The lozenges Jugni Lal sells are lumps of stained sugar twirled into counterfeit wrapping. His cardamoms are hard and dry as pebbles. He sells, among other things, crumbled, flea-ridden jaggery and dal that looks like grit.
He probably cannot see that ants have colonised his open jar of biscuits for the old man has just had cataract surgery. But the conversation his shopfront offers can be engrossing.
It’s here we come to learn why his mate Kishan Ram, stopping by for a roll of bidis, has decided to vote Narendra Modi and why Jugni Lal might.
“Sakkhat aadmi nu hain (He is a strong man),” Kishan Ram says. How “sakkhat” he learnt from what he saw on a television channel whose name he can’t bother remembering.
He saw Modi sitting across the table from top Pakistani military generals and warning them against any hanky-panky, else India would retaliate: “Chup nahin rahenge, aankh dikhaoge, hum aankh nikal lenge (We won’t be silent; you show us eyes and we will gouge your eyes out).”
Thereafter, Kishan Ram saw Modi wagging a finger at Chinese generals: “Khabardar Hindustan par galat nigaah utha kar mat dekhna (Be warned, don’t look at India with malicious intent).”
“Sakkhat aadmi hain; Pakistan aur Cheen ko saaf-saaf kah diye hain (He is a strong man; he has warned Pakistan and China in no uncertain terms).”
What Kishan Ram probably saw was a mock presaging by some news network of how neighbourly relations under Narendra Modi might come to be conducted. Kishan Ram, though, was persuaded those meetings had happened — a matter of record, proof of how “sakkhat” Modi will give India a new direction.
Such is the nature of the popular myth-making that has fed into the Modi persona and rendered it a larger-than-life entity looming over this election.
Kishan Ram is no bumpkin, he has fair cognition of the India-Pakistan-China metaphor. But he wouldn’t care questioning the Modi stick to hostile neighbours although Modi is only a chief minister yet.
If it’s Modi reading the riot act, it must be true; consume and propagate. He has made a golden bird of Gujarat, “sone ki chidiya” — nobody is poor in Gujarat; everybody has a job and a pucca power-lit house in Gujarat; everybody is happy in Gujarat; he is an avatar coming from Gujarat; he will become Prime Minister and make the whole of India like Gujarat, a “sone ki chidiya”.
This is the kind of discourse sweeping all of eastern Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar —the construction of a utility superman from scraps fallen off the Modi campaign’s lavish carpet bombing.
Jugni Lal looks on cynically from behind his two-penny dark glasses, not entirely convinced: how could that be, his hectoring of Pakistani and Chinese generals, he isn’t even Prime Minister yet.
“Aare batawat hain, TV par dekhli, jaun karen ab Modi karen,” Kishan Ram reassures him. (But I have seen it on TV, now whatever needs to be done Modi will do.)
Well, Jugni Lal nods, still not entirely taken, “Aur haiho kono dosar (Who else is there)?”
Such is the nature of the vacuum of competition that has set Modi afloat high above the field this election.
We are in a rural stretch of Chandauli, which sits by Varanasi. To constituents here, the prospect of Modi representing Varanasi is the prospect of being able to shine in reflected glory.
“If Modiji becomes Prime Minister, perhaps we will benefit too, this whole backward region of eastern UP will benefit,” says Ramesh Kumar Singh, a panchayat functionary. “Nothing has happened in these parts for ages.”
Chandauli used to once be an impregnable Congress fortress, the pocket borough of the clan of Kamalapati Tripathi, the Indira-era working president of the Congress, a man inimitable of repute, a giant of pre-Mandal UP politics.
The Congress writ has long expired and Chandauli claimed, these past years, by competing post-Mandal formations, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Now, a man from afar has come to claim frontrunner rights.
As Ram Sudhar Patel, a loom owner in the village of Neembupur, told us: “If the BJP has the upper hand here it is only because of Narendra Modi, I have no doubt. If Modi was not a factor, the local BJP candidate (Mahendranath Pandey) would have lost.”
Patel belongs to the Kurmi community whose numbers in these parts are critical to electoral arithmetic. The Congress has fielded a young Kurmi, Tarun Patel, but that has stirred Chandauli’s Kurmis not one bit; they will still vote for the BJP’s Brahmin.
It is true many of them owe allegiance to Anupriya Patel’s Kurmi-interest party Apna Dal, which has a tie-up with the BJP in this election. It might be truer, though, that the Kurmis are reaching out over Anupriya Patel’s head, straight to Modi himself.
Scarcely did we meet any intending to vote BJP who mentioned either Anupriya or the local candidate. Their vote was for Modi, him alone; if that helped the local BJP man win, it was merely collateral consequence.