Manu Dig Vijay Singh, an IIM B alumni and till recently a senior dealer, selling currency derivatives in Standard Chartered, Delhi, has quit his banking job and taken on the mantle of cleaning up the facade that runs in the name of politics. He has filed his papers with the Election Commission, and is contesting the Lok Sabha elections this year as an individual candidate from the province of Hissar, Haryana, where he hails from.
The son of a simple newspaper correspondent and one of 2 siblings, Manu has no prior experience in politics, is not from a “connected family” and certainly does not have a silver spoon to help him on this arduous road that he has chosen. All he has are blessings and good wishes, and a hope that he, and more of his kind would be able to stop the existing politicians from hemorrhaging this country. Manu, is pretty much like anyone of us, urbane youths... middle class, educated, employed...married and father to three beautiful girls.
So then what induced this madness? I cannot think of a better word to describe such a drastic move, and that too, in this time of recession and job losses. Who in his right frame of mind, would leave a well paying job, in a niche business, with a large foreign bank, for a greater cause. And mind you this is some one who has a wife, 3 children and no real safety net to speak of.
Like most people, my inherent cowardice ensured that all I could do was render some financial support, and applaud, his efforts from afar. Manu has only a short window of time, India goes to polls in less than a month. Also his paucity of funding, lack of campaigning experience, and independent status( no backing of any large political party), make it highly improbable for Manu to win.
It was with these thoughts plaguing my mind that i boarded the aircraft to Delhi to go onward to Hissar to meet Manu, on his campaign trails. For the benefit of those, who like me, are slightly geographically challenged, Hissar a province in Haryana, is situated about 200kms to the northwest of Delhi, and is home to over 2.2 million Jats,Banias,Punjabis,Agarwals, and other communities.
Population : 2.20 Million
Voting Population : 1.25 Million
Area : 6000 sq kms
Covers : 2 major cities Hissar/Haansi, 10 towns and about 650 villages
Competition : Jay Prakash ( Congress) is the reigning MP
Sampat Singh ( NDA ) is the Ex Finance Minister of Haryana State
Bhajan Lal / Kuldeep Bhisnoi ( Haryana Janhit Congress ) Father /Son Ex Chief Minister of Haryana State
7th April 09
A 2 hr flight to Delhi, and 4 hr road trip takes me to Hissar. The road trip is not the most pleasurable of experiences, given that like most Indian roads, it has no central divider, so 16 wheelers, cars, bikes and bullock carts all whiz past on both sides at hairs breadth, keeping you riveted to your seat. I counted 3 major accidents on my way, but then again, this is India, and life is cheap here. If you are unfortunate and meet with an accident on this stretch, it is not very comforting to know that this constituency has only one civil hospital, where I am told, not much has changed in the last 30 years. But then again, unlikely any of you reading this mail, will ever dare step into a government hospital in India. We are so used to not expecting help or only such substandard help from the government, that we do not really expect any hospitalization support and assume that one only goes to a private hospital. Sadly not many can afford that luxury. Between accidents, disease, malnutrition and lack of infrastructure so many die in this country, that it is just a number. As some one famous once said "One death is a tragedy, a million, just a statistic"
I pass ripe wheat fields on both sides, the crops seem ready for harvest, “ Baisakhi “ ( North Indian harvest festival) is around the corner. I m glad that given some amount of good work done here in the 70-80s on agriculture , the farmer of Hissar, is better of than his not so lucky, cousins in Maharashtra /Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where farmer suicides are at record highs...and this is an agrarian country, for crying out loud.
These and a host of other issues, is what Manu, and I know frankly many other good contestants like him are taking up.
Its well past noon, by the time I reach Hissar City, and try and locate the address of Manus campaign office. Its dusty and dry, the temperature is well over 30C but better than Delhi/Mumbai, although the sunlight is exceptionally harsh. I finally come across a bold sign in red “ Election Office Hissar Lok sabha : Manu Digvijay Singh “ It’s a modest 20ft * 20ft, square room, that boasts of a table some scattered chairs and a solitary computer in one corner. Manu is flanked by his brother in law Ranbir, another colleague from Stanchart Manish, and a friend Anil. All my doubts, on seeing such a basic and bare office, are done away with, by the sheer enthusiasm in the room. Hope breeds here. An optimism, a belief, and a fire to bring about change. After exchanging pleasantries and having the quintessential Indian “ chai “, I was brought up to speed, on local politics, issues, electoral statistics, competition, campaign plan and strategy.
Post my de-brief, braving the scorching afternoon sun, we venture out to our first stop a local public place. Flanked by Ranbir and I, Manu would walk up to the unsuspecting passerby and fold his hands, say namaste, and go about his pitch. All in all, Manus pitch was basic, a brief introduction during which most people would wonder what this was about, till he uttered the word “ independent candidate “ and “ Lok Sabha Eelctions “. Most of the people we met, went through a pretty much standardized series of emotions, starting with suspicion, then raised eyebrows on realizing that they were indeed face to face with the candidate, disbelief when they realize he is standing as an “ Independent “, surprise at his age, and shock at his background but finally a smile, to know they finally had an honest candidate they could vote for. Initially it seems hard for people to accept that he has left a well paying job in the city, to enter politics. Like most Indians, they only know politicians who come from uneducated, criminal back grounds, and with a main motive of amassing personal wealth. In a country where most politicians, especially in northern India, are infamous for their bloodied charge sheeted history, and their manifestos are nothing but progress reversing, Manu is an aberration.
By 4.00 pm we were back at the office, to our surprise, we are greeted by a group of young boys waiting to meet Manu. They had heard read about Manu and his campaign in the local papers. We spent the next hour interacting and chatting with this young group of students. It was heartening to see this level of awareness amongst the local children about politics. In the 14-16 year age bucket, they were clearly too young to be able to vote, but they were keen to know what ideas Manu had for Hissar, and pledged their unwavering support in any way possible. Having seen most of the urbane youth rarely take any interest in politics, it was nice to see that these kids knew more about their local state of affairs than their city cousins.
Its 6.00 pm, and we are busy getting Manu ready for his rehearsal speech. He will be going live on local televisions over the weekend. Having studied in Hindi medium village schools till 9thgrade, its laudable how he self taught himself English, studied further and now converses in English with ease. But given where we are today, Hindi will have to be the medium of communication and Manu can be quite the orator in Hindi. It is the first time I hear Manu give a speech. His language, diction and choice of words are hard hitting, and so is the content. It is ironic, as usual, certain large established political parties are distributing television sets, to woo voters. I am only glad, because it’s probably these same television sets that will spread the message that Manu and the other Manus in this country are spreading, and will hopefully lead to the undoing of these unscrupulous politicians.
By 9.00 pm we are back at the office, a bit famished, but the day is still not over for an aspiring politician. We break for dinner at Manus house, and then proceed to meet some of the well connected elders of the city. They are quite encouraging of young Manu. There is much debate on his strategy. Some of them feel, he will be no match for the fire power of some of the more well established players, who are using every thing in the book to win. Cash is king. And I am sure no one is more acutely aware of this than Indians. It is indeed a country of contradictions. On one side it has more than a third of its population below the poverty line, and yet the same country has the highest amount in the world stashed away in Swiss Banks( rumored to be at $ 1.4 Trillion ), the closest country that comes in second has only about 0.5 trillion. Political will to bring the names to light, absolutely Nil, no points for guessing why.
In any case, thankfully there are those who feel that now, that there is a good independent candidate for people to choose from, a lot of votes will swing Manus way. All in all, apparently, given the dirty politics in place, the criminalization of candidates, lack of real concern for the ordinary citizen, and sheer dirty politics, Manu seemed like a breath of fresh air to the people of Hissar. That means the main problem that Manu faces is lack of visibility.
To address this, we are up early the next day. Its 6.00 am, thankfully there was some rain and hail in the night, and the temperature drops to a comfortable 18 C. The plan is to stalk out the famous parks and walking areas, where a lot of the more politically active people take their morning strolls. Ranbir and I take up strategic positions distributing pamphlets, while Manu does the talking. It is not easy. As an electoral candidate you have to learn to strike the right balance. Humility is required since nobody knows him, Manu has to walk up to complete strangers and make that connection. He has to be confident but not cocky, educated and urban yes, but not so urban to have lost touch with ones roots, humble because he knows he is dependant on them for their votes but not servile, because he can actually help make their lives better. Better in every sense, and not just financially. It is a good thing to spread financial and economic welfare, but not by fuelling communal hatred or splitting people on caste and religion.
