This week, I wrote an article on my ongoing election project for The Indian Express which was published in the Sunday Eye supplement on Feb 8, 2015.
I was very disappointed with the way the article was edited. The article explained early on that my purpose is to highlight the contradictions and ironies of Indian elections. But every irony and contradiction I actually wrote about was removed, supposedly because I am not an “election expert.”
I am therefore reproducing the original text of what I wrote, and if you are interested in my work and experiences, I’d much rather you read this than what the Express published. Thank you.
“Kaunsa channel?- That’s the question that has been shot at me most often this past year that I have spent on a political backpacking tour, photographing election campaigns across India. In my arsenal of creative responses to this FAQ, my favourite one for shock value and a little self-amusement is: “Mein akeli aayi hoon, America se. Khud ke liye kaam kar rahi hoon.” Then I take a step back to take in the look which translates into “Paagal ho kya?”
Crazy as it sounds, this is the most honest, precise explanation for the ambitious road trip I have been on since the summer of 2014 during the Lok Sabha elections, when I left my home in Boston to undertake a solitary, self-funded political photography tour of India. For me, it was a rare opportunity to create a fresh, new body of contemporary Indian political photography. Taken together, the pictures are not meant to be newsy. Instead, they seek to represent the hilarity, ironies and contradictions of our colourful electoral process.
The modus operandi was simple: to write to candidates and earn an invitation to travel around their constituency with them, photographing the mood along the way. Except that my list of candidates initially read: ‘Jaya, Maya, Mamata.’ Just how do you write to Jayalalitha?
Contacts of contacts of contacts were emailed. Twitter accounts trolled. The list was pared down to more accessible netas. Then one afternoon, about 20 minutes after I sent them an email, Shashi Tharoor’s office responded affirmatively to my proposal. Thirty-six hours later, I was in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, photographing the now two-time MP on his hard-fought campaign.
From Thiruvananthapuram I went farther afield – to Chandigarh to photograph the AAP candidate, Gul Panag, and then to Amritsar, Punjab, to photograph BJP candidate, Arun Jaitley. I took a chance and showed up at the newly inaugurated party office Jaitley had tweeted about, introducing myself to his campaign staff. When they learned I was visiting from the US, I was bundled into an SUV, driven to a building and led into a room where I found myself face to face with Jaitley surrounded by his aides at a table eating his lunch. Until that nerve-wracking moment, I had been slightly tentative about the success of this project and was fully prepared for my enthusiasm to peter out. But bizarre as it sounds, standing in Jaitley’s dining room, I felt a new-found confidence that this crazy experiment might actually work.
The richness of this experience became so addictive that I soon became restless and anxious for more.
There is a favorite phrase among Indian psephologists – ‘He who rules Delhi rules India.’ So, it just seemed natural for me to broaden the scope of my initial project to include the assembly elections as well. That’s how I landed up in Delhi for a ringside view of the Kiran vs. Kejriwal battle.
Since I had spent weeks on the campaign trail with Kejriwal in Benaras last year, I decided to train my lens on Kiran Bedi in Delhi this time. In the short time that I followed her, I saw the BJP CM candidate Bedi’s campaign undergo an astounding transformation. Three days after her candidacy was announced, I got off at the Preet Vihar metro station at 7:30 am, and asked a rickshaw driver if he could take me to Bedi’s election campaign office in Krishna Nagar, a traditional, trader-dominated constituency in east Delhi. The rickshaw-wallah, weaving deftly through the densely packed, narrow lanes, seemed confident of where he was going. When he reached his destination, I discovered to my dismay that he had brought me instead to Union Minister for Science and Technology, Dr. Harsh Vardhan’s home. Apparently, Bedi was still not a popular name in Krishna Nagar.
