The election season is set to take over our lives for the next month. As we are bombarded with never-ending controversies, images from crowded rallies, and the latest in election-time slugfests between netas, it’s a good time to ponder what election reporting should really achieve.
Exclusive interviews with politicians and colourful rallies are essential to the election time news cycle. But this is also a great time for us journalists to help our readers and viewers get to know their fellow citizens better. Who exactly is the Modi voter we hear of in the news studios? What is going on in the mind of the Mamata supporter as she presses that button on the EVM?
There’s been much talk of Mamata Banerjee’s women supporters and the rise of Hindutva in West Bengal. Both these themes neatly collided in the village of Ichhapur in West Burdwan district.
Ichhapur is a dusty gram panchayat near the well-planned industrial city of Durgapur, designed by two American architects in the 1950s. From the smooth roads and wide expanse of Durgapur, the path to Ichhapur is a bumpy disappointment. The road leading to the village is just loose mud, and the village appears as if its makers gave up on it midway.
It is here that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Seva Bharati decided to begin its operations in 1989 with an NGO named Vivekananda Vikas Parishad. This was to mark the birth centenary of RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, and the NGO centre now quadruples up as a computer programming centre, a self-help organisation for women, a sewing training centre, and a school for children from Classes 1 to 12, mostly attended by the marginalised Adivasi sections.
The women of Ichhapur help run this operation. The classrooms here are named Netaji Room and Vivekanand Room. The walls inside have posters of Vivekanand, Sister Nivedita, Hegdewar and Ambedkar, and small calendars featuring Subhash Chandra Bose, Tagore and Vivekanand – the holy trinity of Bengali Asmita.
Vivekananda Vikas Parishad was set up in 1989 in Icchapur.
Aparna Mukherjee has been working here for three years. She teaches Classes 5 to 8 and is part of the self-help group that makes savoury snacks that sell for Rs 10 a packet. So, what are the big themes playing on Aparna’s mind as she votes this time?
“I don’t want to beg for money from my husband. There are so many women here who are graduates, have degrees but no jobs,” she says. “There is no difference between having a qualification and not having one.”
Aparna has been associated with Seva Bharati’s NGO for about three years and says she likes the social work they do but it doesn’t affect her voting choice. “I voted for Modi in 2019 but I feel he hasn’t done anything to control prices,” she says, adding that at that state level, she is happy with the Mamata government, especially with the schemes they have introduced like the Swasthay Sathi health cover.
Aparna makes Rs 500 a month from her work at Seva Bharati. None of her immediate concerns veer towards Hindutva pet peeves in West Bengal; her vote in 2019 was not to fight an imagined “Muslim takeover” in the state but to fight her own financial dependency.
Aparna Mukherjee, who has been working here for three years. Watch our conversation with her below.
Much earlier in our conversation, she had mentioned the word “atmanirnabhar” and how Seva Bharati helps women achieve that to some extent. But when asked about the RSS’s work, she says she’s not very aware of their operations here because most of it happens in Durgapur. Aparna’s son has joined the RSS, though. She says she likes the processions that pracharaks take out during the Mahalaya.
Three of Aparna’s colleagues at the NGO also emphasise the PM’s “atmanirbhar” slogan because it resonates with their chief personal goal.
Anita Kormokar, who teaches Classes 5 to 8, says she aspires to be a government teacher. What does she like about working at Seva Bharati? “There are several women in our village who cannot even sign [their names] properly. I just want all these women to at least learn to sign,” she says. “I want all the mothers and sisters of this village to have good education so that they can be more independent and grow.”
Vishnu Priya Saha makes paper packets at Rs 30 a kilo and manages to earn Rs 300 to Rs 500 a month. Her message to Didi is to help her set up a small business in her one-room home. What stands out in her home is a small temple full of images of Krishna and three books on the Gita and Krishna’s message.
“I bought three of them for Rs 100 each,” she says. Vishnu Priya is deeply moved by the book's message, closing her eyes and folding her arms in devotion as speaks of it. She says party politics do not matter. “What matters is how good we can be to each other as human beings. I think of why we are here and karma,” she says.
She adds that she is happy with Didi’s work and charmed by Modi’s promise of self-reliance.
Of the women we met, the one who is most ideologically-aligned to the RSS-BJP politics is Aarti Chatterjee. This isn’t her real name, at her request. Aarti doesn’t work at Seva Bharati and rarely ever goes there because her tailoring job leaves her with no spare time. As we chat with her, she nimbly makes a blouse on her sewing machine.
Vishnu Priya Saha at her home.
Her chief concern is safety for women. “Men get drunk here and create a nuisance. And this is because at the end of every road, there is a bar,” she says. “If these bars are shut down, things may get better and make it safe for women to be out.”
She’s not very impressed with the state of affairs in the country. “How can a country that sells rice at Rs 2 a kilo be a developed country?” she asks. “Everyone should be able to go to a shop and buy rice at market price which is Rs 20 a kilo.”
Aarti’s chief desire, then, is purchasing power and to not be dependent on the state to fulfill her basic requirements. Of the BJP leaders in West Bengal, she likes former RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh the most because “he is what he is on the face, no mask”.
Aarti doesn’t want to be named because she’s scared of the repercussions of voicing her political opinion in a state where party differences, most recently between the TMC and BJP, have often resulted in bloody clashes. “There is fear and I don’t want my husband to get into trouble because of my views,” she says.
She is most impressed with the Modi government for helping Muslim women on the issue of triple talaq, she says, and how the prime minister made the Chinese forces retreat from Ladakh. “China and Pakistan are afraid of us now,” she says, citing India’s triumph in Ladakh.
Her information on India’s military might under Modi is sourced from news channels like Aaj Tak, ABP Ananda, Zee Bangla and Zee 24 Ghanta. If the RSS’s slow and steady work in Ichhapur since the 1980s has been to bring its residents under the Hindutva umbrella to the benefit of BJP, news channels are outdoing the Sangh Parivar.
Aparna and Aarti get into a little bit of an argument over the TMC’s work by the end of our time with them. Though she works for an RSS-affiliated NGO, this election season, Aparna strikes us as more of a Didi pracharak, urging her colleagues to praise the Mamata government and helpfully reminding them of the state government schemes that have improved lives.
When she tries to do the same with Aarti, she gets a scolding. Aarti tells her that nothing will come of these schemes: “You’ll get some Rs 200-250 benefit out of Swasthya Sathi and nothing after that, you’ll see you’ll get nothing.” For the first time in our conversation, Aparna then seems a little unsure and on the backfoot for her support for Mamata’s good work – out-shouted by an opponent who didn’t let her get a word in. It’s quite similar to an opposition spokesperson whose mic is switched off on the TV news debates that Aarti likes to watch.
Translation and video by Parikshit Sanyal.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.
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