Behind the scenes at a Congress Primary – a one its kind experiment in Indian democracy
As you go from South to the North-East of Delhi you travel into the heart of the city’s past. Broad roads dotted with historical monuments and blossoming trees accompany you all the way until you turn off for Gokulpuri leaving spring behind. Gokulpuri is a typical East Delhi neighbourhood- filthy, cluttered, noisy and bustling with the sort of Delhi dialect one doesn’t hear often enough in the South. It is early in the morning and the town folk are yet to wake up but the umpteen buffaloes on the loose are already going about their morning business along sewage-trimmed lanes.
In the midst of this stands an uncharacteristic façade reminiscent of neo-Rajasthani, garish havelis. Harnam Palace, usually given out for wedding functions is hosting the Congress Primaries in the area today. As part of a much talked about initiative of the Congress Vice-President, Rahul Gandhi, Congress members will select their own candidate for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections from 15 constituencies across India in a US style primary. This is the second constituency in Delhi to exercise its choice. In the New Delhi constituency the incumbent Ajay Maken won because no one stood against him. In Delhi North-East 45 year old Dalit leader Rajesh Lilothia is challenging the incumbent, 69 year old Jai Prakash Agarwal, son of R. C. Agarwal—a freedom fighter close to Gandhi—and a veteran Parliamentarian.
Earlier this week Jagdish Tytler, accused but exonerated in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots had filed his nomination from the area as well- a move that could have hurt the Congress especially given its strong anti-communalism plank in the election this year. In a TV interview he indicated that the Congress high-command was supportive of his move. Two days later, however, Tytler withdrew his nomination. He did not cite any reason but it was obvious he did not quite have the support he claimed to enjoy. Had he won the elections there would have been little left to say of the initiative, except perhaps that the best laid plans of mice, men and Rahul Gandhi oft go astray.
Voters and supporters begin to trickle in by 8:30 am. Pradeep Sharma, a Congress Councillor, is the key organizer. He has handed over his charge to the Lok Sabha Returning Officers Pankaj Guddewar and Rajpal Bisht so that they may ensure a free and fair election. Most of the early voters are gathered around to greet Jai Prakash Agarwal’s son Mudit Agarwal, a garment exporter who is there to support his father. He is handing out sample ballots with his father’s election symbol, an airplane, to explain that voters must pick a first preference and a second preference, which can also be NOTA.
Lilothia’s supporters are fewer in numbers- younger and wearing t-shirts with his election symbol, a cricket bat. They are also wielding neon toy bats that they are asked to lose because it tantamounts to canvassing at the last minute. Packets of sweets and samosas are being passed around as I stand talking to a passionate, young Congress sympathizer who does not wish to be named. He feels very strongly against the Primaries. “Elections have destroyed the Youth Congress and they will now destroy the party,” he says vehemently. “India is not the US, “ he adds stating the obvious. “Here political relationships are personal. By making people contest against each other in one constituency they are dividing the party, creating strife just before elections.” He believes this move is an unnecessary reaction to the media’s misguided pressure to democratize the 129 year old party.
As we speak, a skirmish breaks out at the entrance. Hasan Ahmed, an MLA from Mustafabad is not being allowed to enter to vote because he does not have his EPIC with him. He is told his MLA identity card will not do which makes him very angry. “Who are these Youth Congress boys to tell me I can’t vote”, he and his supporters are screaming. “I will only enter if they allow me with my MLA card.” He takes his place under a tree and begins telling me about how he is sure Rahulji will also initiate Primaries for Legislative Elections, a move he is eagerly awaiting. Half an hour later he has sent for his EPIC and is seen making his peace with the young volunteers he was berating earlier. Bisht, the RO in-charge explains that they are turning away anyone who is not carrying his Voter ID Card because they want to ensure members who vote here are registered to vote in the General Elections as well.
