Perched on his black scooter, 35-year-old Rajbir Thakur* arrives in Hazratganj, an upscale market within the heart of Lucknow—the capital and the political power centre of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in India. On May 6, the City of Nawabs is just getting ready for the world’s largest exercise of democratic right: the general elections in India. It’s a national event where caste, religion and class dynamics play as much a part as illicit liquor, handmade guns and raunchy dances to attract voters.
In the most populous state of India (around 23.2 crore out of 1.37 billion total population), one that historically has had major influence on poll results, the indicator of a leader’s popularity are its election rallies and the number of people who turn up. And Thakur is one of the key mediums in this equation.
He is a rally contractor, who organises election rallies for political parties, and manages the logistics such as sourcing of the tents, food and seating arrangements, facilitating the security of the candidate and handling of the crowds. In his line of work, he keeps his political ideology under wraps and is as loyal to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as much as to the state opposition, Samajwadi Party.
Hailing from Uttar Pradesh’s Etah district, Thakur has had the experience of organising both, local-level rallies as well as the large-scale ones. He also hires specialised agencies who know everything about arranging a rally event: from the positions and sizes of the bamboo required to erect the tents and the size of the stage to the number of seats and the length of the carpet. “You need to understand that there is no one type of rally. Rallies organised for someone like Prime Minister Modi will be very different from the one organised for a local candidate in a mohalla (neighbourhood),” says Thakur as he rejects calls on a continuously buzzing smartphone.
Crowd management is not something he prefers, but, often, he has to cave in to the demands of his clients: the rich and powerful politicians of UP. “Even though the main responsibility of getting crowds at election rallies is that of the party members, I do it for the ones who insist on my expertise,” says Thakur, who has mostly arranged for rally crowds in eastern UP (Gorakhpur, Bahraich and Kanpur) and some pockets of western UP (Hathras, Bulandshahr, Etah and Farrukhabad).
There are many people who would voluntarily come to the rally at their own expense, says Thakur. Those include die-hard supporters, party workers, friends and family of the candidate—but this is a demographic he can’t always depend on to add up to the numbers. “As for the big leaders in our country, they’ve always had the charisma that attracts thousands of people who believe them to be their saviour. They might not necessarily go out to vote for them, but will travel great distances to see them in flesh and blood.” More often that not, it’s the ones who are not the natural crowd that Thakur has to work on the hardest.
A major source to get the crowd to the rally venue is by delegating the work among party workers, and utilising the influence of its local leaders. “Someone is given the duty to bring 50 people from a village, while another has to bring in 100. They are just given the money and the headache is theirs,” he says. These leaders, Thakur adds, get an amount of around Rs 10,000 for 50 people: a price that varies by location, the popularity of the candidate and the scale of the election. “This price includes the money that leader pays to the village strongmen to send their people, the food expenses and the transport arrangements.”
Usually, a day before the rally, Thakur instructs most local leaders to go around their constituency to mobilise people for their rallies. They stop at tea stalls, shops and localites to “remind” everyone of an upcoming rally. “These leaders pull favours for their neighbours and local people throughout the year. Nobody wants to refuse them and get on their bad side,” he says. Another way to get the crowd is by sending a party worker in an area where labourers assemble every morning, in order to directly “buy out” their wage of the day. “They are loaded onto a vehicle and taken to the venue. The workers end up making what they generally do, and don’t even have to work hard for that,” says Thakur.
In addition, there are several dalaal__s (middlemen) in political circles who monetise their public influence by bringing people from their area. “More often than not, they are the neighbourhood goons or just ‘active’ people who are socially well connected in their locality,” says Thakur. These middlemen are also paid to the tune of around Rs 500 per person, a price that varies according to the area and the scale of elections. “In fact, the smaller the election, the more the value of a single vote, and more the cost. In panchayat (village council) elections in our state, even the votes of families are openly bought by candidates,” he adds.
After getting crowds through all these sources and connections, the next step is to keep them engaged with freebies: cash, food and liquor. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, around 10 million litres of illicit liquor was seized by the police, apart from a record $36 million dollars of cash concealed in cars, private planes and even ambulances. In UP rallies, most people are provided a standard meal of poori sabzi and water, while in other places, a packet comprising bananas and samosas would suffice. “Vegetarian food can be consumed by everyone, so it’s the perfect choice considering the voters come from diverse religions and castes. Non-vegetarian food is only for the events of big politicians and VIPs, who can have it in tiny luxury tents placed near the stage,” says Thakur.
When everything else fails, there is always liquor—a forever favourite of politicians and people alike. “Nothing matches the craze for free liquor. Bottles are stacked up in big cartons, placed in vans, and then sent to areas frequented by drunkards.” Generally, a person from the same village is chosen to deliver as he’d know the right exchange for a bottle of liquor. “In the freebie system, we do run the risk of people taking the cash, liquor or food and not arriving at the venue at all. Many disappear midway after getting the benefits,” says Thakur.
However, there are many others who would go and fulfill their promise of becoming a part of the crowd when a big leader speaks. “The rule in political circles of Uttar Pradesh is that if you take money, you can’t take favours from the politicians and their supporters until the next elections. But many will willingly turn up for future favours.”
At the end of the day, Thakur feels what he does is very important for him as well as the political leaders. “There are many small politicians for whom the rallies is the only time they’d speak to that many people,” says Thakur. “For many of them, it’s their happiest day, an honour, their best moment under the sun.”
*Name changed on request
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