expedient.

I accompanied Kejriwal on his campaign into the villages around Varanasi. In searingly hot temperatures, he seemed to be up for the challenge. ‘Modi is a hawai neta, he comes in and out on choppers. I am a zameeni neta, on the ground,’ he told me. His election rhetoric had a familiar ring: ‘Modi Adani–Ambani ke saath juda hua hain, woh paisa banayenge, aapko koi phayda nahi hoga’ (Modi is in partnership with Adani and Ambani. They will make money, you will get no benefit). But in rural Varanasi, this line of attack was misplaced and just did not resonate. No one I spoke to in the village had heard of Ambani or Adani.

I asked Kejriwal later whether he felt he had erred in contesting from Varanasi. After all, his presence meant that the entire AAP volunteer machine had been diverted to this single constituency. ‘No, I don’t agree. We had to fight Varanasi to send out a message—we wanted to show we were not scared of Modi,’ he countered.

The BJP, too, wanted to prove a point. Worried by the AAP factor at the start of the year, they now wanted to teach him a lesson. ‘The real battle in Varanasi was always as to who would come second and who would lose their deposit. We wanted Kejriwal to lose his deposit, that was our goal,’ the BJP’s Kohli told me later.

Modi was never going to lose Varanasi. The big question was what would be the margin of the win. I remember meeting a few Delhi- based social activists who were campaigning against Modi. ‘He can be defeated—you media people have all been bought over by him,’ one vociferous lady told me angrily. I protested the accusation but realized I was never going to win this debate. Wearing ideological blinkers, I fear, can lead even rational people to think irrationally at election time.

A more logical explanation for the Modi wave in Varanasi was provided to me by the owner of Keshav Paan Bhandar, the city’s most famous paan shop. As he lovingly prepared a meetha paan for me, I asked him why he was voting for Modi. ‘Bhaisaab, agar woh pradhan mantri bante hain, toh Varanasi ka kuch to bhala hoga’ (If Modi becomes PM, Varanasi will at least benefit in some way). Like many other parts of India, Varanasi, too, was living on hope.

In the land of Bismillah Khan and its ‘Ganga–Jamuni tehzeeb’, as they would say in Urdu, ‘Ummeed par duniya kaayam hai!’ (The world lives on hope.)

The election in Amethi took place on 7 May. Varanasi was scheduled for the 12th. Only forty-one of the 543 seats were now left in what had been an agonizingly long nine-phase election. It was into this last stretch that the BJP now poured its entire might. ‘This was now carpet-bombing in a multiple of ten,’ is how one BJP leader summed up the last week of the campaign.

Modi was now addressing as many as six rallies a day, focused on the three remaining states of UP, Bihar and Bengal. The advertising campaign was intensified, with the frequency of the ads being increased. Every few minutes, a TV screen in one of the poll-bound states would have Modi staring at the camera, touching his heart emblazoned with a BJP badge, and saying, ‘Aapka diya gaya vote seedhe mujhe ayega’ (Your vote will come directly to me). ‘We wanted to make the candidates irrelevant—this was now only about Modi for PM,’ is how a BJP strategist described the presidential-style campaign thrust.

To try and ensure that their leader touched almost every battleground constituency, Team Modi played their final Brahmastra—Modi in 3D. The idea had originated in the 2012 Gujarat assembly election campaign. That election, like so much else in Team Modi’s 2014 strategy, served as a laboratory for innovative ideas. The 3D technology had been patented by a UK-based company, Musion. The India rights were acquired and a team of 200 foreign and Indian technicians worked for almost six months to perfect the broadcast. It was first attempted in December 2012 when Modi’s fifty-five-minute speech made from his political base in Gandhinagar was broadcast infifty-three locations across twenty-six cities. ‘We were able to cover lakhs of people across thousands of kilometres in one go. It had a terrific impact,’ says Prashant Kishore of CAG who headed the team which planned the concept.

I watched one of the 3D shows during the 2012 Gujarat elections from just outside Vadodara. Gujaratis, like most Indians, love their cinema. This was like a political movie being played out in front of them, with Modi as the star. Just the technology which showed Modi appearing with a glow around him was enough to make the crowd feel this was ‘paisa vasool’. Some members in the audience would move towards the screen, trying to touch Modi, and then scream excitedly when they realized this was only a cinematic image of their leader.

Now, in the general elections, the Gujarat experiment was taken nationwide. While in April, Modi would do a 3D rally once every three to four days, in the last stretch, he was doing nearly one a day. As a result, he was able to touch over 1300 locations, 325 of which were in UP alone. 3D was also used to reach out to remote places. ‘We even managed to get to the upper reaches of Uttarakhand. It was a logistical challenge, but we did it,’ says a Team Modi member.

