(Nidheesh M.K)
(Nidheesh M.K)

Mint on the southern trail: Meanwhile in Mandya

The five southern states decide 130 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats that are up for grabs. Mint travels through a wide swathe of the south to discover the New India in this election season

Nidheesh M.K.'s dispatches will also be published in Mint. He is on a whirlwind tour across southern states mapping the 2019 election.

Also read dispatches from other Mint staffers who are crisscrossing the country mapping the 2019 elections - Mahatma trail, Heartland.

19 Apr 2019, 09:28:12 AM IST

Meanwhile in Mandya

Mandya: “Ambareesh was lazy, he didn't do anything for us. Kumaraswamy at least waived some of our loans. Besides, she is not Gowda (caste), she is a Naidu. Why would I vote for a Naidu?," said Meke Gowda, a farmer, emerging from a polling booth in Mandya.

The ‘she’ is Sumalatha, candidate number 20 on the ballot. The much talked about rebel candidate was upset upon not been given a seat after the recent death of her actor-politician husband Ambareesh.

She is taking on Karnataka's chief minister Kumaraswamy's son Nikhil Kumaraswamy, candidate number one, who is making his debut in electoral politics. The contest is so fierce that despite having only two major candidates, the Election Commission had to use two ballot boxes because there were 19 dummy candidates, three of them Sumalatha's namesakes.

There was nothing commonplace about Mandya, some 100km away from Bengaluru, which went to polls on Thursday. One can gauge that by the number of reporters from Delhi and Bengaluru who have come down to report about this small town in the Cauvery basin.

The quaint town surrounded by farms usually makes national headlines for its dispute over sharing the river with neighbouring Tamil Nadu, or when its sugar cane farmers kill themselves in the hundreds. It is one of the well-irrigated parts of the state, but the inequity in distribution means a few talukas take away the lion's share of the water, leaving the rest to remain at the mercy of the rain gods.

The major highlight of the polls in Mandya would suggest such pressing problems have finally found some radical solutions, except that there are none.

The highlight, as discussed threadbare in the national press over the last few weeks, is largely because the defeat of a Gowda, the caste from where the JD(S) draws its power, will be devastating for the chief minister.

Going by history, a Gowda in Mandya cannot be defeated, unless the Congress decides to take him on. With several local Congress leaders putting their weight behind Sumalatha, at a time when the Congress and JD(S) is in an uncomfortable coalition, the results would also have a telling impact on the stability of the state government.

Nikhil is the prototype young Indian who gets to play a hero everywhere, thanks to his surname. As a college dropout, he was in 2006 booked for attacking restaurant staff for not serving well beyond closing time. His father was chief minister then. A profile of Nikhil in Outlook magazine, was headlined “My Dad's The Law".

In 2016, he entered the film world with a 70 crore movie. The debut movie was called Jaguar, unmistakably linked to his passion for cars, where he acted as a masked crusader. It was launched with a splash in a 4,000-seat stadium in Bengaluru, attended by the who's who of the city. The spectacle was also beamed live across the state by news channels, suspending their coverage of farm distress.

Sumalatha speaks English, and had the undivided attention of national news channels during the campaigning. She may have made many skip a heartbeat during her prime as a romantic actress, but in her political avatar, she brought out the artist inside her, making an emotional appeal to voters.

Going by his election affidavit, Nikhil has a net worth of Rs. 17.53 crore, a Range Rover and a Lamborghini waiting to be delivered: formidable for a 29-year-old who has never really had to work. Two leaders of the party were caught discussing in a leaked tape how Nikhil would spend 70 crore in Mandya to win the polls, resulting in a case being registered against them.

For a Mandya farmer, who would usually produces sugar or rice or mulberry, the 2019 general election come towards the end of probably his worst decade. Despite being a rich irrigation district, thanks to the Cauvery and its tributaries, thousands of farmers from this region have killed themselves over a decade.

