“Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan.’’ It’s been more than half-a-century but this powerful slogan, given by a diminutive prime minister, remains imprinted in memory. In four words, it encapsulated the importance of the two sections of our society who were at that time invisible.
Who could have imagined that some day, it would be a jawan and a kisan who would challenge the prime minister in a Lok Sabha election! A pliant Election Commission has eliminated the jawan from the competition; it hasn’t yet managed to get rid of the kisan.
Last month, 111 farmers from Tamil Nadu declared their intention to fight against the PM from Varanasi. Tamil Nadu is a long way from Varanasi, but these farmers had travelled a greater distance in 2017. They had spent 100 days in Delhi to draw the attention of the rulers, even stripping and burying themselves in mud to do so. Alas, nothing happened.
After the TN farmers, turmeric farmers from Telangana decided to fight Narendra Modi. Both sets of farmers knew this was a losing battle. What they hoped to gain from it was the nation’s attention to their demands and to the PM’s failure to fulfill his 2014 promises to farmers.
If in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s time farmers and jawans were invisible, today they are among the most neglected sections of our society. If they are not invisible, it’s because they go to extraordinary lengths to force themselves on our consciousness. Fighting the Lok Sabha election against the PM is one of these.
The irony of the Varanasi contest cannot be lost even to bhakts. After Pulwama, the army has become their one-point shield against any criticism. In his election campaign, their hero has used jawans to get votes like no one else has till now. Yet, a recently-dismissed jawan, Tej Bahadur Yadav, almost became his primary challenger.
Till 2017, when he posted a video showing the burnt rotis and watery, insipid dal served to jawans on the border, Yadav was part of the Border Security Force. These soldiers perhaps perform some of the toughest tasks in our armed forces. It took the BSF just three months to dismiss its jawan for indiscipline, but an inquiry into the truth of his allegations took a year.
So, is this Haryanvi jawan also an anti-national like all those who oppose Modi? And the kisans?
Of the 54 kisans who tried to file their nominations, only 25 could do so, thanks they allege, to harassment by the Varanasi police and the uncooperative attitude of the local EC. Finally, the papers of only one farmer from Telengana were accepted.
We will be reading more about these Davids, since both Yadav and the kisans plan to pursue their cause in the Supreme Court and the Central EC. It is appropriate to call them Davids because in this modern-day fight with Goliath, their names are irrelevant.
That’s the second irony. In every election, be it for Parliament or a municipal corporation, almost all parties choose candidates keeping considerations of religious and caste identity in mind. But in this election campaign, speeches referring to religious identity have been made the most by the PM and his party president. So blatant have been their identity-based pronouncements and threats that the EC’s clean chits to them have served only to disgrace an institution we were all proud of.
Yet, in Varanasi, the religious identity of the two most determined challengers to PM Modi has never been a factor. Of course, had they belonged to a minority community, it would have been easier for bhakts and ruling party members, including its chief, to slander them. But they happen to be Hindus. That’s just incidental, not a choice made by either candidate. What a contrast to the elaborate religious spectacle conducted by the PM of a secular country on the eve of filing his nomination, telecast live on national TV.
The only identity of Tej Bahadur Yadav and Istari S Narsaiah is their profession: Jawan and kisan. This is an almost unheard of phenomenon in our elections.
The final and most grotesque irony in this unique contest is that Lal Bahadur Shastri, the prime minister who made the jawan and kisan an unforgettable part of our consciousness, urged us to sacrifice for them and under whom India won an actual war against Pakistan, is now being appropriated by the BJP that wants to free him from his Congress identity.
In 2014, the Varanasi fight became historic because of another David: Arvind Kejriwal. This year, the fight is even more unequal, and hence more enthralling.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 9, 2019, under the title ‘Jawan and Kisan at Varanasi’. The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist