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Smita Barooah's insider account: From right inside Modi's hectic campaign

Author: Smita Barooah
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: May 19, 2014
URL: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/guest-writer/smita-barooahs-insider-account-from-right-inside-modis-hectic-campaign/articleshow/35317252.cms?prtpage=1

The spectacular victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections of 2014 is something political analysts will discuss for years to come. It was a watershed election that saw a paradigm shift in campaigning.

 The changes included a presidential style campaign, innovative use of digital technology and social media, and the active involvement of citizens in roles that were formerly the domain of party workers.

 I was one among many ordinary citizens who signed up to volunteer for the party through Mission 272 Plus. This was unique volunteer initiative set up with the objective to win at least 272 seats - the magic number required for a majority government.

 Thus, in February this year, I boarded a flight from Singapore to Delhi, on a three-and half month sabbatical from my job. The decision to venture into an alien environment was not easy, especially since it meant leaving behind my sons. However, like many others, I was motivated by a desperate hope for change and by Modi's vision for India.

 In Delhi, I reported to the BJP headquarters at 11 Ashoka Road. I was given the task of coordinating women volunteers across India.

 The volunteer unit was a brand new block among the many that dot the huge space behind high walls. Within the walls was a world of never-ending activity.

 People from all walks of life, from across the country, thronged daily: Party workers, volunteers, leaders, common citizens, security personnel, caterers, tent wallahs, merchandisers and media personnel wandered around. One was never sure of what was going on at any given point of time, as there was constant action. The only consistent things were the regular rounds by tea boys, the carom game by off-duty guards and press briefings.

 My first few weeks went by in a haze. Lakhs of people from India and abroad had signed up to volunteer, either through our website or by giving missed calls.

 Given the sheer numbers involved, the task of co-ordination was daunting and the learning curve was steep.

 The first and biggest challenge for our team was to figure out how to engage them in the campaign. Second, the skills and time commitment of each volunteer differed. We had to work with what was being offered and fit it to our needs. Third, a political party's structure has a diverse and often opaque chain of command, with many groups of people working at various levels.

 Understanding how decisions were taken, figuring out local dynamics and coordinating with party workers and affiliates were eye-openers. Adding to the challenges was the regular dose of random excitement.

 For instance, one day Aam Admi Party workers attacked our headquarters and we were stuck in office, in a state of siege. We saw violence, water cannons and police action at close quarters, which was rather frightening. Another day, we reached work to find that truckloads of rural constituents had landed up inside our compound to felicitate their local candidate.

 Our phone calls had to be put on hold all morning due to the deafening noise of loudspeakers that alternated between blasting tuneless songs and impassioned speeches. We worked long hours, six days a week. As elections drew near, even the Sundays disappeared.

 The day typically started around 10.30 am and ended after a daily debriefing and brainstorming session, which wound up at 9 pm on a good day. Then we trooped back to our desks for a packed dinner, eaten over a chorus of grumbles since there was never a consensus on the preferred cuisine.

 Our volunteers worked on many fronts. Some contributed time on social media while others organised events, road shows, and baithaks. Yet others raised funds or donated money and merchandise. The T-shirt that is now identified with Mission 272 Plus was designed and funded by volunteers. Similarly, the Modi roti that became a rage in Varanasi was a volunteer enterprise.

 Acting on Modi's call to take the offline campaign on the ground, a whole army of volunteers went door-to-door and met voters across India, expanding the bandwidth of party workers.

 The benefit of going out in the field was enormous. It allowed us to listen to the people and find disconnect between intellectual debates and the real word. For instance, before the Delhi elections, if one went by the media hysteria, it appeared that the manifesto delay was going to cost BJP many seats. Yet, on the ground, the manifesto was the last thing on the common man's mind.

 Fieldwork also enabled us to give the party feedback. Thus, when some quarters determinedly denied the Modi wave, the troops were unfazed as they had experienced the buzz across the country. In Assam for instance, I heard non-BJP supporters talk animatedly about the podum (lotus) and Modi. In South India, curious people grilled our volunteers about the man from Gujarat. As the election reached its final crescendo, a team of us went to Varanasi and campaigned through town and village in blazing 42 degrees. Even there, Brand Modi had made its mark everywhere.

 Thus, when D-day arrived, our people were set to celebrate. The festivities started well before the trends emerged. When BJP registered 200 leads early in the day, people started cheering and the bands stated to play. A cautious person screamed, "Arrey nalayakon, thoda wait toh karo", (Oh incorrigible ones, wait a while).

 But no one paid heed. When leads registered in 272 seats, our people went insane. Holi and Diwali was celebrated, with a lot of frenzied dancing and sloganeering thrown in for good measure, for victory was a foregone conclusion. Now the man we campaigned for is the Prime Minister-designate.

 India has given a decisive mandate that will allow him to steer our nation towards a new era. As we disband and head back home to our normal lives, it is a bittersweet feeling. For months we fought for and bonded over a common cause, and parting is hard. Yet, we leave with the satisfaction that our goal was accomplished. Mission272 plus was a success.

- Smita Barooah is an addictions therapist and works at a mental health clinic in Singapore. She is also a fine arts photographer and author
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