UNDER the hot afternoon sun, local Congress workers are gathered around their candidate Satish Luthra on Road No. 42 in the Dera Gazi Khan Madrasi jhuggi area of Shakur Basti in West Delhi. Amidst plastic bags and garbage spilled on the road, a red e-rickshaw covered in portraits of Congress bigwigs is sputtering to life. Women stare from balconies of decrepit two-storey structures, resting their elbows on clothes hung out to dry, at one place on a Vodafone banner. Below, onlookers are plonked on makeshift chairs before the array of small shops lining the street.
Suddenly, they all sit up and take note. As the e-rickshaw blares out “Congress ko support karo, Congress ko satta mein laana hai. Anubhav ko support karo, Congress ko satta mein laana hai (Support the Congress, support experience, bring the Congress to power)”, a group of youngsters emerge from behind a truck in a line, waving Congress flags, and break into a dance.
The BJP has had control over the Delhi municipal corporations (which till 2012 was one corporation) for 10 years now. The Congress, wiped out in the Delhi Assembly elections and in desperate need of a win, is hoping it has a chance both due to anti-incumbency and the Aam Aadmi Party’s recent poll setbacks. In this area of about 2,000 voters, mostly from lower-middle income strata — under Ward No. 65 — the party is today trying out its new poll plan: ‘flash mobs’.
In a minute, the crowd is whistling as 17-year-old Ritik Kumar pulls off a handstand, and the dancers arrange themselves in and out of a circle.
Amit Dewan, 20, smiles with satisfaction. He is part of five ‘flash mob’ teams in all canvassing for the Congress, with each team comprising a maximum of 10 people. All the teams are associated with the Saaz Academy in Rohini, whose owner Vijay Sharma claims old links with the Congress — never mind that ‘flash mobs’, in concept, are supposed to be people spontaneously coming together and dancing.
Dewan says he is driven by a passion for dance, and dropped out of school 13 years ago. He also claims he was “gradually drawn to politics while practising my moves”. “I realised over time that no other party has done what the Congress has been doing since the beginning. The youth want jobs, education, and only the Congress can provide this. The AAP made promises such as free WiFi, among many that the party failed to deliver.”
The Congress had won Ward No. 65 last time, in 2012, but the BJP was only around 200 votes behind. Plus, its winning candidate Dr Jyoti Aggarwal had defected to the BJP within a year.
The volunteer dancers of the Congress have come to the Dera Gazi Khan Madrasi jhuggi after performing at J P Market and C D Block Market (in Ward No. 64) nearby.
Sharma says that after he handpicked his students who could be part of the flash mobs, they received further training from the chief spokesperson of the Delhi Congress, Sharmishtha Mukherjee. “Different steps have been taught to different teams and you will see that the Congress poll symbol is part of many gestures during the performance. I suggested that instead of traditional moves, the team should adopt a melange of different art forms. Dance is something which always attracts attention in our country,” Sharma says. The song for each performance, however, remains the same.
President Pranab Mukherjee’s daughter, Sharmishtha is a classical dancer and says she put these volunteers “through an orientation course lasting a week” at her residence.
“I supervised them in choreography and timing. Some of the volunteers were good at Bhangra, some at hip-hop, so it was important to train them keeping in mind their capabilities,” Sharmishtha says. She attributes the idea of the flash mobs though to Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken.
Sunny, 28, who calls his entire seven-member family Congress loyalists, says the teams assemble at the furniture market in Sultanpuri after lunch every day, and leave from there to the areas designated to them by Sharma. “We plan something new every day and practise our moves here,” he says. Sometimes they rehearse their steps at residences of the team members who live near the market, or they head to the footwear factory where 23-year-old Fahim Khan, who is part of the team, works.
A choreographer associated with the Saaz band for over five years, Sunny adds that they are thinking of including fire in their performance soon, an idea mooted by Ritik.
A few metres away in the Dera Gazi Khan Madrasi jhuggi area, candidate Luthra pays respect to Meghraj Nagpal, whom he calls the seniormost local Congress worker. The 72-year-old sits down carefully on a wooden ladder, grabbing a step and keeping his walker aside.
Nagpal approves of the flash mob. “I live nearby, in Bannu Enclave. It’s been two-and-a-half years since we saw our councillor. Hum apne time mein khaki kaagaz ki cuttings lagaya karte the prachaar ke liye. Ye sab bahut achcha hai. Yuva mein jaagriti aani chahye. Yuva ko aage aana chahiye, Rajiv Gandhi ki bhi soch yahi thi. Yuva prachaar mein hissa lein, tarakki mein lein (In our time, we would put up paper cutouts for canvassing. Flash mobs etc are nice. The youth must be aware. The youth must come forward. Rajiv Gandhi thought the same, that the young should participate in canvassing, in progress),” he reasons.
