MP shows cultural art of splurging on polls

In Madhya Pradesh, bhandara or feasts are being dished out at the drop of a hat on the election trail

By Sanjay K. Jha in Indore
  • Published 22.11.18, 4:44 AM
  • Updated 22.11.18, 7:52 AM
  • 4 mins read
Kailash Vijayvargiya Telegraph file picture

The storied culture of feasts and gifts has thrown up the perfect excuse to devour the model code of conduct and splash out on voters here.

Bhandara or feasts are being dished out at the drop of a hat on the election trail, often spiced with gifts that range from utensils to packets of cash.

The culture of allurement has graduated into covert challenges that rival corporate incentive schemes. In one constituency, a WhatsApp message within a closed group offers councillors a chance to take up a challenge to ensure the victory of a particular candidate in eight wards.

A councillor who picks up the gauntlet can buy a car right now. If the results show he or she has delivered the eight wards, the instalments will be paid by the winner. Otherwise, the councillor will have to clear the EMIs.

Residents say no leader can avoid the bhandara culture in Indore, and it is continuing even after the model code coming into force.

“They will announce a birthday celebration of any person close to the candidate in a locality and organise a feast. There is a political objective but no political link. At least a hundred such feasts are organised daily by different candidates in the city even now,” a former MLA said.

“They will organise a puja or a bhajan at their residence. Everybody will be given food and utensils. In most localities, people find it difficult to stock utensils. Some candidates have graduated to jewellery, like payal, and clothes.

An aide to a local politician said: “Suppose there is rakshabandhan, they send saris or utensil sets to 5,000 women in the colony. On another occasion, another set of people will be the beneficiaries.”

Kailash Vijayvargiya, a BJP general secretary whose benevolence is part of the folklore in the city, has fielded his 34-year-old son Akash from the Indore-3 constituency against a formidable Congress veteran, Ashwin Joshi. Under normal circumstances, the debutant would never have come into the reckoning but the Vijayvargiya magic defies political logic.

“Kailash uses every religious and social opportunity to oblige people throughout the year. His favourite method is to hold bhandaras where lakhs of people enjoy free food. Then, (there are) special gifts for special occasions,” a resident said.

An auto driver echoed him: “Recently during the Ganapati festival and Navratra, he organised 10-day feasts and all of us ate there. Almost every month, some religious leader is invited for delivering sermon and a bhandara is organised. Tankers of ghee, oil and tonnes of grains are consumed every month. This family is ready to help any needy person, day and night. They also organise wedding ceremonies for the poor twice a year.”

The feast at the Sai temple in the vicinity of his residence, where thousands of people eat daily for Rs 2 per plate between 8am and 12pm, is also aided by Vijayvargiya and his colleague Ramesh Mendola, another BJP legislator.

Vijayvargiya firmly contested suggestions that the tradition of bhandara and gifts in Indore had any link with elections and contended that the goodwill gesture should not be seen as corruption.

“Indore is the city of Ahilya Devi (the Holkar queen of the Maratha empire) and ann-daan (grain donation) and kanya-daan (marrying off girls) are part of tradition. This is a religious city, being situated between Mahakaal and Onkareshwar. Feeding people and giving gifts is a cultural heritage,” Vijayvargiya told The Telegraph.

He added: “After Diwali, I get at least 50 invitations for ann-koot (grain heap) and I go there to eat. Every section of society hosts such feasts. My family and I also do. Other leaders do. Helping people, community feast are essential ingredients of our social life. This has nothing to do with the model code of conduct. Voters understand this is a social and cultural practice.”

The generosity is by no means confined to the BJP alone. Sanjay Shukla, the wealthy Congress candidate from Indore-1, is said to have hosted people for the last one year. One shopkeeper in the constituency said: “We have had feasts given by him at least five times in the past few months, apart from saris and other gifts. We knew he will contest.”

Apart from focusing on the party manifesto, Shukla is promising to solve all the civic problems of his area with his own money. His supporters carry placards that promise streetlights, 600 bore wells in 60 days, and one pathological lab and dispensary for every 5,000 people.

But the culture of allurement, littler other than a euphemism for bribe, is so ingrained that questions about a powerful local leader distributing goodies to influence the election are demolished with incredulity: “He doesn’t need to, he takes care of us the whole year!”

It is difficult to find many voters who frown on such allurements. “This is Indore’s culture,” one trader said, contending that no party is immune to the pressures now.

This correspondent ran into a poor woman who was quarrelling with some people as her neighbour got Rs 1,000 along with a sari while the cash was missing from her packet.

A youth selling pani-puri by the roadside said: “We always get free food and gifts before and during elections.” And liquor too.

The Indore district administration has publicised a WhatsApp number in local newspapers, asking voters to lodge complaints about gift, free food and money. The identity of complainants will be kept a secret and cash rewards will be given to them.

Fifty notices have been issued to candidates so far for surrogate advertising and campaigning and using birthdays and religious events for obliging voters.

Sometimes the complaints themselves throw up a fresh opportunity to host a feast.

On Tuesday, a candidate complained that a porn film was posted by someone in a WhatsApp group with the sinister purpose of maligning him and disrupting the communication. Over 300 members left the group in anger.

Someone’s birthday may now have to be celebrated to pacify the irate voters.