The garage of a jewellery showroom in one of the busiest crossings of the town- that is where we were supposed to assemble. After parking our vehicle two blocks away, we walked quickly towards the crossing. We were running a few minutes late, and we had no idea where this garage exactly was. But as we turned the corner, our doubts were laid to rest. We had been apprehensive of the turnout, but the medium sized garage seemed to be overflowing with people. There were around thirty people already, wearing Modi Once More t-shirts. Two volunteers moved among them, distributing stickers and Modi masks. This was a citizen initiative, with no connection to the party. For a Sunday evening in a town like Puducherry, the enthusiasm was eye-opening. The crowd kept swelling, until we were over fifty people. And then, the walkathon through the streets of Puducherry began.
I’m writing about this because I had a chance to observe very closely how this movement, a movement of ordinary citizens, took shape. The entire journey was fascinating. Politics is something that everyone in India has opinion about. But it is also something that certain sections of society, for decades, refused to touch with a ten-foot pole. The further one stays from it the better, has been the framework within which large sections of the urban middle-class, professionals, students and others have operated. However, things are changing.
As the walk begins, Dhilipan leans over and whispers, “The turnout is better than I expected. This is pretty cool.” Dhilipan is a PhD student at the Pondicherry University. He has worked actively to make this walkathon a success. The Modi Once More campaign in Puducherry was co-ordinated by a school teacher. Initially, messages were sent out to like-minded people, and a few meetings were held at the homes of the volunteers. Several ideas were put forth, but the challenges were immense. The biggest challenge of course was that everyone at these meetings had a full-time job or a family, so there were limitations to the amount of time and energy they could dedicate to this. Nonetheless, a WhatsApp group was formed, which kept growing with every passing day, in which everyone shared relevant content. This content was then circulated in our respective circles. When the idea for a walkathon was suggested, a core group of people began meeting frequently at a coffee shop. This included Dhilipan, the school teacher who was the coordinator, two local entrepreneurs, a doctor, and a software engineer. The necessary government permissions were obtained through some friends, and I tried to accompany Dhilipan as much as possible as he went around inviting people, organizing for water bottles, getting pamphlets printed and so on. As we walk in the town’s busiest streets and everyone stops and watches, it is no wonder that Dhilipan and others who worked behind the scenes are basking in satisfaction.
Two old friends, Nirav and Vignesh, are also walking. Nirav heads an NGO in the field of education. He introduces us to his father, who is the oldest person participating in the walk. “Isn’t it tiring for you?” I ask him. He smiles and dismisses my question. “What is making you participate?” He answers without hesitation: “The unity of the country, the future of the country, and the image of the country.” Nirav tells me that his mother and aunt will join the walk closer to their home. He also tells me proudly that he convinced some of his old classmates to participate, and they are all here. Vignesh is also a student at the Pondicherry University. He says that for the first time, he sees non-political people around him being so passionate about a political cause. “Actually it’s for the second time,” he corrects himself. “The first time was during the India Against Corruption movement. But those who made it big from there have been unmitigated disasters. Here we are on the streets not before, but five years after Modi took over,” he says stressing on the word ‘after’.
We see a group of people approaching us, and we are suddenly unsure about how to react. None of us have been in such a situation before. They ask us who we are and what we are doing. And then, to our delight, they ask us if they can have some Modi Once More t-shirts. They are introduced to the volunteer carrying the extra t-shirts, who gives them what they need. For a moment, we had been unsure of their intentions because we had been warned about elements who might get upset if they saw people wearing Modi Once More t-shirts. But here, we are in relatively safer territory. The story is not the same in Kolkata, for example. Somebody associated with the campaign there (whose identity I won’t disclose for obvious reasons), told me that it was difficult for them to get people to wear those t-shirts, especially people who owned businesses. “The local government is extremely vindictive,” the person told me. “But change is in the air. The t-shirt, at least whenever it is worn, generates huge interest. People ask you questions, they ask you where they can get it.”
Across the country, various people who generally stayed far away from politics, are doing their bit this election season. What drives each one is different, and as I observed, the challenges each one faced was unique. The only common factor was the will to step up, to step out, and to make a difference. Vikas Saraswat is the coordinator for Modi Once More’s Agra chapter. In my conversation with him, he told me that there was a relentless attack by the country’s elite against Narendra Modi, and he realised that it was for ordinary people like us to rally behind the Prime Minister. “Right from the beginning of his tenure there was an organised attempt by a section of activists, intelligentsia and media to delegitimize the government. Never in the past has India seen such hostility for an elected government. All fault-lines were exacerbated to stoke unrest in the country. And all this against a government which has actually delivered on its promises and tried to take care of every section of society,” he said.