This was quintessential ‘shock and awe’ campaigning, Modi- style. Two studios were set up in Delhi and Gandhinagar for Modi’s ‘outreach’. A crew of 2500 members handling 125 3D projector units were involved and more than 7 million people reportedly witnessed the 3D shows over twelve days. In the 2012 assembly elections, Modi would appear in 3D in an almost static position on a flat screen; this time, the technology team innovated and attempted to capture every movement, including someone serving him a cup of tea, or a towel being asked for to wipe the sweat. ‘We wanted Modi to appear as lifelike as possible to heighten audience excitement,’ is how the 3D adventure was described to me. I later asked Kishore how much they spent on each 3D show. He wouldn’t tell me but BJP sources said it was amongst the most expensive elements of the campaign. ‘Upwards of Rs 200 crore’ is one figure I was given. Whatever the final amount, the purpose had been served. Modi was, literally, everywhere.

On 8 May, Modi was to conclude his Varanasi campaign with two rallies and then participate in an aarti by the banks of the Ganga. But twenty-four hours before his arrival, the local administration denied him permission—citing security concerns—for a rally in Beniabagh in the heart of the city and for the aarti.

Free from his campaign in Amritsar, senior leader Arun Jaitley was now supervising the final push in Varanasi. Incensed by the administration’s decision, he decided to go on the offensive. A legal defence was prepared, and a letter sent to the Election Commission and the district magistrate’s office. The local BJP was told to stage a dharna in protest. ‘We genuinely felt that the administration was under pressure from the SP government not to allow Modi into the city,’ Jaitley told me later. The fact that the DM, Pranjal Yadav, was a Yadav only gave added ammunition to the BJP propaganda machine, with a rumour being quietly spread that he was related to UP’s ruling family.

By the time the DM relented, it was too late. The BJP was keen to turn adversity into advantage. Playing victim, Modi accused the Election Commission of bias and acting under political pressure. The Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath is a quiet, low- profile man with a non-confrontational persona, very unlike some of his predecessors, such as T.N. Seshan. The charge of bias left Sampath nonplussed. ‘We have tried our best to ensure a free and fair elections—why is Modi talking like this?’ he asked me when I called him up for a reaction. Sampath, too, was slowly learning that Modi was not your average politician. His instinctively combative nature meant that even the Election Commission would not be spared his ire (as another CEC, J.M. Lyngdoh, had discovered in 2002).

Modi was determined to have the last word. Landing in Varanasi, he chose to go on an impromptu roadshow through the city right up to the party headquarters. If the nomination journey had been a march of triumph, this was a final act of defiance. On 24 April, the masses had come out in large numbers. This time, the streets were dominated by BJP supporters in saffron caps. I asked Jaitley if the roadshow was also another ‘well-planned’ event. ‘Well, you can’t expect a political party to stay silent if we are denied our right to hold a rally,’ was his prompt answer.

From day one of this election campaign, the BJP, unlike the Congress, had never missed an opportunity to seize an opportunity. Varanasi’s DM, intentionally or otherwise, had provided them with one last moment to exploit. On the final day of the campaign, Rahul Gandhi went on a similar roadshow through the city’s streets. It looked imitative and, frankly, a little late as always. Rahul once again lived up to the rather harsh description of him as a ‘tubelight’.

Modi concluded his 2014 campaign by addressing his last rally in Ballia in eastern UP. His publicists were quick to provide the details. Their leader had done 437 rallies and covered more than 3 lakh kilometres since being anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate inmid-September. But if he was tired, he wasn’t showing any signs of it.

On the way back from Ballia, he stopped at Varanasi airport where his trusted aides, Jaitley and Shah, were waiting for him. The troika who had shaped the BJP’s 2014 campaign then flew back together to Delhi. ‘There was a feeling of deep satisfaction amongst all of us. Narendra was convinced that victory was ours and Mission 272-plus would be reality—there was no self-doubt at all,’ Jaitley told me later.

On arrival in Delhi, Modi made a quick stopover at the RSS headquarters at Jhandewalan where he met the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. It was a reminder that even as a prime ministerial nominee, he was first and always a swayamsevak. It was also perhaps a thanksgiving to Bhagwat. After all, the Sangh with its well-drilled cadres had come out in almost full strength to provide the organizational support and feet on the ground for Modi and the BJP in this election. Indeed, the RSS had pulled out all the stops— grass-roots organizers, campaigners and mobilizers—perhaps as enthusiastically as it had done in the JP movement against Indira’s Emergency. With a targeted door-to-door campaign, they had been Modi’s last-mile warriors.

The same night Modi flew back to Gandhinagar. The most gruelling campaign in the history of Indian elections was over. Modi had run a marathon with unbelievable stamina. 7, Race Course Road, the most cherished address in Indian politics, was now well within his grasp.


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