Lalji Tandon and Rajnath Singh at the Kudia Ghat meeting. Tandon, Lucknow’s current MP, has been sidelined so that Singh can contest the seat this year.
Lalji Tandon and Rajnath Singh at the Kudia Ghat meeting. Tandon, Lucknow’s current MP, has been sidelined so that Singh can contest the seat this year.

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.”

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Ankita Singh, 19, with the laptop she received from the Samajwadi Party in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
Ankita Singh, 19, with the laptop she received from the Samajwadi Party in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Sonia Paul
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.

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India’s nationalist opposition party taking leaf from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s book to attract minority Muslim voters.

BJP AJE
A group of locals gather at a hall in a Shia area of Lucknow to show support for the BJP [Sonia Paul/ Al Jazeera]
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh – “If you have to change the fortunes of India, it must begin in Lucknow,” Narendra Modi, the opposition prime ministerial candidate, said at an election rally early in March.

His statement reaffirmed a popular saying in Indian politics: The road to New Delhi passes via Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous and politically most important state – Uttar Pradesh.

As the city goes to polls on April 30, the attention is on the constituency’s Muslims, who comprise about 22 percent of the 1.9 million voting population here.

The right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has remained a force here for decades, is making every symbolic gesture to attract the minority voters.

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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.

You can watch the embed below, or see it on the official Last Week Tonight YouTube channel here.

This piece was originally published on April 28, 2014, on Link TV’s World News website.

Reuters/Babu
A vendor wears a mask of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat’s chief minister, to attract customers at his stall selling masks of Indian political leaders ahead of general election in the southern Indian city of Chennai April 3, 2014. Reuters/Babu

The cat’s out of the bag, officially: After years of speculation, Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s candidate for prime minister of India, has admitted he has a wife. The revelation came when he filled out his nomination form in an election registry on Wednesday. Where it stated “married to,” he wrote, “Jashodaben.” It’s the first time Modi has ever publicly recognized his spouse’s existence.

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Many believe a victory for Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalists could add momentum to a conservative social backlash.

Some Indians worry a victory for the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party could signal more conservative trends in India. Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty
Some Indians worry a victory for the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party could signal more conservative trends in India. Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty

The crisp lawns, water fountain and new walking path of Lohia Park attract people of all ages. Middle-aged women wearing tracksuit trousers paired with traditional Indian tops walk the trails with strollers in tow. Frisbees and kites fly in the air. And almost every day, couples embrace under a tree or on the grass, oblivious to all around them.

Priyanka Shivharee, 22, and Rohit Chaudhary, 25, are here because the park, in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, is one of the few places where they can get some privacy.

“Actually the park is a silent place,” said Chaudhary, who studies at a local engineering college along with his girlfriend of three years. “We can talk to each other and exchange emotions. So peaceful. That’s why we come here.”

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REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
A security personnel stands next to the symbol of India’s ruling Congress party, during a rally addressed by Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi ahead of the 2014 general elections, in New Delhi.  Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

One-sixth of the world’s entire population will head to the polls this spring to cast their vote in India’s 16th parliamentary exercises. The hype surrounding the elections has been simmering for some time — India’s economy is in a huge slump, and ongoing domestic issues like unemployment, corruption and safety are plaguing the population from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south.

Then last fall, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujurat, announced his candidacy for prime minister. A new political party that grew out of an anticorruption movement, the Aam Aadmi Party, emerged from seemingly nowhere as a potential game changer in determining the outcome of the elections. And Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has been at the helm of Indian politics since independence from the British in 1947, is also running for prime minister — without a whole lot of experience behind him.

What this all means is that the elections this year are some of the most important and highly contested in India’s history. Below, a crash course on the fundamentals you need to know to understand what’s at stake.

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Men cheering for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party, at his rally in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on March 2.
Men cheering for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party, at his rally in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on March 2. Credit: Sonia Paul

LUCKNOW, India — As Narendra Modi gains momentum as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, attention is turning to Muslim voters in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh, who have been regarding him warily because of ties to right-wing Hindu groups that have attacked Muslims.

Uttar Pradesh has 80 seats in the lower house of the Indian Parliament at stake in the national elections, the most of any state in India. Muslims make up around 18 percent of the nearly 200 million people in the state and have historically provided support for the governing party in New Delhi, the Indian National Congress, and the regional Samajwadi Party, which is currently running the government in Uttar Pradesh.

Regional parties dominate Uttar Pradesh and could siphon off votes from either the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian National Congress so that neither gets an outright majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. The Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., has won the parliamentary seat of the Lucknow district for the past several terms. Other districts in Uttar Pradesh are less settled.

Winning over Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh requires a more complex strategy than just fielding a Muslim candidate, because they don’t vote as a bloc and they don’t base their vote solely on religion.

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Mukulika Banerjee.
Mukulika Banerjee. Credit Courtesy of Sonia Paul

Mukulika Banerjee.Credit Courtesy of Sonia Paul“Voting in elections is considered sacrosanct by a large majority of Indians,” Mukulika Banerjee writes in the introduction to her new book, “Why India Votes.” That observation forms the backbone of the anthropology professor’s work, an ethnographic study of 12 sites in India during the 2009 general elections, which explores the motivations and opinions of Indian voters on a range of issues related to the electoral process.

 As part of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s theme “Democracy Dialogues,” Dr. Banerjee, who is the associate professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics, participated in several discussions on India’s social and political evolution. While conversations and questions during the panels often zeroed in on this year’s political players like Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and the Aam Aadmi Party, India Ink spoke with Dr. Banerjee about the other factors motivating voter turnout, and why the act of voting is so meaningful for the majority of Indians. 

Q.

Why India votes is a huge political question, but your book is actually an anthropological book and an ethnography. What is it about ethnography that lends itself useful to the study of politics?

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A view of Awadh Point, a three story building in Old Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on Nov. 9.
A view of Awadh Point, a three story building in Old Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on Nov. 9. Credit: Sonia Paul

The raised sign for Avadh Point on Victoria Road in Old Lucknow is missing two letters, the “O” and the “I.” The “D” in Avadh also hangs precariously, as if it is ready to become the third. The three-story building was constructed in 2005, but it stands dilapidated, walls thinning and paint peeling, as if it is as old as the Awadh culture it’s named after.

Since Nov. 6, the start of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic calendar and the period of mourning observed mostly by Shia Muslims, several figures are making their presence known at Avadh Point and other areas deemed sensitive in Lucknow for the next two and a half months: police officers.

“All the mess starts from here,” said Zeeshan Ansari, 21, a Sunni Muslim and recent college graduate who lives in the neighborhood. He was sitting on the patio of Avadh Point, gazing at the fruit vendors, shared auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and throngs of people sharing the road in front of him.

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