Born in 1950 in the temple town, Vishwakarma, who has seen multiple governments and elections come and go, recalled how his father struggled with the "faulty system".
Dressed in a sweat-stained uniform, Lalji Vishwakarma wears a jaded look on his face as he waits the door at an economy hotel near the Varanasi railway station. The ‘chowkidar’ (watchman) with a slight built and a big moustache sits on a plastic stool in a corner, getting up promptly every now and then to welcome guests with a salute. In between, he also assists the hotel staff in room service, a routine he has followed for the last several decades.
Ask him about the election buzz in Varanasi — his hometown and parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vishwakarma, who has never voted in nearly 70 years of his life, says, “I am just waiting for this poll ‘tamasha’ (theatrics) to end”.
“Elections are held time and again, politicians come and go, they urge us to vote for them, they become MLAs, MPs or ministers, but we remain wherever we are,” he said, with a note of pessimism in his voice. Born in 1950 in the temple town, Vishwakarma, who has seen multiple governments and elections come and go, recalled how his father struggled with the “faulty system”.
“As a child, I would see my father struggle to get work done at government offices. He worked in the furniture making sector and did not earn much. In local offices, he would either be expected to pay a bribe to get his work done or wait with little hope,” the 69-year-old lamented.
“To get access to ration and other facilities, I would see him get frustrated with the faulty system. So, when I turned 18, I decided to not vote for anyone. And I am still not interested in any party as I have lost faith in all of them. They are all the same, mere vote seekers,” he said.
The high-pitched campaigning and elaborate election manifestos of political parties have failed to enthuse Vishwakarma. “I know the city is now under the spotlight after Modiji became the MP from here. Big parties are doing big roadshows, I see so many ordinary people running behind those leaders, chanting slogans and showering flower petals on them. But what happens to people like us after elections? Do our lives change? Do lives of our children change?” he asked.
A father of three daughters and two sons, Vishwakarma works 12 hours a day (from 8 am to 8 pm), gets no weekly off and earns a meager Rs 8,000 per month. His wife, who works as a cook, and his son, a carpenter, supplement the family income. He said his experience with the system hasn’t been very different from that of his father.
“When my son was little, I went to a government school to get him admitted there without any fees as we belong to the economically backward category, but in vain. Last December, I married my third daughter, Babita, with my savings. Somebody had suggested me to approach the state government department to seek financial assistance under a scheme for daughters’ marriage for the poor, but that also did not work out,” he said.
“Why should I vote then, for what, to remain poor?” he asked.
Speaking about Modi’s ‘Main bhi chowkidar’ (I too am a watchman) campaign, which has brought the country’s watchmen into the limelight, Vishwakarma said so many people want to be a ‘chowkidar’ today, but no one understands how tough a life it is. The word ‘chowkidar’ has dominated the electoral discourse this year, with both the BJP and the Congress using it to their advantage.
Modi, who often projects himself as the ‘chowkidar’ of the country, has said that this word has now become synonymous with patriotism and honesty. To counter him, Congress president Rahul Gandhi coined the slogan ‘chowkidar chor hai’ (watchman is a thief). To turn the tables on the Congress, Modi launched the ‘Main bhi chowkidar’ campaign on social media. Senior BJP leaders and party supporters across the country responded by adding the prefix ‘chowkidar’ to their Twitter handles.
The prime minister has often urged people in his speeches to “be a chowkidar of the country by voting in this election”. However, Vishwakarma remains unmoved. “I will boycott this election too as I still have no hope from any party,” he said.
Asked, if he has a voter card, he said, “Yes, my father had got it made for me and my children also have them. But, I have told my wife and all my children to boycott all elections, and so they have also never voted, though my children want to.” If a voter wants to reject all candidates, he or she can opt for NOTA (none of the above) on the EVM, but Vishwakarma said he is unaware of it.
“NOTA? What is that? I don’t know, but I am in no mood to vote. It is not that I don’t have faith in democracy, I just don’t have faith in politicians,” he said.