It was a cold, windy morning when I finally managed to locate Bedi. The thick winter fog hadn’t yet lifted, so not many people were out and about. But Bedi, surrounded by a bunch of loud, slogan-shouting, banner-raising aides, was striding confidently through the streets, flashing victory symbols at those waving from their balconies. “I don’t need your help to walk. Please let me speak to people,” she said more than once to a particularly overzealous BJP worker who was trying to shield her from school children who had stopped to greet her. The irony that a former super cop, with a fierce, no-nonsense public image had to repeatedly assert that she didn’t need protecting while on the campaign trail was not lost on me.
Bedi in the first half of her campaign was clearly someone who was enjoying her moment in the sun, unafraid to speak her mind and interact with voters freely and directly. Walking at a fast clip, she didn’t miss an opportunity to speak to voters about her love for sports, tennis, in particular. On a different day, she was out to meet morning walkers in Central Park in Krishna Nagar. Seeing a group of badminton players in the park, she quickly grabbed a racket and played a few shots, much to the amusement of onlookers. “Mein behen nahin, mein aap ki maa hoon,” she told a gathering of women and children, planting giant kisses on some of their cheeks. At a street market lined with vegetable vendors, she thrust a microphone in the face of a rather reticent looking vendor and asked him over and over “Bhaiyya, mera naam kya hain?”, stopping only when he relented: “Kiran Devi.” (In my head, I was humming, “What’s my name? What’s my name? My name is Sheila.”)
Then a series of missteps with the media began and the campaign began to change. I took a break from shooting for a couple of days, but when I went back to the morning campaigns I found Bedi now perched on a truck, waving to her supporters, being driven through the streets of Krishna Nagar rather than walking on foot. Also, barring a few hushed exchanges with her closest aides, she wasn’t speaking to anyone – not to the media, nor the prospective voters. Her campaign seemed suddenly to have been robbed of the colour and uniqueness it previously held and she went from being a warm, connected person (the media gaffes notwithstanding) to a distant, less accessible neta.
At her evening roadshows in other constituencies, she seemed ill at ease and out of her depth. Once, in Paharganj during a packed roadshow, a supporter began to light fireworks in the middle of the crowd. A visibly upset Bedi began to wave her hands frantically from the truck urging him to stop, because it was a terribly unsafe thing to do. But her aides and campaign workers were unfazed by her protests. The fireworks continued for a little longer. “Chunav ke time pe yeh to hota hi rahega,” a BJP worker said to me. “Madam ko seekhna hai.” Bedi, the ‘outsider’ in these elections, was visibly uncomfortable with (to borrow her own phrase) “the tamasha” of electoral politics.
Out of curiosity, I attended a few jansabhas in Mehrauli, Shahdara, Govindpuri and Mangolpuri of her adversary, Aam Admi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal. The dynamic Kejriwal shared with his audiences is quite electric. At each of these jansabhas, I was wedged into a crowd so tightly packed, that there was absolutely no wiggle room. Sometimes, it got so claustrophobic, there was no space to take my camera out, so I chose to listen and be a part of the crowd. When things got really uncomfortable I extricated myself and found a vantage point on a surrounding rooftop for fresh air and a bird’s eye view. Everywhere, I noticed people cheering, laughing at his jokes, replying in unison with spontaneity whenever he asked them a question.
The Kejriwal I saw in Delhi was also a study in contrast to the ash-smeared, exhausted looking one I followed across Benaras. In Benaras the crowds were thinner, and people attended his rallies in the hope of collecting a free jhaadu or two after a rally. Make no mistake, the fight in Delhi is really Kejriwal vs Modi, an ordinary man vs. a giant. The poor man’s sympathy therefore lies squarely with the underdog and on countless occasions people I met told me, “Inko ek baar mauka milna chahiye,” conveniently forgetting that should he win, this would actually be his second chance.
I regret missing out on the opportunity to photograph Kejriwal on his own turf in Delhi on his padyatras and more personal door to door campaigns. For these are the sort of situations that produce the best images. But the beauty of my project is that there will always be a second chance. We are on permanent election mode in India, and therefore until my visual political mapping of India is complete, I am one of the lucky few who will never be out of work.
Nitya Rao is an independent documentary photographer based in Boston, MA. She is currently working on a project documenting election campaigns across India.