A disgruntled group has gathered outside in the meanwhile. They claim 20 odd names have been struck off the list because Agarwal does not want them to vote for Lilothia. The discontent begins to ferment and at 11 am, when the gates to the voting area are shut, voters who have come late are trying to force their way in, screaming and raising their fists at the organizers. Harcharan Singh Josh, AICC member and “senior leader of the party”, as he describes himself enumerating various positions he has occupied over the years, is upset that no one told him he had to register before 11 am. I tell him the website clearly states the timings. “They should have SMS’d,” he replies. All those who have not been let in are claiming a conspiracy against Lilothia and plotting to climb a wall to sneak in. Breaking from conspiring and alleging conspiracy only to shout ‘Rahul Gandhi ki jai ho’ intermittently. One of them walks up to me agitated and says, “Madame, aap dekh rahe ho sab kuch. Jaa ke Rahulji ko theek-theek bataana.” I tell him I am a journalist. I don’t work with Rahul Gandhi. He is most disappointed.
Inside the voting area peace prevails. The soft-spoken RO’s explain to me that only those who were found not to be eligible for voting on account of their posts in the party, being government servants or non-residents of the area have been struck off. They tell me the rules have clearly been laid out well in advance and followed strictly. After a second round of checks the voting is quietly in progress.
Lilothia sits down to have a chat with me when his supporters begin to agitate again outside. The volunteers inside demand he asks them to back off or else… They are in no mood for hooliganism. Lilothia does not defend his supporters. “They should have known about the timings and come in earlier.” He also does not feel the elections are being held unfairly though he does seem to suggest that as the ex-DPCC President Agarwal has a definite advantage in terms of having access to voter lists. Lilothia is an articulate man, composed in this hour of frenetic activity and shorn of all delusions. He says he is contesting the primaries to encourage and enthuse the workers of the party- to lead the way so others will come forward and Rahul Gandhi’s idea will find fruition. He also wants to show “his people” that a Dalit can stand from a non-Reserved seat. A two-time MLA from Patel Nagar, Lilothia lost his seat in last year’s assembly elections but is full of positive ideas, mostly relating to social welfare and empowerment, should he win the Primary. He doesn’t say so in as many words but he seems to know he won’t win. “But I will give him a good competition,” he smiles. He claims he got many messages asking him not to run but went ahead irrespective because it is important to invest in the process. “Maken ji should also have invited people to stand against him,” he adds. Lilothia has several cases filed against him but they were not a hindrance to his nomination because they were all “political cases”, the RO’s explain to me- Incurred while agitating in his younger days. “Nothing criminal.”
Agarwal dismisses allegations being thrown around by saying he had nothing to do with the voters list. He claims he came forward and asked for primaries to be held in his constituency because he believes in the idea. Having resigned from the post of DPCC President after Congress’s miserable performance in the Assembly Elections last year, Agarwal is more confident about the party’s prospects in the Lok Sabha- especially the welfare schemes initiated by the UPA and the large number of young leaders in the party.
Steady streams of voters are coming up to both contenders and assuring them of a win. There is a light drizzle and a hoarse speaker next to a giant hoarding of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi is belting out Har Karam Apna Karenge Aye Watan Tere Liye. Counting is about to begin once the grounds are cleared of all voters. The ROs and volunteers count the 305 votes cast in the presence of both candidates. After 6 votes have been rejected on account of not being cast clearly, Agarwal wins by a whopping 205 votes. His supporters outside promptly begin celebrations- particularly loudly for the TV Camera crews that have now materialized.
On the fringes dissenters whisper that a Dalit should have been given a chance after a bania has been at the helm for so long. Another worker seems to think a Muslim candidate should have stood from the constituency, mainly to counter the growing AAP support in the area. But the decision has been made.
Inside puris and chole are laid out. The drizzle turns into a shower and the volunteers pose for a group photograph. Their jubiliation is quieter. It takes the form of relief after a job well-done. I ask Guddewar if he was expecting trouble. “Yes,” he smiles back. Was it all too stressful, I ask him, imagining it must be. “It was fun,” he says quietly and you see his point. As you look around at people wearing their finest suits, the drama, laughter, the inflamed passions and chaos of the past few hours doesn’t seem very different from one of the many weddings the ‘palace’ usually hosts.
As I am walking out an old karyakarta puts it all in perspective. “This will not divide the party. They are fighting today but they will be back together soon. That is the way we are. They are fighting because they are enthused, they are alert. They suddenly have a voice and a choice and they are going to use it.” The grand old party’s juggernaut might just make it around what is looking like an impossible bend from a distance.
(First published in DNA, March 12th, 2014)