Power to the People

Aruna C Shekar, a freelance journalist who covered Chickpet and Hebbal constituencies in Bangalore for elections, shares her experiences.

When I dropped by the office to see if I could help Citizen Matters with election coverage, I had no idea what to expect. Half an hour into our conversation, I’m asked if I want to interview Uday Garudachar, standing for elections in Chickpet on a BJP ticket.

"Does your phone record calls?" Here was a man whose company’s chequered history I’d been following for the last three months while volunteering at Ejipura. And here was the one chance I had to speak to him on record; but my phone had no internal memory for a voice recorder app.

I locked myself in the quietest room possible, perched my phone beat-up mp3 player on a cellotape ring and dug out his digits. I never knew it would be this easy, especially since it has been nearly impossible to find legitimate contact details for Maverick Holdings. "LIFE IS A CELEBRATION, AT GARUDA MALL!!!" bawled his caller tune, as I braced myself for lots of ironic, internal cringing. Uday picks up and fixes an interview for forty minutes later. The interview is here for you to read.

***

While we edged closer to E-Day, trying to catch hold of candidates was getting harder. Canvassing was on in full swing, as candidates tried to convince thousands of total strangers that they had their best interests at heart.

While I missed Sridhar Pabbisetty’s cycle rally, FED (Federation for Resident’s Welfare Associations of SanjayNagar) had put together an event inviting all 26 aspirants to meet and speak to residents, and present a comparative picture.

Permissions were painstakingly difficult for something as crucial as providing public information. ‘We’d planned to do this in at least five different locations, but looking at the kind of stress we had to undergo to organise just one event, we’re not sure if we’d do it again,” said Ramesh Dutt, FED convenor who has been working with the citizens’ group for over two decades, on issues from solid waste management to governance. “We’ve at least been able to make those responsible for us 15-20% more responsible.”

I was an hour late and was just in time.  Residents and passers-by settled down on the grass and listened half-seriously. It was easy to sift the heavyweights from the independents by the sizes of their retinues and the colours of their kurtas (starched white for the seasoned party bearers, dark red for Sridhar, khadi for the independents). The candidates took their places on an elevated stone platform in the middle of RMV garden, now lit by the evening sun.

The BJP’s Jagadeesh Kumar had made himself conspicuous by his absence and myself, as the only media presence. I was drawn aside by the organisers, my name announced to the candidates, who, as soon as they finished their speeches, were to stand in line to be interviewed by me on a park bench. Mr. Dutt of FED even sent someone to ensure that none of the candidates ‘misbehaved’ with me.

The first to be interviewed by M. Venkatesh, a candidate from the Bhartiya Praja Paksha, came off as a character straight out of an RK Narayan novel. The president of his party for which he is the sole fund-raiser (“I have raised 20,000 after struggle, and this I have to share with my other candidates also”), Venkatesh is contesting elections for the 11th time. Last elections he was picked up for driving his car while speaking on the microphone while distributing pamphlets. “I am like a one-man army, what do you say?”

Going through the nomination affidavits of Venkatesh and independents whose assets were easier to count and on more familiar terrain (1 Bajaj Chetak, 200 gms of gold, home loan) I hope that next time on, I get to profile some of the lesser known candidates to see what motivates them to possibly stand for office.

Next was the young Congress candidate CK Rahman Sharieff who couldn’t wait, edging out Sridhar to the park bench by the size of his follower count. Hoping possibly to win on youthful charm and pedigree alone, his well-meaning naivete was harder to disguise.

I enquired about his campaign budget.

"Err,18 crores?"

My eyeballs popped out. "18 crores?"

"No wait, 16 crores! I meant 16 lakhs, 16 lakhs is the budget, right?" he said, turning to his aide.

"Please don’t quote me on that."

Candidates came and went, waiting for each other to finish talking. As the sun came down, and the candidates left, leaving the park to its citizens out for their evening gupshup, I caught up with Mr. Dutt and Geeta from FED. We talked about Hebbal and its water that building watchmen wouldn’t drink, of its flyovers and inner roads and land scams. Geeta tells me of the time when she stood for the Corporator elections, campaigning on a budget of Rs. 5000 and going door-to-door to meet residents. “Why do they need a budget of 16 lakhs?”

***

At an unbelievable hour the next morning, I get a call. It’s Sharieff. "Madam, please don’t quote me on the budget thing. I hope you know I was joking."

"But sir, we’ve already gone to print"

"What?!

"Just kidding. We’re a blog, by the way, and it’s 6:45 in the morning."

I went back to bed with a smile on my face and the pleasant thought that for a short blip in time, citizens seemed to matter and were giving their rulers-to-be some sleepless nights.

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