|Balakrishnan campaigns in Bangalore in the first week of April. (PTI)
The khadim at the Sufi shrine in the heart of India’s IT capital looked quizzically at one of the sector’s poster boys, Venkatraman Balakrishnan, as he walked in after swapping an Aam Aadmi Party topi for a skullcap.
“Aap kya Janata Dal se hain (Are you from the Janata Dal)?” he hesitantly asked Balakrishnan’s campaign manager, former Indian Army major Aditi, who stood just outside the sanctum sanctorum.
“Nahin, hum Aam Aadmi Party se hain, humein dua deejiye (No, we’re from the Aam Aadmi Party, bless us),” Aditi replied, as the priest nodded, appearing to recognise the name of the party but surprised to see its presence in his neighbourhood.
Minutes later, Balakrishnan, the former Infosys chief financial officer and the AAP’s star Lok Sabha candidate, would say how the campaign stint had helped him understand problems he never quite appreciated were plaguing his city.
But the priest’s question captured a challenge shadowing the AAP here — Bangalore too is only just getting to know the AAP.
In March, Arvind Kejriwal’s party picked Bangalore as a city it could swing in its favour these national elections. With an urban, young and cosmopolitan generation driving its economy, Bangalore does seem a potentially good candidate for the AAP to repeat its performance in Delhi, where young voters drove the fledgling party to astonishing success on its debut.
But in the tiny shops that line the narrow and congested by-lanes of Chickpet — which lies in the Bangalore Central seat Balakrishnan is contesting — the sitting BJP MP, P.C. Mohan, and Congress candidate Rizwan Arshad, a Rahul Gandhi pick, are the only names discussed over cups of evening tea.
And if you’re neither with the Congress nor with the BJP, then you must, as the priest at the Sufi shrine wrongly surmised, belong to Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), the third major party in Karnataka.
“Everyone’s heard of what the AAP and Kejriwal did in Delhi, but they’ve not done anything in Bangalore to make people vote for them,” Venkatesh Manjunath, a toy store worker said. “And their candidates are new to the area, so they have no name recall.”
Carved out of two other seats after a 2008 delimitation exercise, Bangalore Central is home to some of the city’s most upmarket neighbourhoods flush with microbreweries, cafes and fine dining options that come alive every evening when India’s Silicon Valley finishes work.
But the constituency is also home to hundreds of slum clusters and centuries-old neighbourhoods like Chickpet that haven’t seen the benefits of economic growth so evident in the city’s IT hub, Electronics City, where many top technology companies are headquartered.
And many of the young IT professionals working in Bangalore aren’t long-term residents here and hold voter I-cards elsewhere.
It’s a reality Balakrishnan knows.
“What I’ve seen while campaigning, seeing the way people in my city are forced to live, haunts me,” Balakrishnan said during a break between campaign meetings. “Elected representatives have completely failed people.
“People are being robbed of their dignity, and that’s what we have to restore. It’s been an eye-opener for me.”
Asked about the disadvantage of being a new face compared to established politicians, Balakrishnan quipped: “The sitting MP, the BJP’s P.C. Mohan (a former state legislator who won in 2009) hasn’t shown his face to people in five years. So he’s new here too.”
The AAP’s anti-corruption campaign and Balakrishnan’s candidature have enthused previously apolitical people like Satish Chandra, a resident of Balepet — abutting Chickpet — to participate in the Lok Sabha electoral discourse.
“People in Bangalore too have given up hope with the main political parties,” Chandra, an AAP member, said. “What Kejriwal did in Delhi pushed a lot of us into trying to see if we can do something similar here in Bangalore.”
Shedding corporate suits for simple T-shirts, jeans and chappals, Balakrishnan has tried to catch up with the more established protagonists in the battle for Bangalore Central by canvassing morning and evening in the once-pleasant city’s simmering heat.
He’s used to back-to-back meetings, often across continents. But as Balakrishnan leaned against his campaign jeep in between two rallies, the IT honcho had a confession to make.
“This is different,” Balakrishnan said. “Elections and campaigning are way more complex than anything I’ve ever done.”
Karnataka votes on April 17