Narendra Modi campaigns for VK Singh (left) in Ghaziabad. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
General V.K. Singh, former army chief, arrived four hours late. He apologised to the waiting villagers and went on to invoke his military background and Gujjar pride to seek votes.
All this in less than 20 minutes, followed by a lot of waving from his SUV. Except that the crowd was pretty thin at the Gujjar-dominated Tela village in rural Ghaziabad.
“After so many years in the military, I’m not used to being late. But as they say in the army, if something goes wrong the general takes the blame,” he told his audience.
“So, despite being up at 5am, I couldn’t come here on time. I apologise for making you wait; will you please forgive me?”
Many in the crowd yelled that they had already forgiven him.
Ghaziabad, an Uttar Pradesh district in Delhi’s backyard, has a major Muslim presence along with the Scheduled Caste Tyagis, Gujjars, Jats, Punjabis, Biharis and south Indian migrants.
Some 55 per cent of the population is urban, most of them industrial workers. The rural population is mostly involved in farming.
The Bahujan Samaj Party is strong here, having won four of the five Assembly segments two years ago. The Muslims seem disenchanted with the Samajwadis following the Muzaffarnagar violence.
VK, who has replaced BJP president and outgoing MP Rajnath Singh as the party candidate, is up against two high-profile rivals: Shazia Ilmi, the Aam Aadmi Party’s most visible face on TV, and actor-turned-politician Raj Babbar, the outgoing Congress MP from Firozabad.
The former general has his sights set on the sizeable Rajput vote apart from the Jats, Gujjars and Dalits. At his meetings, he has been picking out ex-servicemen from these castes for special mention.
Like Rajnath, who won by nearly one lakh votes in 2009, VK is a Rajput. With 124 of the district’s 567 villages dominated by Thakurs, it’s there that the BJP candidate is spending most of his time.
“People from here are brave men. Jo log army mein the hath uthao (Those who were in the army raise your hands)!” he exhorted a rally.
Many, mostly older men who are probably the decision-makers in their families, did.
“When I was asked where I would like to contest from, I mentioned constituencies in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Ghaziabad was one of my choices,” VK said.
“I have worked for years with people from your community as I was with the Rajput Regiment. The regiment ate the most ghee and halwa and used the hookah too much, which I didn’t,” he added, drawing laughter from the older men.
VK was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion of the Rajput Regiment (called Kali Chindi) on June 14, 1970. He commanded the unit when it was positioned along the Line of Control.
“If there is no change in this country, India will disintegrate. I am not saying that I will build you roads of gold, but I will make life easier. One has to ask my many sisters how difficult it is to run homes these days with the soaring prices,” VK said, addressing his absent women voters.
Dressed in white kurta-pyjamas and a black half-jacket, the ex-soldier looked tired yet alert. While there were no women at the meeting, he made it a point to wave to the handful who stood near the gates of their homes, dupattas drawn over their heads.
“It would have been easy for me to live a retired life but I chose to give back to my country,” he said.
“Aap mere saath ho? Aap mere saath ho? Aapne mujhe pagdi pahnayi hai, uski izzat bhi rakh lena (Are you with me? You put the turban on my head; please spare it the blushes now).”
Many villagers seemed impressed with his army background.
“He is a Rajput and a renowned army man. The people of the area can connect with him as many of them are ex-servicemen. He has a clean image and has been an anti-corruption activist, so he will get votes,” said Ramesh Chauhan, a resident of Dasna village.
At the next village, Jhavli, VK said: “Most of my men were from rural areas, and I have lived with them all my life. How can I be an outsider for them? From morning till night, I spent my time with these men who were farmers, much like the men in these areas,” he said.
VK is from Haryana but studied in Rajasthan.
Asked if the men he had commandeered over the years would be happy with the BJP leadership’s war-mongering, he said he “wouldn’t like to comment on the issue” since he hadn’t actually heard any party leader make such remarks.
“I believe there should be a consistent policy maintained with our neighbours,” he said.
As for the resignation of the navy chief, Admiral D.K. Joshi, over the recent accidents, he said it was “the honourable thing” to do.
“I want to make things better here,” he signed off as a shower of garlands welcomed him.