The voice is loud, inescapable and unmistakable. Ram Bhawan hastens towards it down a narrow lane of Chauhan Basti in Jamki village, helped along by childhood friend Vikas. Bhawan, 37, is blind since birth. However, he has been hearing enough on television to put that voice to a face. “Is Modi here?” he asks Vikas. Vikas shakes his head, but then Narendra Modi doesn’t have to be here in Chauhan Basti.
At the end of that lane, in the verandah of Bansnath Chauhan’s house, is parked a ‘NaMo Rath’. A 10-minute recorded speech of Modi is being screened on a 54-inch LCD screen on the rath, that is also equipped with a power inverter, an amplifier and loudspeakers.
Two hundred such Mahindra Maximos or ‘raths’ — with posters of Modi and messages such as ‘Modi aane wala hai (Modi is coming)’ plastered over them — hit the roads in Uttar Pradesh on March 19, while 200 more are in the process of rolling out. They will cover all the 403 Assembly seats across the state, starting with 19,000 villages in generally inaccessible areas where cavalcades of senior leaders can’t venture and TV sets are a rarity, remaining on the road till May 10. Each vehicle carries the electoral rolls of the areas falling along its route, as well as pamphlets and masks of Modi.
There are five such raths criss-crossing Azamgarh, a crucial contest now with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav in the fray and Modi’s seat Varanasi not too far away. “Soon, a centralised control room will be set up in Lucknow to monitor the movement of raths by GPS,” says Rakesh Tripathi, an ABVP worker coordinating the ‘Modi Sandesh Yatra’ rath programme in the state. Explained where the voice is coming from, Bhawan nods in approval. “Let’s see if the US issues a visa to Modi when he becomes prime minister,” he smiles.
It’s 3.15 pm on the first day, and Chauhan Basti is the 11th stop for the NaMo Rath traversing Azamgarh’s Mehnagar Assembly constituency. The rath set off that day from Gurehtha near Singhpur, with five persons on board, and its first stop was Singhpur Bazar at 10.15 am. Teejaram, the Azamgarh district president of the Scheduled Caste Morcha of the BJP, is in-charge of the Mehnagar NaMo Rath and its route.
As the rath reaches the small market of Singhpur Bazar, party district secretary Arvind Singh asks driver Prem Hans Pal to park under a neem tree. Two ‘helpers’, 13-year-old Mayank (the son of Pal) and Shailendra (18), jump out with large plastic sheets and spread these on the ground. A mike is quickly fixed, and Teejaram starts appealing to people to give 15 minutes of their time to listen to Modi’s message.
As people gather, Teejaram reads out a short poem he has written on corruption, caste politics and FDI in retail. He is followed by Arvind Singh, who delivers a speech and tells people to vote for the BJP on May 12, polling day.
When around two dozen people, including some children, are settled on the plastic sheets, Mayank connects a pen drive to the LCD screen and plays the Modi video.
It begins with the Gujarat Chief Minister praising the BJP for projecting a tea vendor from a backward caste as its prime ministerial candidate, and goes on to show people from various sections supporting him. There are clippings of Modi’s speeches at rallies. In a recorded message that follows, Modi invokes former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
As the video is playing, Mayank hands out pamphlets among the audience while Shailendra pastes them on surrounding houses. The pamphlets highlight ‘Gujarat development’.
Shailendra also goes to every person in the gathering with a notebook, asking them to write down their name and contact number. “The details will be sent to the party headquarters so that the party can contact these villagers to verify the visit of the rath,” says Shailendra.
In the meantime, Teejaram hands over copies of the village’s electoral rolls to the BJP’s booth level agents. “If any person is left out, the agents will give their name to the booth level officer,” Teejaram says.
The raths were designed in Lucknow and it was there that Mayank was taught how to operate the LCD TV and amplifier. The vehicle belongs to his father Pal, who has hired out his vehicle and driving services to the party for Rs 24,000. When pointed out that Mayank is a minor, Teejaram says, “He is only accompanying his father. He has not been hired.”
Modi’s talk in the video about “feeling pain” because women in Uttar Pradesh don’t have toilets in their homes finds many supporters. However, women in Mathiya area of Bachwal village, where the rath reaches at 1 pm, are not impressed. Keetan Devi, 72, one of the more than 20 women assembled at the residence of party district vice-president Maheshwari Kant Pandey, shrugs: “Will Modi get votes here? Abhi kuchh pata nahin (Can’t tell right now).”
Modi gets a better response at the next destination, Barai Ka Purva of Bachwal village. Barai Ka Purva has around 40 families, a majority of them paanwallahs. When Modi folds his hands at the end of the video to thank people, all the women do likewise. However, Ramji Charaisya, opposite whose paan shop the rath is parked, is not happy with the BJP’s candidate from Azamgarh, sitting MP Ramakant Yadav. Yadav didn’t help install even a single hand-pump in Barai Ka Purva, she says.
At the very least, Ramji is looking forward to an exciting contest. “I have heard Mulayam is also contesting from here. Badhiya chunao hoga is baar,” laughs the 76-year old. Mehnagar is a rural Assembly seat of Azamgarh and the BJP has not won from here since 1991. The SP’s Brajlal Sonkar is the sitting MLA.
The Mehnagar constituency is dominated by backward castes, with the majority being Yadavs. Azamgarh also has a sizeable population of Muslims, but the Mehnagar NaMo Rath travelled only through Hindu-dominated villages on March 19. “We will go into some villages of Muslims but a few days later,” Teejaram says. The terror arrests made from Azamgarh are not a poll issue.
After 21 km and 15 stops in Singhpur, Mauli, Siswa, Bachwal, Jamki and Gopalpur villages, the NaMo Rath halts for the night. At Gopalpur, party worker Rajesh Singh has made arrangements for dinner for the staff. They are all starved, having had only tea and jaggery with water through the day, after breakfast at Teejaram’s house at 9.30 am. Rajesh serves them chapati, rice, daal, a vegetable and curd. Pal and Mayank sleep inside the rath to “guard” it. After a day of talking, there is little conversation.
Before launching the rath yatras, the BJP took the permission of the district electoral offices. The party has been instructed to ensure that no more than 50 people gather at any stop, and that appeals for votes are made only on behalf of the BJP and Modi, and not the local candidate.
Officials need not have worried. While BJP state in-charge Amit Shah had earlier said the rath would feature messages of party national president Rajnath Singh too, no recoded speech of Rajnath has been provided to any rath. Modi, it has been concluded, need be their only message.