On Holi evening a cigarette vendor was hovering around his closed shop outside a sprawling middleclass colony in Ghaziabad. Asked why his kiosk was shut despite no signs of Holi revellers being anywhere around, he shot back “they may come drunk and ask for bidiswithout paying.” His retort pointed to the possibility of a brawl erupting any moment though the day of rather low-key Holi festivities had passed off peacefully.
Little did the poor vendor know that the country and more so Ghaziabad was in for more tumult in the days to come because of the looming Lok Sabha elections billed for April 11.
The vendor is from far off Bihar and is, thus, not among over two million electorate of this parliamentary constituency. He has also not heard of former Army Chief General VK Singh who won the last Lok Sabha polls from Ghaziabad five years ago with a huge margin of over half-a-million votes and is again trying his luck from what was turned by him into a virtual BJP or his party’s bastion.
Last time too Holi had preceded the polls. The difference between then and now is the fact that this time the BJP higher ups, including General Singh, decided to tone down the festivities a bit in the memory of over 40 security personnel martyred at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir in a terror attack on February 14. But if the spirit of conviviality that generally accompanies Holi is to be put in comparison to what used to be the case in the past, the festival definitely lacked some of its old verve.
And the main reason for this as per the old residents of Ghaziabad is uncertainties of these times. Not only terror attacks and consequent military response to this but they also point to the recent weakening of trades and businesses for as varied reasons as demonetisation and GST, or Goods and Services Tax, to be behind this.
Yet, they shy off from hazarding a guess about its reflection on the outcome of the polls. Their skepticism is because of the virtually larger than life image of not only General Singh but also that of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in public arena. Add to this the huge margin that the BJP candidate could score over his rivals last time and his invincibility leaves little to doubt. “Jeeteygi to BJP hi,” they say.
What they are ready to concede is a possible lowering of the victory margin of the former military chief this time. The main reason for this is the joint candidate put by Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Suresh Bansal is a former BSP MLA and is a locally known and rather a popular figure. His son is thought to be close to the brother of the BSP chief Mayawati. Last polls had more candidates against General Singh than what is the case now with 12 of them in the fray. He is locked in a triangular contest with Congress’ bet Dolly Sharma, an MBA by training, too challenging him.
Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi held a road show through parts of Ghaziabad a few days ago to muster support for Sharma. Astride atop a SUV with Sharma on her sided Priyanka waved to the huge crowds gathered to see her. She spoke briefly before the enthusiastic crowd milling all around. Yet, it remains to be seen how the tumult created by the newly inducted party general secretary through her road show affects the actual voting.
General Singh’s campaign managers had probably anticipated a campaign by Priyanka in the constituency and a possible impact of this on women voters. So he was already often being seen accompanied by his wife during campaign tours of the constituency which is strewn with both urban and rural pockets besides having a few industrial enclaves. The couple points to the work done through the better part of the constituency whenever the two comes across TV crews. The Congress candidate bemoans the fact that General Singh was hardly seen in the constituency before this round of elections came over his head.
Sharma says that Ghaziabad needs a local to take care of the constituency. The General, according to her, is too big to be accessible to a layman form the constituency ever since he became an MP and also a Central Minister. She laments about worsening law and order in the city where women cannot feel safe and can even be mauled and even raped.
The development work that Ghaziabad has seen in the recent time often goes beyond the confines of the constituency with focus extending across its boundaries. This is all the more true in case of roads and highways. The Singhs point to the new road built to connect textile and hosiery hub Pilakhuwa with Meerut and Delhi with Rajnagar in Ghaziabad with an elevated road. Yet, some of the work is still in progress. This is also the case with the widening of the Delhi-Lucknow highway that runs through large parts of Ghaziabad.
A flyover under construction on National Highway 24 has been taking months for construction and is yet to be opened up to end the nightmare of Hapur and Moradabad-bound motorists who are often stuck into hours-long traffic jam because of the slow construction work on the huge flyover.
Besides construction and widening of roads and bridges parts of the city have got a facelift. This has been through the efforts of CP Singh who was until recently its Municipal Commissioner. After his transfer to another town these efforts were continued by the District Magistrate Ritu Maheshwari. Ghaziabad is often though unofficially referred to as a VVIP constituency where work is not supposed to get stuck in bureaucratic bottlenecks.
This is also thought to possibly help in steering General Singh through the polls this time too. Yet, the challenge before him now is thought to be a bit harder than the ease with which he won the polls last time. This is so because through the first round he was taken as a new face fresh from his years in the Army and was thought to be different from the run of the mill politicos who often call the shots in Uttar Pradesh.
This was also true for Modi through the last polls who came to Centre’s politics rising from not only State politics but also from the humble moorings of a Cahiwala or tea-seller. The novelty was common in the case of both the candidate for Ghaziabad and the top leader of the party. Yet, cigarette vendor claims that he knew about Modi even before he became Prime Minister. As for Ghaziabad MP the vendor never bothered to find out, he admits.