Most Sundays, Alex and I normally venture out into the city and look into something in its streets to witness, appreciate and sometimes, understand. This particular Sunday (20th of July) did not disappoint.
After lunch with our supervisor, Chikita, we visited Ferguson College. We walked around its campus and quickly learned about similarities and difference between a campus in India and one in the US.
It was interesting; the school was virtually the same as any university I have seen in the US. It had a hostel for men and women (our version of dorms), sports fields, lecture halls and a space solely dedicated to Alumni. Some notable differences were the outfits of some students (the military students worn hats with a red feather on it), and some gender dynamics (ironically, women can go to the men’s hostel but no men can go to the women’s hostel.)
The fun part of the visit consisted of a huge football (soccer) match. While Alex went for a stroll up a hill, I joined some of the locals in a game of football. It was incredible.
At first, I was intimidated. I have to admit. So far, I have been playing football with kids and youth who have never really played. Now, I am supposed to fully compete while wearing pants? What would their style be like? It didn’t matter. Once we started juggling and passing the ball a few times, I realized that I didn’t even need to speak Marathi. The ball would do the talking.
Once teams were made, I had to adapt quickly by memorizing everyone’s outfit- I knew no one’s name- and somehow, taking up a position that was beneficial to my team. This was the fun part. There were about 30 people in the dirt field. We were all running barefoot, with drops of rain progressively intensifying. As I tried to play, I learned what this was really about: possess the ball as long as possible and when the enemy has it, destroy it. We went back and forth, and as the passes were getting sharper, the rain was getting more involved. Before I knew it, I was tip-toeing across the field. To no surprise, both teams spent a lot of time kicking corners into the field which made it for a very interesting mud-slide experience. Maharashtrians don’t mind getting down and dirty.
After the football match, Alex and I took a rickshaw to a political rally that was happening in the center of the city.
Remember that guy there was some fuzz about speaking at the Wharton India Economic Forum last semester? Well, his name is Narendra Modi and if you don’t know by now, he is a big source of controversy not just at Penn, but especially in India. He has begun his campaign to become the next Prime Minister (although not officially yet) under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Alex and I were fortunate to have been at the right place and time to have seen the political spectacle.
Now, before I describe what I saw, a few words: I do not pretend to be an expert of modern Indian politics. Instead, my real interest at the time was to acquire insights into power and its many manifestations.
With that out of the way, I have to admit that Indian’s do love their political rallies. The location consisted of a massive tent with perhaps a few thousand chairs lined up under a tent. To our surprise, people actually showed up in advanced thus making it difficult to find seating. We settled for seats in the middle towards the right of the tent. We were lucky to even have seats. After we sat down, it seemed like a couple more thousand people had just showed up.
Like the best political rallies, this one had much flare, suspense and no shortage of passion. Speakers went up on stage and spoke with a unique fervor. Some spoke with the depth of their voice. Others wagged their fingers. Some made clever jokes. All of them were Hindu and proud of it. It was as if, one by one, they were trying to hype up the larger-than-life persona who is Narendra Modi. Literally. We waited about two hours before he even appeared on stage. We waited another half an hour before he spoke to the microphone.
In the middle of all the excitement, I made a friend. There was a gentleman who sat beside us who ran a construction company. He claimed to have close ties to the party, so he offered his perspective in the current political climate. To make a long rant short, he stated that governmental corruption is India’s key problem. India’s ruling party, the Indian National Congress (INC), has been in power for too long and has not delivered on its many promises. This -coupled with the fact that about every week there is some scandal regarding the INC – has led him to trust in the BJP to do, at very least, one thing: not continue the same level of corruption.
When Modi went on stage, my new friend translated the speech whenever possible.
Modi was nothing short of a masterful speaker. He spoke with such confidence, such bravado, that it almost did not matter what he said. He was purposefully slow and stressed just about every letter at the end of a sentence. Everyone went into rapture whenever he took pauses. His moves were calculated. He didn’t move a lot but when he did, it capitalized on the moment.
From what I understood, the speech was a mix between promises, re-telling his achievements and a calculated attack of his opposition. Modi continuously made mention of how incompetent the INC had been in dealing with India’s economy. He jokingly reminded everyone that, that same day, the rupee had devalued from 50 rupees per dollar to the median age of all of INC’s leaders (61). Of course, Modi was not shy about his achievements in Gujarat. He shared his vision of steady, economic growth across India if similar steps were taken to bring in foreign investments- just like he did in Gujarat. When it came to his weaknesses, he somehow turned them into strengths. When carrying the charge of being only pro-Hindu, he basically stated “So what?! We are proud to be Hindu. Our Hindu origin is what leads us to lead India.” Everyone cheered.
To a foreigner like myself, this all felt surreal. The man before me was charismatic, persuasive and apparently, competent. However, I couldn’t get over something that seemed negligible during the rally: the fact that he had human rights violations charged against him. The possibility that this man purposefully neglected -and possibly conspired against- the Muslim people in Gujarat (and never apologized) was something that made his entire speech ring hollow. A demagogue is a demagogue. Therefore, a hypnotic figure with an unapologetic demeanor is suspect- regardless of his/her achievements.
Overall, I must admit that a careful study of Indian politics would produce an infinite amount of questions that guarantee no answers. The upcoming duel between the BJP and INC is something that I am excited to follow. Hopefully, a safer, if not, less corrupt, India will emerge.