The Night Before Elections

It would be a nice comparison to make: how do streets in different countries look like the night before elections?

Here are some scenes I shot while driving on the back of a motorcycle in Ahmebabad (India), the night before Gujarat’s 2007 assembly elections. The streets are dark and deserted but every 200 meters there are these groups of men sitting out at brightly lid houses. These houses are karyalay, small campaign offices that candidates in these parliamentary elections set up. Officially, these offices serve to coordinate campaign activities. But a far more important purpose is that they force locals to show their loyalty to a particular leader. In the night before elections it matters where you have cha-nasto – tea with snacks – since your presence at a particular karyalay is an public way to show your allegiance to a particular politician. Your repeated presence at the karyalay of the winner of the elections can pay out handsomely after the elections. If, however, you had your tea at the office of the loosing candidate, tough luck: if you would need help to, for example, get your sick grandfather a hospital bed or arrange a school admission for your daughter, there is a good chance that the assembly member and his local workers will turn you down. Even as an outsider I needed to maintain some balance in my cups of tea. I made sure I sat down at the BJP karyalay just as much as at the Congress gatherings. Tea is not just tea, and where you sit really does relate to where you stand.

The main topic of conversation of these late-night street gatherings is – apart from the prospects of the candidates – if and how candidates will supply alcohol to voters. Gujarat is a dry state, which makes alcohol a particularly appreciated way of vote buying. At least for the men hanging around at this streetsides of this empoverished neighbourhood – it seems like some had been drinking already. In this particular video i was looking for Ambubhai, who professed elaborate experience at this aspect of election campaigns. He had promised me to show me how its done. As the police could, technically, arrest you for it (or demand a cut), such distribution of alcohol needs to be done secretly. I later found him at another karyalay and he took me around the backstreets. We found a lot of people looking for the alcohol, but no one actually supplying it. According to Ambubhai, politicians had become more conscious of their public image and did not risk funding the distribution of alcohol anymore. As in the video, there was only chai throughout the night.

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