The dancers continue with their performances, each lasting two minutes, while Congress workers approach those who have gathered to watch.
Jamna, standing next to Nagpal, objects. “We have been living here so many years and we don’t even have a ration card. What development are these parties talking of?” says the 27-year-old, who lives in the jhuggi. “We voted for the AAP and it built toilets and provided us drinking water, but other parties are trying to take credit for it.”
Luthra has been promising pucca houses for all four jhuggi clusters in the ward. “The facilities that authorised colonies get after paying tax, why can’t these be provided to them too? Further this area had better connectivity through feeder buses, which have now disappeared. We aim to bring the buses back,” he says.
His other promises include “freeing civic bodies of corruption” and “ridding them of their cash-strapped situation”. “There is no problem of revenue. It is mainly due to bad planning,” he claims.
Another local points out that Shakur Basti is from where Delhi Health Minister Satyender Jain, now facing money laundering charges, was elected. “Look at the garbage around despite this.”
Man Singh, a 28-year-old supervisor at a steel company, accuses both the AAP government and BJP-run corporations of passing the buck. “Swaasthya aur shiksha ki baat ki jaaye to aap kisi party ka naam le lo, kisi ne kuchch nahin karwaya (If you talk of health and education, name any party, no one has done anything)… So many people had chikungunya, dengue. They even stole people’s pensions,” he says.
A public toilet has been under construction for the past two years in front of the settlement, but is yet to be thrown open to the locals. “It is complete but I don’t know what is stopping them from opening it. They are waiting for the elections to get over perhaps,” says Mohammad Sajid, a 30-year-old driver.
It is 6 pm and the team decides to take a break before its fourth act of the day. They, along with Luthra and other workers, head towards a makeshift Congress office a few metres away.
Ritik, a resident of Mundka, enters the hall flaunting a B-boying move, his backflips met with applause. While the older workers make themselves comfortable on sofas, the volunteers grabs some samosas and plastic cups that are filled to the brim with cola. “I sometimes also perform rope dance, which I do not think any other party would have used. I learnt it online,” says Ritik, trying to be modest.
The volunteer team then crams itself into a white Maruti van, and manoeuvres its way through crowded West Delhi lanes to the Punjabi Camp in Peeragarhi, about 3 km away. A group of 60-odd people is ready with garlands and slogans to welcome them.
As the jingle plays, the team gets into the act under the tungsten tinge of a streetlight. This time, children who are part of the onlookers join the dance. Their jhatkas are cheered by the crowd. Chand Ansari, a 19-year-old Class X student from Nangloi area who is part of the Congress team, smiles, “Jagah ke hisaab se hum naye-naye step try karte hain (We improvise on our steps depending on the place).”
Two minutes and an encore later, Kamlesh, a mother of three who arrived in this refugee camp of 1,500 families when she was a young girl, says, “The Congress settled us here and it is the only party which gave it on paper that they will rehabilitate us. Our hopes are pinned only on them. We want a roof on our heads that we can call our own.”
Surinder Kohli, 68, an auto driver with a family of four, disagrees. “I have been voting in every election since settling here 30 years ago. The BJP gave us nothing, the Congress only settled us here, but speaking of local issues, no party has done what the AAP has. The mohalla clinics work well, school standards have improved and now there is an anganwadi too.”
The youngsters huddled around the camp’s mohalla clinic nod in agreement. “Kaam bolta hai ji (His work speaks for him). Kejriwal also comes to visit us,” they say.
Amit Kumar, 33, who works as a computer operator in Mongolpuri, feels ideas such as flash mobs can only succeed if there is work to showcase. “The young don’t look at such jazzy campaigns alone, they mainly look at achievements of a government,” he says.
It is 8 pm and the team is now staging a flash mob near a bustling market at Rani Bagh’s Fawwaara Chowk. It falls under Ward No. 66, from where Congress incumbent Neelam Devraj Arora hopes to win again.
An elderly woman wishes success to Amit Dewan after the dance: “Chhote bachhon, tumhari mehnat safal ho.” The team is happy. “There must be a reason even the old believe in us, not just the young watching us dance,” says Dewan.
Twenty metres away, a group of youngsters is having ice-cream near a big screen playing videos of Arvind Kejriwal. No one glances up.