Modi's Next Race in India's Elections: His Own

In Varanasi, where the BJP leader hopes to win his seat in parliament, missed calls and unsolicited volunteers shape a crucial race.
Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), waves to supporters in the city of Varanasi, where he will register as a candidate in India's general election. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

At 8 o'clock in the morning, Pappu Chaiwalla’s tiny tea-shop near Assighat in Varanasi is reverberating with heated debate. About twenty people sitting cheek by jowl on narrow benches are arguing loudly about the elections. Someone points to a man dressed in a rust-coloured kurta sitting quietly in a corner and says, "you look like that Aam Aadmi party fellow Manish Sisodia." The man smiles and admits that he is a national executive member of the Aam Aaadmi Party, or AAP, but not Sisodia.

The Democracy Report

There is a momentary silence as everyone stares at him. Then all hell breaks loose. It appears like the crowd was waiting for a lamb to slaughter. The man, Sahajanand Rai, valiantly tries to defend his party and its charismatic leader Arvind Kejriwal, but is shouted down by the crowd which is overwhelmingly pro-Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) star leader and prime ministerial candidate. They call Kejriwal bhagoda, or renegade, for resigning as Chief Minister of Delhi.

Devvrat Chaubey, who teaches philosophy at the nearby Benaras Hindu University, or BHU, and Deenbandhu Tiwari, a sociology professor at the Lal Bahadur Shastri post-graduate college at Mughalsarai are among the crowd in the tea-shop. "If Kejriwal had not quit running the [Delhi] government, he would have given Modi a tough challenge here," says Chaubey. "Now he will only succeed in splitting the votes making it easier for Modi."

Pappu’s tea-shop may not be the ideal poll weathervane, but it certainly gives a sense of what has caught the public’s imagination in Varanasi.

Pappu's tea shop in Varanasi. (Quartz)

"My grandfather started this shop about 75 years ago," says Pappu whose real name is Vishwanath Singh. "It has always been a hangout for common folk as well as intellectuals, especially from BHU." The tea-shop was one of Narendra Modi’s chai pe charcha or "chat over tea" meetings on February 12.

While Narendra Modi has turned his tea-seller past into a powerful electioneering tool symbolizing his vision for an India where it’s possible to dream big, his campaign is anything but symbols and slogans. Beneath the surface storm of massive rallies and fiery speeches, an army of workers are silently chipping away at traditional vote banks, breaking down long-standing loyalties to kin and community and distributing a dream of economic development and material prosperity to young voters whose sizable numbers are crucial in these elections.

At the BJP’s central office at Gulab Bagh in Varanasi, six young boys barely out of their teens are waiting for Shailesh Pandey and Manish Dubey, two of the party’s organizers. The young men have come to join the Modi bandwagon, which many believe is on an unstoppable roll across the country. Dubey, an engineer who quit his job with French multinational Alstom to work for the BJP, meticulously notes down their details—name, phone number, how many hours they could give for the campaign—and assigns them work.

Pandey and Dubey, in their mid-thirties, coordinate the campaign’s information technology cell and are responsible for recruiting workers using the unlikely tool of a missed phone call. Anyone who wants to sign up with the campaign can use the “missed call service,” by calling 78200 and hanging up (so their call is free, but there’s a record of their number on a cell phone) and someone from the campaign will get in touch.

The callers are drafted to cold-call other potential voters or go door-to-door canvassing for Modi. Those who are good with social media are posted on the web. Every day the team adds up to 80 new contacts. Pandey, a former sailor with the Indian Navy who has roamed the country on his motorcycle, says they fielded about 3,000 calls in three days. Every afternoon, the team sets out for local meetings, collecting information on voters, figuring out their past affiliations, assessing rivals’ strength and problems of the area. They have been doing this since September, an indication that it may have been decided long ago Varanasi was going to be Modi’s constituency outside Gujarat, even though it was officially announced in March.

Pandey and Dubey have traveled to every village in the 14 districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh in the past seven months, collecting data and getting a sense of the area. (Pandey has documented much of their travels on his Twitter feed.) They carry with them pen drives with 20 gigabytes of video clips of Narendra Modi’s speeches and the development projects in Gujarat. They also carry a compact projector, white sheets to use as screens and batteries in the car to set up impromptu video shows. Meanwhile, another official has prepared a list of panna pramukhs, or "page chiefs," independent BJP workers who will each be given a sheet of paper with names of about 60 voters, and will be responsible for making sure they vote.

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Dinesh Narayanan is an independent journalist based in Delhi and a former senior editor at Forbes India magazine.

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