I first saw a Mandya farmer not from Mandya, but from the arid north Karnataka district, Belagavi. It was July, 2015. The Suvarna Vidhan Soudha, Karnataka's alternative legislative assembly in Belagavi, had become a centre for rallying cane farmers from all over the state to protest against a glut. Reporting the protest, I climbed up a hill opposite the Soudha, where we all were checked by the police. Then, a young man reached into the pocket of his grimy white shirt and brought out a small bottle. He gulped what was in it before a dozen policemen jumped on him and then fell to the ground, shivering. The man was immediately rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. He had drunk poison.

In 2015, Karnataka's farm suicide rate hit its highest in a decade. The crisis stemmed from the sugar bowl districts like Mandya. The year also saw the state reeling under its worst drought in close to half a century.

Drought relief, supposed to be an immediate handout to the crisis affected farmers, never really trickled down. By January 2016, Karnataka became the first state to witness a disastrous winter harvest on the back of a washout Khariff season. By this time over a thousand farmers had killed themselves.

By March 2016, as the drought dragged on, the Karnataka government struggled to provide drinking water in certain areas. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while presenting the budget, pleaded with farmers to switch to less water-intensive pulses and oilseeds. But, as a cane grower in Bidar asked, who wants to listen to the finance minister?

The month also saw 10,000 farmers coming to Bengaluru from the suburbs asking for water, riding tractors and carrying empty plastic pots. By April 2016, forget farmers, Karnataka was so short of water that the government started to seek out renting private borewells to distribute even drinking water. The state government said it has no option but to extensively exploit the groundwater table.

Come August, the union government cheered about excess rains, but not in Karnataka. Not only wasn't it raining in excess in the state, but it was also staring at a 1788 crore costing labour crisis owing to deficit rainfall.

Things changed after 2016. The war over Cauvery water with Tamil Nadu had peaked and Mandya was Ground Zero. A crippling water shortage, along with the fanning of Kannada pride by politicians, flamed tense street protests.

In 2017, talk of a loan waiver began and just months before he headed to assembly elections, the previous Congress chief minister declared a major loan waiver.

In 2018, after assuming office in May, HD Kumaraswamy also announced a 45,000 crore loan waiver. But so far, these efforts have largely been only palliative.

Meke Gowda's choices are staggeringly surprising since he belongs to a profession where some 200 people have committed suicide so far this year, including one just a day before the polls, in Mandya and other sugar bowls.

It shows despite his plight, a farmer's lived reality is not about his occupation alone. Back in his village, he is also a member of his caste, a member of his party, a fan of his movie star, and any of these could influence how he votes, no matter how large the hands of misery and death is hanging above him.

“Nobody is talking about farm issues, not even farmers," said Somashekar M, a Mysore university journalism student, who travelled across Mandya and spoke to about 250 farmers as part of his university research project.

“Every night, my family is hooked on to the TV to know the latest development in the fight between these two candidates, as if they are watching some Kannada serial drama," said Santhosh G, who works for “naanugauri.com", a news website formed after the killing of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh.

“The tragedy in this election is that people are not talking about anything remotely close to what's going to affect their lives immediately after the polls, like prices, debts or market regulations. The farmers are blindly repeating the vocabulary set by the media, who seems to be in cahoots with the candidates. Everybody seems to be thinking that nobody is a magician (who can solve our problems)," said Mallige, co-founder of Karnataka Janashakti, an organisation fighting for farm rights.

“Caste triumphs over, everything else comes only second," said Nagesh N, editor of Sanje Samachara, an evening daily in Mandya.

15 Apr 2019, 05:34:01 PM IST

The Vitamin M in Tamil Nadu elections

Under a scorching sun I travelled through the barren lands of Vellore, north of Chennai, searching for Tamil Nadu's richest place. Almost nobody knew its exact location, despite the place hogging the headlines in the state for over a week now. When I found it finally, after half a day's search, it was nothing I had expected.

I had gone looking for a notorious cement godown, from where income tax officials made one of the richest hauls of unaccounted cash in a single raid in this poll season, some Rs. 12 crore. I thought it would be huge, with gated walls and tight security. In reality, it was not much bigger than your average tea stall covered with tin sheets, sandwiched between the front of a house and its gate.