The coordinator for Puducherry agrees. “What’s heartening is the fact that this is an effort, a show of support by ordinary people, a true grassroots volunteer event,” she says. The fact that these initiatives are spearheaded by ordinary people with no vested interests is a recurrent theme, and it is also something that all participants take a lot of pride in. As we continue walking, I witness a very touching moment. One of the participants rips apart the packet that contains his t-shirt and lets it slide down to the ground as he puts on his new piece of clothing. A volunteer picks it up, and politely reminds him of Swachh Bharat. The participant takes it from the volunteer’s hands and holds it until we come across the next dustbin.
Rajroopa joins the walk midway. She tells me she wanted to join from the starting point, but she has been unwell. I ask her what made her join us anyway, despite being unwell. “We need him for a second term,” she says. “For the future of my children. In fact, for the future of all children.” We keep walking, talking about the future, and about the current political scenario. Although the candidate in Puducherry is an NDA alliance partner, our coordinator is pleasantly surprised with the show of support for one individual. “There is a quiet but sure support base for Modi in Puducherry,” she says.
Is Prime Minister Modi the reason ordinary people have decided to take part in the political process in this way? Initiatives such as these are common in the United States, but in a country where the political class has been generally associated with corruption and thuggery, this is without doubt a paradigm shift. I asked one of the coordinators of the Chennai chapter of Modi Once More why she was doing this. She said, “It’s important for everyone who’s even remotely interested in the progress of the nation to actively get on the ground and campaign.” Considering that such a concept itself is something unique in India, I asked her about the response she got in a city like Chennai. “The energy is electric amongst volunteers, and people on the ground are receptive. It’s unimaginable how strangers from all walks of life just come together behind one fundamental thought,” she said.
In my conversation with one of the founders of the Modi Once More initiative, she explained how it became a pan-India phenomenon, and how it has even caught on abroad. “Modi Once More was launched on PM Modi’s birthday. The response was fabulous. It was almost as if people were just waiting for an opportunity to engage. Today we have 21 chapters across India and 2 abroad,” she told me. I asked her about the kind of people who are taking part in this initiative, and how it is being funded. “We are a self-funded group and our members are professionals from all walks of life and cut across age groups. We have lawyers, IT professionals, teachers, producers, writers, businessmen and so on. We are all united by one goal, to help Narendra Modi get re-elected as Prime Minister. Our role is to spread awareness about the good work done in the past five years through various methods. These include engagement at public spaces, Chai or Poha Pe Charcha, walks for Modi, talks at various institutions and so on. Each chapter decides their method of engagement,” she said.
Sudhir Kumar, the coordinator for the Hyderabad chapter, agreed with these points. He highlighted other initiatives in Hyderabad as well. He told me about a group of professionals who call themselves Professionals For NaMo of Pro Namo, who have been working tirelessly for the prime minister’s re-election. Another group of professionals based out Maharashtra have taken time off from their work, and are creating content to highlight what the government has achieved in the last five years. They have run several successful campaigns, notably Modified Jobs, Modified Cities and Middle Class with Modi. These sincere initiatives in every corner of the country, initiatives by ordinary people who will go back to their jobs and live their everyday lives after the 23rd of May, is without doubt revolution of sorts.
One of the highlights of the election season so far was the BJP picking 28 year old Tejasvi Surya as its candidate for the prestigious Bengaluru South seat. A lawyer by profession, Tejasvi’s speeches were already making waves on many platforms. The decision was met with an enthusiastic response from the party’s young supporters across the country. On social media, one witnessed several instances of ordinary people offering to dedicate their time and energy to ensure that he is sent to parliament. I asked Tejasvi why ordinary people were suddenly willing to participate in such large numbers for his campaign. “You are seeing greater participation of people in politics today because people don’t want to lose a gem of a Prime Minister,” he said. “For the first time in Indian politics, we have a PM who performs, a PM who is hardworking, who is honest, who cares for the poor of the country, and whose only agenda is India’s development. Here is a PM who truly represents the values that people hold dear. In him people see hope for the fulfilment of their aspirations. Hence there is a natural connect between the people and the Prime Minister.”
Making ordinary people participate in the political process with such intensity is nothing short of revolutionary in India, and this too shall go down as one of Prime Minister Modi’s achievements. What makes it different this time is that this is not an election in which one leader is fighting against another, but an election where there is only one leader, and the question people have to answer is whether they are with him or not. The story of this election though is that those sections of society who had completely given up on our political class and often did not even bothering casting their vote, the typical urban middle-class crowd, has made a choice not because they have to but because they want to. And they are determined to make their voice heard. At the end of our walk, when asked about how they liked the experience, one of the participants remarked, “It’s for the future of India. There’s no better way to spend a Sunday evening.”