A Backpacker’s Guide to Indian Polls

A documentary photographer travels across India mapping the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

New Delhi | Published:February 8, 2015 1:00 am
elections-main Bedi playing badminton in Krishna Nagar last month; Kejriwal in Varanasi in May 2014 (Source: Express photo by Nitya Rao)

By Nitya Rao

Kaunsa channel (which channel)?” That’s the question that has come to me most often this past year that I have spent on a political backpacking tour, photographing election campaigns across India. In my arsenal of creative responses to this FAQ, my favourite is: “Mein akeli aayi hoon, America se. Khud ke liye kaam kar rahi hoon (I have come alone from America, I work for myself).” Then I take a step back to take in the look which translates into “Paagal ho kya (Are you mad)?”

Crazy as it sounds, this is the most honest explanation for the ambitious road trip I have been on since the summer of 2014 during the Lok Sabha elections, when I left my home in Boston to undertake a solitary, self-funded political photography tour of India. My photographs are not meant to be newsy — I am on a lookout for the ironies and contradictions of our colourful electoral process.

The modus operandi was simple: to write to candidates, earn an invite to travel around their constituency with them and take photographs. Except that my list of candidates read: “Jaya, Maya, Mamata.” Just how do you write to Jayalalitha?

Kejriwal in Varanasi in May 2014 Kejriwal in Varanasi in May 2014

Contacts of contacts of contacts were emailed. Twitter accounts trolled. The list was pared down to more accessible netas. Then one afternoon, 20 minutes after I sent them an email, now two-time Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s office responded to my proposal. Thirty-six hours later, I was in Thiruvananthapuram.

From there, I moved to Chandigarh to photograph AAP candidate, Gul Panag, and then to Amritsar to BJP candidate, Arun Jaitley. I took a chance and showed up at the newly inaugurated party office he had tweeted about and introduced myself to his campaign staff. Soon, I was bundled into an SUV, driven to a building and led into a room where I found myself face to face with Jaitley, surrounded by his aides, at a table eating lunch. Until that nerve-wracking moment, I had been slightly tentative about the success of this project. But bizarre as it sounds, standing in Jaitley’s dining room, I felt a new-found confidence that this crazy experiment might actually work.

The richness of this experience became so addictive that it seemed natural to extend the scope of my initial project to the assembly elections. There is a favourite phrase among Indian psephologists — “He who rules Delhi rules India.” So I landed up in Delhi for a ringside view of the Kiran vs Kejriwal battle.

Since I had spent weeks on the campaign trail with Aam Admi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi last year, I decided to train my lens on Kiran Bedi in Delhi. In the short time that I followed her, I saw the BJP CM candidate’s campaign undergo an astounding transformation. Three days after her candidacy was announced, I got off at the Preet Vihar metro station at 7.30 am, and asked a rickshaw driver if he could take me to Bedi’s election campaign office in Krishna Nagar, a traditional, trader-dominated constituency in east Delhi. Weaving deftly through the densely packed, narrow lanes, the man seemed to know where he was going. When he dropped me off, I discovered, to my dismay, that he had brought me to Union Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan’s home instead. Apparently, Bedi was still not a popular name in Krishna Nagar.

It was a cold, windy morning when I finally managed to locate her. The thick winter fog hadn’t yet lifted, so not many people were out and about. But Bedi, surrounded by a bunch of loud, sloganeering, banner-raising aides, was striding confidently through the streets, flashing victory symbols at those waving from their balconies. “I don’t need your help to walk. Please let me speak to people,” she repeatedly told an overzealous worker trying to shoo away schoolchildren who had stopped to greet her.

In the first half of her campaign, Bedi was clearly someone who was enjoying her moment in the sun. Walking at a fast clip, she would speak to people on everything from her love for sports to how she would make Delhi safe for women. At Central Park in Krishna Nagar one morning, she grabbed a racket and played a few badminton shots, much to the amusement of onlookers. “Mein behen nahin, mein aap ki maa hoon (I am not your sister, I am your mother),” she told a gathering of women and children, planting kisses on their cheeks. At a street market, she thrust a microphone in the face of a reticent vegetable vendor and badgered him with “Bhaiyya, mera naam kya hai (What is my name)?”, relenting only when he volunteered tentatively, “Kiran Devi.”

Then, over the course of a few days, the campaign began to change. After a short break, when I returned to shooting the morning campaigns, I found Bedi now perched on a truck, waving to her supporters, being driven through the streets of Krishna Nagar. Barring a few hushed exchanges with her closest aides, she wasn’t speaking to anyone. From being an involved campaigner (the media gaffes notwithstanding), she went on to become a distant, less accessible neta. At her evening roadshows in other constituencies, she seemed ill at ease and out of her depth. Once, in Paharganj during a packed roadshow, a supporter began to light firecrackers in the middle of the crowd. Bedi gestured to him to stop — it could be unsafe — but her aides and campaign workers remained unfazed. The crackers continued for a little longer. “Chunav ke time pe yeh to hota hi rahega,” a BJP worker remarked. “Madam ko seekhna hai (These things happen during elections. Madam has to learn that).” Bedi, the “outsider” in these elections, was visibly uncomfortable with (to borrow her own phrase) “the tamasha” of electoral politics.

Out of curiosity, I attended a few jansabhas in Mehrauli, Shahdara, Govindpuri and Mangolpuri of her adversary Kejriwal. Each of these gatherings was tightly packed with no wiggle room. Sometimes, I would extricate myself and find a vantage point on a surrounding rooftop. From my bird’s eye view, I saw people cheering him on and responding to his questions enthusiastically. The Kejriwal I saw in Delhi was a study in contrast to the ash-smeared, exhausted man I had followed in Varanasi. There, the crowds were sparse, and people seemed more interested in the free jhadu they could wrangle afterwards. In Delhi, he’s turned the battle into one between an underdog and a giant and, after many such sabhas, I have met people who seem convinced that he deserves one more chance.

In the meantime, my project rolls on. In India, the political juggernaut never stops, and so, for me, there will always be one more chance.

Nitya Rao is an independent documentary photographer based in Boston, USA

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