The place stocked a few dozen cement sacks and was manned by a skinny young boy who couldn't stop me from entering. “That godown is 2 kilometers away. I don't know anything. Nobody came here," he replied in Tamil when asked about the raids, his hands trembling slightly.

But Subramaniyan and Suresh, smoking outside a tea stall in the neighbourhood, confirmed it was godown that was raided. They work as loaders in many such godowns. “They just opened it six months ago. We don't take cash for votes here, it was all stashed for Vellore," said Suresh.

There is a lot a politician needs to do in Tamil Nadu to get votes. The last three chief ministers knew how to act and dance or write movie scripts. Those who are not into movies have to sweat it out. Many of them are now used to carrying bottles of water and vitamin tablets to wherever they are going to campaign.

Over the years, however, the campaigning has been redefined. Purchasing votes has become the norm. Let's call it Vitamin M in the polls.

Even as it is nothing new in Indian elections, the money element seems to have become crucial in Tamil Nadu. Tax officials have seized a record 137 crore of cash from the state.

The ruling AIADMK and the opposition DMK are in a neck and neck contest in Tamil Nadu, with a lot at stake. Both parties lost their most iconic leaders between the last assembly election in 2016 and the current Lok Sabha polls. Jayalalithaa died as AIADMK's head and chief minister in 2016. Karunanidhi, DMK head and patriarch of Tamil Nadu's ubiquitous Dravidian politics, died in 2018. The next in line leaders of these parties have big shoes to fill.

The cement godown haul in Vellore was the single largest made by tax officials and is reported to be seized from properties linked to Durai Murugan, DMK state treasurer whose son Kathir Anand is debuting from Vellore. The AIADMK has fielded A.C. Shanmugam, president of ally New Justice Party, to contest on the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol.

The haul has resulted in a case against the son, but the party could not care less. In an election rally in the northern suburbs of Chennai on Sunday, Stalin, DMK head and Karunanidhi's son, described the raids as vendetta by the ruling AIADMK. Local party leaders echoed similar sentiments.

“See, everybody knows the power of cash in Tamil politics," explained Mohammad Saqhy, a man who was been with Durai Murugan since school days and was, until recently, DMK district secretary in Vellore. “It was 25 paise in the 1950s. It has reached 250 now."

He, however, denied reports that the party is spending cash to purchase votes. “We may give some money to our workers when they are on duty. The other party (AIADMK) is giving cash to voters," he said.

I went to Durai Murugan's house in Vellore, hopeful of speaking to his family. They were not there, but the house was not silent. An automated box was chanting mantras inside. Some party workers, faithfully silent to any question related to their leader, were around. Back at the local party office, I asked Saqhy about the mantras.

“We are not religious, but we don't interfere if our families are religious. Anna (DMK founder) had said pillayare udaikavum maattum pillayare kumbidum maattum (Don't destroy the temple idol, don't fall in front of it)."

It sounded like a perfect way to allow something even if you think it is wrong. Just like the cash-for-votes business.

The cement godown, from where tax officials made one of the richest hauls of unaccounted cash in a single raid in this poll season
14 Apr 2019, 03:43:16 PM IST

Indira Gandhi and the Vegas in Deccan

Farmers, both men and women, working on rice fields that extend for miles. Large lakes with fishing nets and the rising red sun on the horizon. Women washing clothes on the banks of village ponds. The sound of birds chirping on big trees. Both sides of the road filled with cows and temples. Houses made of clay tile roofs.

My journey through villages in Andhra Pradesh, in bone-breaking state transport buses, was dotted with such picturesque images typical of any Indian countryside. Until I reached Bhimavaram.

Bhimavaram was like any other village west of Vijayawada. Almost. Look beyond the surface, and it has signs of prosperity unlike any other village in the neighbourhood.

The potholed village roads gave way to neat roads leading up to the mofussil. Slowly, showrooms of top motor companies present themselves one after another p-- TVS, Mahindra, Royal Enfield. The Malayalee in me smiled to see a showroom of a Kerala-based jewellery chain, now one of the world's largest retailers in gold and diamonds. It is enough of a sign that the people here have deep pockets.

