Campaigning for Change? Politicians Come to the Basti

-Stephen Christopher

Today is December 1st in Rajasthan, voting day. I’m watching the pageantry unfold from the Kacchi Basti, a sprawling slum encroachment on jungle land to the east of Jaipur. From this vantage the Indian political process takes on a different hue. The weather’s turned cold, and children in sweaters and caps distribute BJP informational pamphlets. They are far too young to vote, but they participate in the communal excitement. They recite catchy BJP slogans, and when there’s nobody at hand they just toss the pamphlets into the air and giggle. Once they hit the ground there’s not much difference between campaign materials and the everyday trash that lines the street. It’s all destined to be collected tomorrow morning and burned.

The residents of the basti (slum) can only hope that their democratic contribution will be longer lasting. That maybe this is the election cycle that matters for them, and the promises of the politicians will ring true. That sewage lines and sanitary communal bathrooms will replace defecating on the sand dunes out back. That clean drinking water will be piped in from Bisalpur. In short, that people here will be given basic amenities – schools, parks, and an environment rid of toxins and festering water that breeds high rates of malaria and dengue.Stephen Christopher, on the right, poses with a local politician

The rub is that the Kacchi Basti is an illegal settlement encroaching on federally-protected land. Residents here live with the diffuse fear of government seizure and resettlement. But that’s not to say they’re helpless. Demographic concentration has given them power in numbers. The reality is that politicians need the basti residents’ votes as much as the basti residents need political protection and uplift. On top of this, urban sprawl makes campaigning easier here than in the colonies, where houses are spaced apart and street life is less lively.

Last week I accompanied a third party candidate. We zoomed around in jeeps with loudspeakers piping the name of the candidate, waving to pedestrians. The khadi-clad candidate shook hands and held babies, gave three minute campaign speeches inside temples, and pledged to make development in the basti his very first priority. Behind the scenes, many of the men cheering him on and whipping up public interest were drinking homemade wine and planning a late-night non-veg dinner. It felt like fun, like time pass.

Not to be outdone, the BJP has a major toehold in the basti. Almost everybody I’ve talked to is voting for Ashok Parnami, the BJP candidate, and indirectly for Narendra Modi. This will set up next year’s showdown between Rahul Gandhi and Modi, the Gujarat Chief Minister who promises economic development and the sweeping away of corruption, but who is cloaked in Hindu nationalism and accusations of facilitating deadly riots against Muslims in 2002. But the BJP is the rockstar party this time around. Three days ago, thousands of basti residents amassed for a BJP campaign rally headlined by no less a Bollywood dream girl than Hema Malini, the heroine of the classic movie Sholay. It was surreal to see a celebrity at the basti, which usually attracts no attention at all.

Today the basti is full of BJP cars providing free transportation to the voting center two kilometers away. But tomorrow, after the votes are cast and the dust settles, I don’t think the residents of the basti expect much attention – not from Hema Malini, not from their elected politician – not until the next election cycle.  

Stephen Christopher is a 4th year PhD student in Anthropology. He lived in Jaipur’s Kacchi Basti and studied Hindi at the American Institute of Indian Studies during Fall 2013. His research, about the Gaddi tribe in Dharamsala, is supported by a Fulbright grant.