It’s cold. And a little past midnight. A group of men sit on red plastic chairs around a slow fire, the smoke from the bonfire and their cigarettes clouding everyone’s vision. Yet, they are here to watch.
They are part of the Congress’s night vigil team outside Bhopal’s old district jail building, where EVMs and VVPATs were stored after votes were cast for the seven Assembly seats in the district on November 28.
The Congress had raised doubts over the security of EVMs after the LED screens outside this building went blank for 90 minutes on November 30, reportedly due to a power outage, and a few reserve EVMs reached a couple of district headquarters days after the polling. Responding to these concerns, the state Chief Electoral Officer said party workers could pitch tents outside strongrooms which would have three layers of security — Central paramilitary forces, state Special Armed Forces and the local police.
On two giant LED screens — one on either side outside the entrance to the building — the visuals play on drearily: of central paramilitary personnel pacing the corridors outside the strongroom where the machines are kept. The screens also display time as proof that the images are uninterrupted and live.
The men around the bonfire sit beside a tent. Inside, a few men lie wrapped in thick blankets, while a policeman on duty dozes off on a chair. Though all political parties were invited, only workers of the Congress — for which this is a high-stakes election considering the party has been out of power for 15 years — are keeping vigil.
Soon, those around the bonfire arrive at a more engaging activity: a mock television discussion. Junaid Khan, in his 30s, is the ‘reporter’ and fires a question at “Congress leader” Shahzan Ahmed alias Jimmy on “desh ke moujuda halaat (the state of affairs in the country) and “Narendra Modi’s promise to transfer Rs 15 lakh to every bank account’’. Jimmy slips effortlessly into “Congressi” mode and says, “Forget 15 lakh. Those in Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s state should have at least got Rs 5 lakh, or at least a lakh or two. But they got nothing.’’
“We are practising TV debates because we are forming the next government,’’ declares Shahzan, chief of the Congress’s Jahangirabad Mandalam in Old Bhopal. Their discussion is reminiscent of another Old Bhopal tradition from the times of the nawab — patiyabaazi or stimulating discussions held outside tea shops in the evenings where politics mingles effortlessly with shayaris. Like at this centre, conversations at patiyas are known to be peppered with bluster and bravado.
“History is going to be made on December 11 and we are here to ensure that nobody stands in the way,’’ says one of the men around the bonfire as the others join in and talk of how EVMs can be “manipulated” to “snatch victory” from “deserving (Congress) candidates”. Most of the workers tonight are supporters of Arif Masood, the party candidate from Bhopal (Central).
“Vote ko bachane ke liye ye sab kar rahe hain (We are keeping this vigil to save our party’s votes),’’ says Ravi Varma, a young party spokesman, accusing the BJP of “hatching a conspiracy to manipulate machines”.
It’s now five minutes past 1 am. Congress candidate from Bhopal (South-West) P C Sharma walks in with a few men to “boost the spirit of the workers”.
“Meri jaan atki hai ismein (my life is stuck there),” says Sharma, pointing in the direction of the strongroom. “Aur inki jaan candidates me atki hui hai,’’ he says of workers who mill around him.
As he takes a round of the tent, some of the workers try to wake up Akhilesh Jain, who is in deep sleep. Jain sits up but struggles to keep his eyes open and goes back to sleep. Sharma ignores the slight and, after a quick pep talk, prepares to leave. “By 7 pm on December 11, all seven candidates (from Bhopal) will have victory certificates in their hands. I will definitely win because voting was less in some of the BJP pockets,’’ he says.
At 1.30 am, Anand Taran, a state-level Congress spokesperson, arrives with a man carrying packets of chikki and salted peanuts for the workers. Taran, a chemist in his early 60s, says he usually heads to the counting centre after shutting his shop around 1 am.
Taran confides that he is upset at being denied a ticket. “I am well-known in these parts and would have had to spend little for a victory. If I had got a ticket, it would have helped the party in nearby seats as well,’’ he says.
It’s 2.30 am and a few workers take a round of the tent. “Are these beds meant for those from Narela (constituency) or Bhopal Central?” asks one of them.
At any point, there are about 40-50 people around the bonfire and inside the tent, with people arriving to replace those leaving.
A few policemen are hunched over a phone. “We are playing games,” says the youngest. “What else do we do?”
An hour later, Junaid, the worker who played ‘reporter’, and the group around the bonfire have fallen silent. “It’s so shameful,’’ Junaid says, switching to English, “that I have to guard this strongroom. I am a manager in an insurance company and earn Rs 45,000 a month… I shouldn’t be doing this. But I entered politics four years ago only because I couldn’t watch the country’s fortunes decline.’’
By 5.30 am, another group, mostly younger men, has occupied a cozier position on an adjacent verandah. The men say that they are assured of a win. “We not only discuss politics but also who helped us during the campaign, who should be kept out of victory rallies, etc. Once in a while we even do some sher-o-shayari,’’ says Shizan Ali.
His friend Faizan Afandi quickly adds, “Of course, we keep an eye on the screens every now and then. If something goes wrong, we record it on our phones and create a scene.’’
A little later, a batch of paramilitary forces is replaced by a new group. The policemen continue playing games on their cellphones since their shift ends only around 8 am.
It’s past 6 am and Akhilesh Jain, who couldn’t stay awake earlier, is up and about. He decides to find out who is sleeping — “Kaun kaun si vidhan sabha so rahi hai (Which are the constituencies that are sleeping)’’ — by yanking off the blankets of some in deep slumber.
“Arre, ye to apna hai… arre, ye Berasia hai (He is from our constituency, he is from Berasia),’’ he declares with impish glee.
The first newspaper arrives at 6.30 am. By 7 am, most of the Congress workers have left, except for Shoaib Khan who is standing facing one of the LED screens that continues to beam images of two personnel pacing outside the strongroom. “They are constantly on their toes… that gives me hope,’’ says Khan.