I was told by an analyst to check Bhimavaram, since it is homeground to a colourful fight in the elections this year. A top actor from the Telugu cinema industry, Pawan Kalyan, is contesting from here.

Rather young for Indian politics (he is 47), Kalyan seen as a ray of hope for people, especially millennials, who are tired of choosing from the two dominant Andhra parties, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and YSR Congress Party (YSRCP). The elders say a good man can't get elected as a politician. The youngsters want to show they are wrong. Kalyan's idealism aside, contesting in Bhimavaram is also an effort to reach out to the caste he has born into, Kapu. Many do not expect him to play the king in Andhra politics anytime soon, but bet he could pivot a third front by splitting caste votes and play the kingmaker.

The actor's family background, a rags to riches story, is well known across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the two states that screen Telugu speaking movies. He is called the “Power Star" in Telugu movies. His elder brother Chiranjeevi (also a top actor turned rather unsuccessful politician) is the “Mega Star". Chiranjeevi's son Ram Charan is the “Mega Power Star", and nephew Allu Arjun is “Mega Stylish Star".

Kalyan’s party, the Jana Sena, is contesting 18 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra, and 140 of the 175 Assembly constituencies. The star is contesting two Assembly seats himself, in Bhimavaram and nearby Gajuwaka.

I arrived in town on the final day of campaigning last week, expecting some buzz filled with star-studded rallies. To my shock, there was none. The circus had left town for Gajuwaka. The lone politician in town was a statue of Indira Gandhi, uninstalled from the town centre to a remote alley, covered with mud stains and surrounded by grazing cows.

Even as its legacy survives in pockets, the Congress is only a pale shadow of what it used to be in the region -- its common fate in at least three out of the five states in the south.

The Congress ruled Andhra even in the last decade, with its leader YS Rajasekhara Reddy becoming the chief minister in 2004. Reddy made electricity free for farmers, and Andhra politics has never been the same. With a tragic helicopter crash killing Reddy in 2009, his son Jagan Mohan Reddy was poised to become the leader of the Congress. But the party, rife with internal bickerings even during Rajasekhara Reddy's time, bet on other state leaders. The son walked away and formed his own party, YSRCP, taking away from the Congress the political dynasty and the voters nursed by his father. In the general elections of 2014, held just after the bitter bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to form Telangana, the Congress plummeted to a mere 4% vote share. They have not been able to get out of the crisis so far.

In today's Bhimavaram, people are pumped up about something other than the elections. “It's the Las Vegas in the south," said Dileep, pointing at the several SUVs parked outside the local railway station. He was waiting for his friend returning from Visakhapatnam. I asked him why.

“People gamble here. A lot. They begin with 2 lakh and go on to win or lose lakhs. Cosmopolitan Club, our main centre, charges Rs. 15 lakh for admission," he said. It all fell into place: the presence of companies that sell cars, bikes and gold.

“For the several villages in the neighbourhood, this is the only town. People like to be rich here. Even the commoners aspire to a rich life. If they walk into a shop, they don't want to buy cheap clothes. They want to wear, eat and drive like a rich person," he said. Behind us, to my surprise, a Zomato delivery boy zipped by. The online food delivery business opened here a few weeks ago, Dileep said.

Where do they get the money to gamble in the first place? Apparently, Bhimavaram was one of the early places to see the potential in aqua farming, a business in which one can make high returns with a small investment. Bhimavaram even received national recognition recently for its blue revolution.

I got a detailed insight about the “city" from two young men who walked into the restaurant (a locally famous one called Abhiruchi) where I was having dinner. The restaurant was almost full. I offered the two seats next to mine, and we started talking.

Both Ravi and Shankar, were considerably drunk, having emptied a bottle of Napoleon that day and had come in looking for ice cream. They said they had hit the jackpot in a game recently and had invested the money in business ventures in and around Bhimavaram. The two engineering graduates have never voted. They see politics as beyond redemption.

"What is election? Someone votes for someone thinking that the party will help his caste or community or business, or at least will not harm his business. Who cares about anything beyond this? I don't want to be part of that process," Ravi declared. Later, he said he was just too lazy to go out and stand in a queue to vote.

