Inside the Lives of Workers Who Thrive on India’s Election Economy
From the taxi drivers and sound guys to the ones who print posters and compose political jingles, these unsung heroes are the most vital part of the world's biggest democratic exercise.
A worker fixes a temporary tent before the start of an election rally in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, in 2014. Photo via REUTERS/Pawan Kumar
The 2014 Parliamentary elections in India was a watershed event in the Indian history. Not only was the verdict notable for having the first single-party majority since 1984 (by a party other than Indian National Congress nonetheless), but it was also the second-most expensive elections that year after the US presidential polls. The country’s political parties had reportedly spent close to $5 billion to lure the voters.
While most of this money was spent on promotions and front-page newspaper ads, some of this money also trickled down to pay the salaries of those in the unorganised sector. These are the footsoldiers of the ‘election economy’.
As we move closer to the verdict of 2019 general elections this month (to be declared on May 23), VICE visits these ‘seasonal’ workers in small towns and villages, who earn their livelihood by serving the logistical needs of the political bigwigs. From the drivers who drive the canvassing candidates in their taxis and the tentwalas who specialise in setting up sturdy stages for political speeches, to the makers of posters and flags, and the safai karamcharis (cleaners) who clean the mess after everyone leaves—this demographic is at the bottom of India’s election pyramid, and are mostly uncelebrated and vastly underpaid.
Qayyum Shibani, who makes publicity songs and jingles for the political candidates in and around his Muslim-majority hometown in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich, tells VICE he is very unhappy with the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). “ It has literally halved my business from 10 orders in the season to just four,” says Shibani, who charges around Rs 40,000 for publicity for a candidate during the whole election campaign. In his songs—that are mostly rip-offs of popular Bollywood and Bhojpuri songs—he praises the leader, his party and brings out his promises to the public. Enamoured by his Urdu and Bhojpuri songs that connect with the masses, his clientele includes political parties in northern and eastern Uttar Pradesh, including Lucknow, Baliya, Gonda and Shravasti.
We then meet Ateeq Beg, who makes political posters for the candidates in Bahraich. Beg talks about a new trend of increased campaigning on social media, which means candidates spend less on posters. “I got less than one-tenth of the orders that I got in 2014 elections. This time, the use of political posters in Bahraich was next to nothing,” says Beg, who earns around Rs 10,000 per month from his poster business, partly depending on printing orders from big weddings to make up for the rest. His responsibilities include taking care of the designing, content and printing of the posters, the charge for which varies according to the amount required by the party.
Not everyone is unhappy this elections. Shahbaz Mohammed, 41, has been driving his 2004-model Mahindra Scorpio for all of the last month without getting enough sleep, for his client: the SP. “First, I drove their small leaders to nearby towns to take stock of the political situation. Then I drove their supporters to rallies,” says Mohammed, who has driven 20 days on a stretch without coming back home.
The longest distance he drove this election season was when he transported 10 Jatav Dalits for a political event in Budaun, a joint rally of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. “When they were not discussing their household problems, they kept counting the caste dynamics and population in their area. Bas aankde lagate rahe poore raaste (They just kept bickering about poll statistics the whole way),” says Mohammed, who earns around Rs 800-Rs 1,000 per day by saving on fuel costs paid to him by the party. He is now saving money to organise weddings of his two daughters.
Mohd Shameem, 48, who rents bikes for election rallies in Bahraich, is also happy with the kind of business coming his way. He mostly receives his orders due to his closeness to a local SP leader. “Apart from sending work my way, he also sorts out my problems. I repair his old jeep without any fee,” says Shameem, who earns around Rs 12,000 per month. He also repairs bikes and cars for political workers during campaign trips to neighbouring villages. “The only rule here is that I give bikes to those in the party I know, directly on indirectly. I don’t give them to strangers,” Shameem adds.
Then there are the ones who make tents for political events and stages for big rallies and neighbourhood publicity. VICE meets Neyaz Ahmed, 23, who works for Dilshad Tent House in Bahraich. He is busy setting the stage in Chanpura, which is known as the political hub of the town where most local politicians live. The local SP candidate, Shabbir Valmiki, will attend a nukkad sabha (neighbourhood rally) this evening, along with around 20 other political bigwigs, and Ahmed is running against time to set up a stage strong enough to withstand the weight. “If it breaks, we won’t get any more election orders, so let me concentrate on my job. Otherwise, we will go back to wedding orders,” says Ahmed. When I ask him how much he earns from this, he refuses to divulge. “ Ye sab hamare baap ko pata hai, usse puchho (My father knows about it; ask him). He sends us to work, but doesn’t all us anything about finances,” he says.
His comparatively jovial colleague, Siraj Ahmad, 24, who is arranging the position of loudspeakers, is more forthcoming about his salary. “I get just Rs 200 for setting up bajas (speakers), which is enough for me to last a day. Sometimes, there are more orders throughout the day, but I prefer to concentrate on one and having the rest of the time for myself,” says Ahmed, who sometimes also helps his team in putting out lights and wires for events.
Ahmed, whose business grows manifold each election season, says he doesn’t care about who eventually wins and loses the elections. “At the end of the day, they will make big promises on these loudspeakers, but I know we will be doing the exact same thing each elections to survive.”
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