When Narendra Modi of the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was sworn in as India’s newest prime minister on May 26, political observers — and language enthusiasts — started speculating whether his rule would lead to a renewed interest in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India’s Brahmin scholars. At least two dozen newly elected members of Parliament took their oaths in Sanskrit, Hari Kumar of the New York Times reported. The language is widely backed by the Hindu right wing, which helped Modi come to power (the BJP is a spawn of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a volunteer Hindu nationalist group).
Hindu nationalists “see the language as a link to a civilization uncorrupted by Persian-speaking Muslim emperors and English-speaking British viceroys,” the New York Times’ Ellen Barry wrote in a letter to readers. “Early independence leaders had hoped to phase out English as an official language, but that provoked widespread protests in the country’s south, where Hindi is not widely spoken.” Hindi and English are both considered official languages in India.
Now, just less than a month since the new government came to power, the focus has shifted away from Sanskrit and onto one of its language descendants: Hindi.
Gulseer, who goes by one name, is about 34 or 35 years old. His exact age has escaped him. He’s been married to his wife, Ayesha, for the past 10 to 15 years. The exact duration of their marriage has escaped him too.
But as he woke up from a nap on the dusty veranda outside his family’s modest home in Barowalia village in the state of Uttar Pradesh last week, he told me one thing he is sure of — his unwavering support for Rahul Gandhi and India’s National Congress Party, which has governed India for 55 of the last 67 years. “It’s been like this since I was born,” he said, shoving a bidi into his mouth. “Whether Congress will win or lose, I’m going to vote for Rahul. Because he keeps coming here.”
As of writing, not all the results have been released yet, but it’s obvious Narendra Modi will be the country’s next prime minister, and may even win an outright majority in parliament without the need for coalition partners. The Bharatiya Janata Party has already created a victory wall of tweets using the hashtag #CongratsNaMo.
Voting during the Indian elections lasts an exhaustive six weeks, but election fever was already in the air — and online — long before polls opened on April 7. In what’s widely being hailed as India’s first social media election, regular news reports and commentaries were joined by a number of websites and online parodies that popped up to poke fun at the elections.
With 545 seats up for grabs in India’s lower house of parliament the Lok Sabha, lots of different characters end up running in the elections (as we mentioned before in our field guide to the Indian elections, India’s current election is really a series of 545 individual contests). During this year’s vote, for example, much media attention has focused on how more than 1,200 candidates hold criminal charges. India’s business elite — the “armchair critics,” as one such professional called herself — are also now entering politics and challenging the status quo of contenders.
And let’s not forget the big three capturing national and international spotlight: Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rahul Gandhi of the National Congress Party, and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party are all running for seats in parliament, although the media tend to focus on their respective candidacies for prime minister.
But a recent analysis from The Hindu, one of India’s leading English newspapers, shows that the average candidate seeking election doesn’t quite fit any of these profiles. As Omar Rashid and Rukmini S. write, the standard candidate could very well be “a mild-mannered social activist from Lucknow” (Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state).
Among the characteristics they identified of the typical candidate:
On the night of 23 April, over dinner at a friend’s place in Lucknow, I was invited by Anshuman Dwivedi, a teacher at a local coaching institute, to attend a gathering at Kudia Ghat in Old Lucknow. The aim, Dwivedi said, was to pledge to protect the Gomti, the river that bisects the city.
But Dwivedi, who was the event’s main organiser, soon admitted that the meeting had another, hidden motive. “We’ve invited Rajnath Singh,” he said. He paused, presumably to allow the words to sink in. “We can’t put it because of the Model Code of Conduct that it’s a gathering by caste. But it’s basically a gathering of Brahmins.”
LUCKNOW, India – Every time second-year undergraduate law students at Lucknow University open up their 14-inch Hewlett-Packard laptops, they are reminded of the generous benefactors who gave them their computers.
Sitting in a hot classroom at Lucknow University, Ankita Singh, 19, turned on a laptop and signed in. As she waited for the desktop to load, the screen flashed red. It lasted for all of two seconds, but the two faces that appeared on the screen were unmistakable: Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is the Samajwadi Party president and also a candidate for prime minister.
Another student in the classroom, Abhay Rajvanshi, 20, said the Samajwadi Party, the regional party that governs the state of Uttar Pradesh, distributed the laptops in September to fulfill a campaign promise after it won the 2012 state assembly elections.
“If I am getting a laptop, then they think — and I also think — that I have to support this political party, because this political party has given me some gift,” Mr. Rajvanshi said.
“It is pointless to take photographs of Sonia Gandhi’s face, because everyone gets those,” said Ritesh Uttamchandani, a photographer with Open magazine and one of the project’s two curators, in an interview with Livemint: “It’s about the little dots you connect to each other to get a larger idea of how the elections really work.”
The project is funded partly by Instagram and is a collaborative effort of photographers spread out across the country [full disclosure: I am one of those participating]. The “virtual newsroom” for the team is a WhatsApp group where everyone can discuss ideas and critique photos that may or may not make the Instagram feed. Since the photographers are taking nearly all the photos on a phone, the WhatsApp platform is a convenient way to upload the photos and receive feedback.
Check out some more of the photos and stories below:
British comedian and former Daily Show regular John Oliver has come out with a hilarious analysis of the Indian elections that’s currently gaining traction on social media. Among the topics he covers on his new HBO show Last Week Tonight: the “Americanization” of Indian media, the US’s apathy toward the elections, and Hindu nationalist prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s emulation of famed rapper Tupac at Coachella.