Shankar, who looked more drunk and is unmarried, is a die-hard fan of Kalyan and wants the star to win. “He is a true revolutionary mama", Shankar said, even if it doesn't look likely to him that he will go out and vote himself.

Shankar offers me a ride on Ravi’s bike to explore the city at night. I asked if he has a licence. Shankar said he doesn't care about anything in the world. I agreed for the trip.

We sped through the road. On the way, we see other young men and even school-going kids racing on their superbikes. In the alleys behind cinema theaters, prostitutes search for customers, gamblers bet on anything from cards to IPL to elections to the next morning's cock-fights.

A cow came running towards our bike from across the road. It almost hit us when Ravi, like a Telugu movie hero doing a stunt, swiftly made a turn and avoided an accident.

"Chill mama," Shankar said. The duo then raised both their hands up in the air, feeling the wind. What does one say? When in Vegas.

A statue of Indira Gandhi in Bhimavaram.
11 Apr 2019, 07:15:40 PM IST

The big battle for 12 votes

They were standing in a queue inside the open courtyard of an old school. They were mostly women. They were restless. At noon in central Andhra's summer it was not the ideal time to be in a queue. And they knew it.

“Can someone explain to us what is happening? We have been standing here since 7 am. Throw away these machines, let us get back and continue with the paper system," roared a woman from the back of the queue as she wiped sweat from her eyebrows while talking to a reporter of a regional television channel.

It is telling that the wait, thanks to faulty electronic voting machines or EVMs, has tired even the 25-year-old Chandrika Bollineni, a power lifting champion and one of the strongest women in the South.

Bollineni has been winning domestic and international medals since 2016, including at the Asian Pacific International competition held in Australia last month. She was taught in the same school, a dilapidated concrete building with tarpaulin roofs.

The crowd, including Bollineni, are voters for the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections that began today in Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha (). In Andhra Pradesh, voters will have two EVMs side by side, as they are choosing people's representatives for both the Lok Sabha and the assembly.

But since morning, the voting machines have been acting up across the state, causing delay and calls for re-election. The polls have also resulted in violence and the deaths of two people.

Such developments have “perplexed" a young politician, clothed in a shirt of his party colour, bright yellow. He strolls in the courtyard saying “Namaskara" with a smile on his face.

I am in Mangalagiri, in central Andhra Pradesh, where perhaps the most prestigious battle between the two regional parties, TDP and YSRCP, is taking place.

TDP is Telugu Desam Party, headed by Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, which has 102 assembly seats. YSRCP is short for YSR Congress Party, holding 67 seats, named after late Congress heavyweight Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, and headed by his son Jaganmohan Reddy. The two are known for their bitter rivalry and contempt towards the two national parties, Congress and BJP.

Naidu, facing anti-incumbency, is relying upon sops, including 10,000 aid for 9.4 million women-run self-help groups. Jagan banks on a range of issues, including a vexed demand for special category status for the state, apart from making an emotional appeal using his father's name and smart caste and political alliances. Both leaders have also managed to wean away several MPs and MLAs from the opposing camp.

The battle is fiercest in Mangalagiri; in the previous assembly election, YSRCP candidate Alla Ramakrishna Reddy just managed to win by 12 votes. This time even if the TDP has not won anywhere else, it has to win Mangalagiri since this is where Naidu's son and a potential future chief ministerial candidate Nara Lokesh, the man in the yellow shirt, is debuting. For Jagan too, who seems to be giving Naidu a run for his money across the state, it is a matter of hitting the enemy where it hurts most. Both candidates are leaving no stone unturned for a win, according to locals.

“Since morning, they have been distributing cash and liquor," said the autorickshaw driver who took me around the constituency. “The going rate is 2,000 for men and 1,000 for women," he said. Even in bribes, Indians cannot skip gender disparity.

The state has 25 parliamentary seats, of which the TDP won 15, YSRCP 8, and the BJP 2 seats in the 2014 general elections.

