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Elections 2019 | Mint on the Mahatma trail: Muted pre-election frenzy or voter apathy?

In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi travelled from Porbandar to Kolkata to discover India. Mint retraces the Mahatma’s footsteps as Varun Sood sets out to capture the national mood during the general elections.

Varun Sood's dispatches will be published in Mint as he tries to connect with New India. He is on a whirlwind tour across different states mapping the 2019 election.

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

11 Apr 2019, 05:21:50 PM IST

Muted pre-election frenzy or voter apathy?

Porbandar: In less than a fortnight from now, people in Porbandar district will be eligible to cast their votes when Gujarat’s 26 constituencies go to vote on 23 April.

Still, Porbandar is bereft of the pre-election frenzy or political tamasha witnessed elsewhere in the country. There are no flags of political parties tied on top of electric poles; walls in the city have been spared of political graffiti; larger-than-life billboards of politicians are absent; streets are peaceful with no loudspeakers blaring out political promises.

Even the customary political rallies are missing.

For now, the office of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the odd island, sporting some hoardings. The Congress office is still to put up posters of its leaders.

Is this behaviour in deference to Lord Ram? The city has more posters reminding people of the birth anniversary of the Hindu god on 14 April.

This decorum could change as voting day nears.

Still, four reasons explain the muted election campaign in the district (and possibly in the state).

First, it appears that political parties are taking a cue from their counterparts globally, and are moving their ad dollars from traditional media, such as print and billboards, to the web. Media agency Magna estimates that half of all global advertising dollars will be spent online by 2020, up from 44% in 2018.

More political advertising is happening on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp as Indians spend more time on their cell phones. Understandably, Whatsapp users continue to complain of being spammed.

“Not an hour goes by when I don’t receive a picture of a gathering or a political message on my WhatsApp," says Surekha Shah, a 59-year-old gynaecologist in the city.

However, a related second reason is that Gujarat has traditionally seen fewer over-the-top political advertisements, according to a senior government official. “Hoardings and posters are fewer in Gujarat than elsewhere in the country. We enforce the model code of conduct on this better," says M.A. Pandya, the district collector and administrative head of Porbandar district.

Finally, there is an apathy among voters towards elections. In the 2014 general elections, only 52.6% of the people of the Porbandar district turned up to vote. This was the lowest among Gujarat’s 26 Lok Sabha constituencies which saw an average 63.6% voting.

“All the candidates who contest elections are here to make money. And this is why people don’t want to vote," says Bharat Modi, president of the Porbandar Machimar Boat Association.

Still, the district administration is doing everything to make sure that people turn up to vote. “We have been doing everything to raise awareness, especially among first-time voters to come forward and vote. This includes door-to-door campaigns, seminars in colleges, ITIs and polytechnic colleges, and appeals to prominent personalities to ask people to cast their vote," says Pandya.

“Our goal is to at least increase the voter turnout by 10% (compared to 2014). But a lot also depends on the summer," Pandya adds.

11 Apr 2019, 05:20:22 PM IST

A famous town gets ready to vote

Porbandar: Since Independence, Porbandar, a tiny town on the western tip of Gujarat, is known to the world as the birthplace of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Many in the city rue that this ain’t going to change in future either.

Make no mistake: People take pride that one of the greatest leaders of the last century was born here.

Still, many are angry at the apathy by multiple governments in the past in failing to set up new industries. This has only led to fewer jobs, forcing young students to look at

bigger cities in the state and elsewhere for a better life.

“Other than fishing and some mining, there is no industry. There are no technical colleges in the city. Go to neighbouring villages, and you’ll see that agriculture is in crisis," scoffs Bharat Modi, President, Porbandar Machimar Boat Association.

“When there are no jobs for the young, how can there be any future for the city?" complains Modi.

Vimal, a tiny eatery which can serve about 24 people at a time, sits at the entrance of the compound of the colonial-era railway station.

“This city is a living museum," says Yatish, who along with his father has been serving arguably the best Gujarati cuisine in Porbandar for over a decade (your writer had phulka with split red gram pulses, chickpea curry, capsicum vegetable and potato curry to wash down with buttermilk).

"I’ve already sent my younger brother to Goa to run a restaurant," says Yatish.

“What explains that this world-famous city does not have one decent college?" says 29-year-old Kunal, who completed his undergraduate three-year Bachelors in Science (BSc) course with a major in mathematics from one of the city’s colleges, and now offers private tutorials to school students.

“My parents could not afford to send me out. Some of my friends, who could afford it, are now settled elsewhere and doing well. I get to hear about startups such as Swiggy and Ola".

Cab aggregators Ola and Uber and food ordering and delivery firms like Zomato and Swiggy are not present in Porbandar.

Why have previous governments not looked at setting up industries in the district or focused on education in Porbandar?

The Bhartiya Lok Dal won the Porbandar seat when the district voted for the first time in 1977. The Congress won in 1980 and 1984, while the Janata Dal won in 1989. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won the seat for five straight times until Congress won again in 2009. However, the winning Congress candidate switched to the BJP, leading to the party again winning in a bypoll in 2013, and then again in the 2014 elections.

“Because of Porbandar’s location, it makes it impossible to set up a factory, and then market or sell the product because the economics of transporting the finished good is not viable, when compared to a similar factory running from, say, a city like Rajkot," says P.K.Raichura, Managing Director of Saurashtra Calcine Bauxite and Allied Industries Ltd (SCABAL), a privately held firm.

Rajkot lies 180 kilometres east of Porbandar.

Porbandar district has rich reserves of bauxite, chalk and limestone. This gave birth to mining firms like SCABAL and a few cement plants, like the one owned by Nirma.

Is a resource-curse the reason behind Porbandar’s non-development?

Not really, according to some.

“All the candidates who contest elections are just here to make money. And this is why people don’t want to vote. Who do you choose? Who is the lesser of the two evils?" complains Modi.

Still not everyone paints such a desolate picture of the city.

“Actually, Porbandar is better than many other cities. You’ll see that the city has hardly any beggars. There are three Daan Bhavans in the city run by NGOs that offer free lunch and dinner to the needy," says Surekha Shah, a 59-year-old gynaecologist who calls herself a follower of Gandhi.

A few even question why the city needs a new identity.

“What is wrong if the city is forever remembered as the birthplace of Gandhi?" says businessman Raichura. “After all, the city is not doing all that badly."

Will this question on the present and the future of Porbandar be considered by people when they cast their vote?

Maybe.


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