All most all the people we met, were happy to see a good clean candidate, especially someone young and educated. We got invited to a couple of houses for tea. Amidst snacks, farsan, mithais and sugary teas, the discussions continued. One common topic that reverberated was the debate about aging politicians, and how it is time for youth to jump in to the fray. If nothing else, this countries demographics call for it. We cannot have a country with over 35 % of its population under 21years run by politicians who still harbor aspirations for office, and that too, when they are 20 years past even the legal retirement limit age of 55 years. Neither is politics any families inheritance that can be handed down over generations, it should go to the deserving candidate, and lineage cannot be the only reason to qualify. In fact as we left the last house, one elderly gentleman, just held Manu tight, with moist eyes welling over, he smiled and said, Yes there is still hope……
After a standard local break fast of cholesterol laden yet sumptuous parathas, we plod on, and finally arrive back at the base camp ( Office ) by 10.00 am. We have only half an hour to bathe and shower, apparently there is a press conference at 10.30 am. By 11.00 am the room is filled with press media and a couple of local TV stations. They are all curious to meet and hear more about this new candidate of Hissar. I am pleasantly surprised to see their solidarity and support towards Manu, who at this juncture is clearly a dark horse in this race. Given that most of the reporters know about his background by now, the questions are restricted to mainly them trying to get air Manus political views, ideas, and manifesto. The interviews last about 2 hours and Manu is unsparing of any party and critical of both ruling and opposition ditto. Manu did justice to most questions, especially what comes to mind, is when Manu was asked his views on the recent controversial “ show throwing case “. Manu retorted that “ If by just flinging one shoe, justice was reinstated and 2 politicians had to step down, then may be we should consider flinging 275 shoes and cleansing the whole system “ caused titters even amongst the reporters.
The rest of the day was again a flurry of activity as we went from one place to the other, the basic agenda being meeting people and spreading the word. We covered colleges, public places, parks and any other place of public activity. We did come across some touts, who said that for a price, a certain number of votes could be easily bought. I was shocked to know, apparently the going rate in Hissar is Rs 500 ( about US 10) per vote. That’s all what it takes to buy the right to cheat plagiarize and exploit this country and its people for another 5 years The tout was thanked and shown the door. The end could justify the means and all that crap, but fact is, Manu and his fellow mates, have the firm belief that if given a choice of a clean, righteous, do good, candidate, most people will do the right thing. The fact that US 10 means a months ration for the larger part of this country, means that a lot of people will probably still take the money, but thank god for “ Secret Ballot “, they might still actually vote differently and make the right choice.
Its late in the afternoon now, and I hasten to leave. I still have to cover that long road trip, and have a night flight to catch. I am certainly not brave enough to venture on these highways, once the sun sets. After long goodbyes and best of lucks to Manu and the team, I head back. I know that by this week he would be done with the city campaign and would probably start to target the villages. I am sure his campaign will be a success there too. I like to believe that even in rural uneducated parts, people have realized the power of their vote and want to make a difference to their lives.
As I sit in the comfort of my home, sharing my thoughts with some of you, I know that Manu, and like him there are others, who are out there trying to make a difference. I helped in whatever little way I could. Frankly I don’t know if Manu or so many of the other new deserving independent candidates will win. Given the odds stacked against them, its long shot, by far. But having experienced this political campaign for 2 days with Manu, and seeing what I have seen and experienced I am convinced that CHANGE has started. It is only a matter of time now, before this change permeates through the entire system. I don’t mean to sound ideological and impractical, I am every inch, the cynical, capitalistic, luxury chasing, bonus loving banker, but if even, I can feel this, then I guess change is not far away.
Voting is not only your right, but also your responsibility. Hopefully fewer people will not just use the public holiday to plan a family getaway, but will exercise their precious vote judiciously.
In then interim, if you feel you wish to contribute in any way whatsoever, you can contact Manu and his team on the numbers listed below.
Email Contacts for Manu and team
Mobile Contacts for Manu and team
9416146529 / 9910436336 / 9996648415