Despite the obvious tension he is facing, Lokesh came across as personable. When asked for comments, he winked at the white line a few feet away on the road, marking a 100ft distance away from the polling station (candidates are not allowed to campaign within a 100 ft radius of the polling booth). After posing with voters for selfies, he asked me to get into his car. We had 5 minutes before he reached the next polling booth. He spoke fast.

“Thirty EVMs are not working. Over 50 of these started late and 13 are not working even now. Everybody is blaming the politician. But boss, fixing EVMs is not my job."

“Are you worried it will impact the polls in such a close contest?"

“Two things. Pensioners, who have been traditionally supporting the TDP, have come out in huge numbers. That itself has delayed the process. Many first-timers are also casting their vote, they are not used to long queues. Then there are others who are intimidated by EVMs. It's also late in the day, and bloody hot. But as it happens, grannies seem to have more patience than most of us. I'll bet on them to stay back and vote."

“Is this again a contest for 12 votes?"

“No, it'll be a much more decisive verdict."

After getting down from his SUV, I went back to my autorickshaw. We rode some distance around the village. Mangalagiri's long chain of mountains, rising over the high plains of the Deccan and overlooking the Krishna river, are dotted with ancient cave temples.

From one of the mountains, the entire Guntur and Vijayawada districts, on either side of the border, reveal themselves in a breathtaking view. Mangalagiri looks like a large wooded farm interspersed with tall temples and matchbox-like concrete houses. Vijayawada on the other side looks much more developed with several highrises, which may be the reason why it now places more breakfast orders on Zomato than any other city in India. But that's another story.

11 Apr 2019, 05:14:05 PM IST

When it rains, it pours

Outside Hyderabad airport, I became aware of cool raindrops splashing on my face. I reached out my hand. The summer rains had come. Before I could reach a cab in the parking lot, my side of the road was fully wet.

The airport was dressed up with flowers to mark Ugadi, the Kannada or Telugu New Year falling this month when. "Every year, it is bound to rain in the days before and after Ugadi," said Chintaiah, 32, the cab driver.

I asked him if he would bet the same on who wins the election in his state. "It's easier than predicting the rains," he said: "KCR", the way people address their ruling chief minister and head of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), K Chandrashekhar Rao.

Chintaiah was one among the many echoing a popular sentiment. Across Telangana, people seems to have hedged their bet in favour of the incumbent chief minister to sweep the polls, found a Mint report on Wednesday. Almost every major opinion poll so far has predicted him more than a comfortable victory in the total 17 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana.

If those predictions hold true, that would be a real accomplishment for KCR. He practically founded the state, and faces hardly any real opposition in successive elections.

In fact, he was so confident of himself that he dissolved his own government last September, seven months before term, and went in for re-election. All of the four parties in the opposition benches united under the Congress, calling themselves 'Mahakutami' (grand alliance). Yet, KCR swept the polls again, winning 88 out of the total 119 assembly seats.

As we drove out of the airport, roads and flyovers and tidy streets resonated with the premium placed on infrastructure development in the state. The roads are well connected. A long-awaited metro line opened in 2017. Power cuts, a major worry of city dwellers earlier, locals said, has become a thing of the past. Irrigation projects have picked up pace. Chintaiah explained why he thinks KCR keeps winning elections.

"He runs the state like he is the king. His beta (son, Telangana IT minister KT Rama Rao) behaves like a yuva raaj (prince). Beti (daughter and MP K. Kavitha) is like a maharani. But when you compared them with opposition, these guys are better. So KCR just has to say mane Telangana (our Telangana) and people will give him votes."

KCR is also probably one of the luckiest politicians alive in India, an otherwise subdued aspect of his success story. Telangana was already a revenue surplus state, a rarity among Indian states. The technology businesses in its capital Hyderabad made sure it stayed it that way.

Below Hyderabad's rippling blue skies sprawl the headquarters of some of the best known technology companies home and abroad, including Google and Microsoft. The services sector, with an ever increasing growth rate and a share of 65%, powered the state from 6.8% growth in 2013-14 to 10.4% in 2017-18, according to legislative research firm PRS.

The excess money helped KCR float some of the biggest welfare projects in the country. His last administration started the Rythu Bandhu scheme giving 8,000 per acre to 5.8 million land-owning farmers, which paved the way for larger debates on universal basic income that echoes in the poll promises of several national parties now.

Rao started his career as a lowly supporter of Emergency-era Congress under Indira Gandhi, only to become one of its strongest critics after moving to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). In the first election after the defection, he stood against his previous political mentor Madan Mohan from the Congress.

Soon, the TDP was in for a new set of changes. It was the brainchild of then top actor and mass icon Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, better known as NTR, who was thrown out of power by his son-in-law N Chandrababu Naidu in an organisational coup. KCR helped Naidu. But the duo parted ways soon, apparently in an angry dispute over the denial of a cabinet post for KCR.

Rao then vowed to become CM one day, a path that eventually coincided with his leadership over street agitations for a separate Telangana state, one that raged for about 15 years. The two politicians are still known for not talking to each other.

The Deccan is a strange place. The story goes that the north of Vindhyas was in awe of Qutub Shah, the Deccan sultan who built Hyderabad in such an impressive manner ("no less than a replica of paradise" as historian Manu S Pillai recounted in a recent book). But Shah did not fall into Delhi's hands easily.

Centuries later, KCR's appeal in Delhi is no less. Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah is seen keen to have a post-poll tie-up with KCR, but he has yet to state his demands.

“Everybody here knows that a vote for KCR goes directly to the BJP. How else is he going to tap open his funds? I don't mind any of these, I'm not a fan of the BJP, but I like Prime Minister Narendra Modi," said Chintaiah.

K Chandrashekhar Rao
11 Apr 2019, 05:14:05 PM IST

Millennials, love thy elections

K. Manjunath's left hand moved to increase the volume of his car stereo immediately as the announcer on radio said, “Elections are here". The station was beginning to interview a first-time voter from Bengaluru who introduced himself as Anish. "I'm very excited," Anish said.

Anish explained in Kannada his dislike for the “jagada (fights)" associated with present-day politics. Rather, he said, politicians should focus on real issues that were bothering the country's youth. "Employment jaasti maadi. Education swalpam jaasti maadi (More employment, more education)." In any case, he signed off saying, “Vote maadi (cast your vote)".

With his eyes on the road, Manjunath, the cab driver who was driving me to Bengaluru airport, nodded in agreement. Manjunath, Anish and I are connected by a common thread--we are part of the 245 million Indian millennials below 35 years of age who will be crucial in the national elections starting Thursday, the biggest democratic exercise of its kind. We may be a constituency, with a shared mindscape of moods and expectations, but we may very well be from different planets.

As long as he can remember, Manjunath's family grew millet and silk in a countryside 10 km from Bengaluru airport. He turned into a cab driver when farming became difficult. The once green pastures ran dry with overuse of groundwater, a story that repeats itself across Indian states. People in his village could not find water even 1,000 ft below the ground, he said.

Unlike his father, who was rendered jobless by the water crisis, Manjunath had Bengaluru's booming gig economy to fall back on. He signed up as a driver with one of the country’s two fastest growing cab aggregator startups. Niti Aayog chief executive Amitabh Kant has pointed out ride hailing services have created 2.2 million jobs, delivering a counter argument to a leaked government report that states unemployment in India in 2017-18 had reached its highest point in 45 years. Manjunath’s job, though, comes with long work hours, no security and little pay.

It came as no surprise when Manjunath started dozing off behind the wheel. Being a millennial addicted to my phone, I hadn't noticed, until other cars began honking. I asked Manjunath to pull over. He apologised and told me he badly needed some tea. The airport was 10 minutes away, and I had enough time till my boarding call.

Over tea, I asked Manjunath when he had slept last. He said he had been working since midnight on Sunday, a time when airport-bound traffic usually peaks. He works round the week with no holidays. I asked him if he would vote. Manjunath’s father was a supporter of the Janata Dal (Secular), the ruling party popular in south Karnataka's rural farm belt, and so is he.

Leave on voting day will eat into Manjunath’s income while others of his age get a paid holiday to vote. But he said: "Yes, I'll vote."

Get latest election news and live updates on Elections 2019 here.