Sunday, June 27, 2010

Political debut of youth brigade

(Vijay Chopra...The Times Of India, 2009)

The glint in their eyes is unmistakable. Excitement and expectations are writ large on their faces.

Meet the youngest brigade of voters in the city, all braced to make their debut in the electoral process. Imbued with an immense sense of responsibility, they are agog to press the button on voting machine to put India on the path of development and progress. Confident, articulate, and above all, conscious, these First Time Voters or FTV (as they call themselves), want to belie the notion that MTV generation saunters off when asked to discharge duties as responsible citizens.

20-year-old BPharma student Parkhi begins on a ‘regretful’ note. “When I became eligible for voting two years back, I was a bundle of joy. But as my voter card was not made I couldn’t vote in the assembly elections” she says. But, this time my card is ready and I’ll cast my vote, adds this debutante. Parkhi calls herself a motivated voter. “Campaigns urging people to cast votes really motivated me a lot. So much so that I too made such appeals through social networking sites and goaded my friends into using their franchise” she informs.

Akansha Adaval, another FTV, says a sense of responsibility has taken roots in her heart. “The onus is on me to choose a government which can take us ahead.” Regarding her choice of government, this BBA student says, “One which can deliver and not merely completes its term on false assurances. It should have the strength to stand against corruption and not become a part of it instead.” Akansha even has a message for her peers: “Youth should cast their vote, only then can they expect a change. We must act like awakened citizens.”

Similar views are echoed by Parth Prakhar, a BCom student of Lucknow University. With hope of a progressive India, Parth lends a word of wisdom. “I think voters should be judicious while casting their vote. Select a candidate who has a vision for the country and thinks beyond localized issues. He or she should be a true representative of India,” opines Parth.

However, there are some who are still confused with the political jamboree. They want to vote, but find no deserving candidate in the fray. 19-year-old Sachin has little expectations from the present lot. “We have seen various governments in UP yet the state of affairs has remained the same. They win the mandate on all sorts of assurances but in the end only serve their cause. What can one expect from such politicians,” he questions. “There should be an end to wastage of public money,” he says. Sachin even goes on to add that politics is not meant for the educated for they would find themselves alienated in the flock of corrupts.

Twin sisters, Nitasha and Sunanda, are yet to receive their voter identity cards. “We had applied well in time but haven’t got them yet. Hope we are not deprived of voting. See, this a system we live. All talks and no action,” they speak in one voice. Nitasha, a student of political science, wants to see younger leaders for she believes they have a vision which is now lacking in the elder generation of politicians.

Sunanda, however, is completely disappointed with the current species of Khadi-clad. Calling them “uninspiring”, Sunanda says they have messed up the entire country. “We are making fast strides in corruption but lagging behind on the path to progress. Worse, there seems little hope of any improvement.” However, disappointment aside both the sisters clarify that they definitely want to vote.

So what issues stir the FTV? “Terrorism, development and employment,” avers Parth. They all are univocal that time has come when political parties should rise above narrow planks and get down to some serious business. Problems galore in our country, so it’s time we see some concrete steps being taken, they say.

And, what about the “glorified” speeches which have become a hallmark of these elections. Parkhi denounces them vehemently. “Instead, of slamming each other, leaders should address real issues. This is not we expect from those who aspire to govern us,” she says. Akansha says, “The mud-slinging exercise will not take us any further. Besides, we know how leaders behave. Today, they are leveling all sorts of ALLEGATIONS and tomorrow we will hear them pledging bonhomie to each other.” “Lucknow is known for its mannerisms, hence we hope that our city should at least be represented by someone who can retain this demeanour,” opines Parth.

When Lucknow votes on April 30, one thing is sure that these voices, too, would count. It would not be easy for khadi clad to ignore them. Besides, they will have to toil hard to meet their expectations. For, this young brigade believes in action and not mere assurances.

Poll campaigns spare ears and streets

(By Vijay Chopra...Published in The Times Of India)

If 2009 Lok Sabha elections would go down in history for mud-slinging speeches and shoe-throwing episodes, they would also be remembered for quiet and clean campaigns. Quiet because poll related cacophony is missing, and clean since the roads have not been “decorated” with the election paraphernalia and walls spared from the political graffiti.

Much to the relief of public and to the discomfort of the political bandwagon, the Election Commission (EC) guidelines have brought the much needed sobriety to election campaigns, which are otherwise known for shrieky loudspeakers, and pamphlets and posters which leave the streets inundated. Though in the name of road-shows, long cavalcade of candidates still cause some inconvenience, campaigning has more or less been bearable.

Students, particularly, are a happier lot. “There was a time when it was difficult to concentrate on studies because loudspeakers would yell horribly composed parodies eulogising candidates. But ever since the EC imposed strict guidelines all these things have become a passé,” said Gaurav, a BA student. “The best part is that dread of campaigning has gone away. We can sleep in peace and don’t have the fear that our walls would be covered by posters and slogans,” said Shweta Bisht, a lecturer in city.

But not everyone is happy with the change. In fact, shops selling election publicity material have taken a severe beating. Amit Aggarwal, who is among the prime suppliers of poll publicity material in the city, said that sales have plummeted by 75 per cent. “Earlier, we would do brisk sales of Rs 25,000-30,000 in a day. Now, we struggle to sell material worth Rs 300 in a day,” he said.

On the reasons of this pitfall, Aggarwal said that strictness of the EC and administrative pressure together are responsible for the decline. “EC has banned flex posters which used to be in great demand. Besides, the administration is particularly harsh on display of polling material of opposition parties. Thus candidates are unwilling to buy products for the fear of any adverse action,” he said, and added that cash distribution too has become a “popular” mode of campaigning.

Arun Gupta, whose shop is housed in the BJP headquarter in the state capital, said that falling sales have led to unemployment. “Till last Lok Sabha elections, we had so much demand that 15-20 boys used to work in my shop. This time I’ve three workers and even they sit idle,” Gupta said. “If things do not change then very soon we would be looking for alternatives,” he added.

However, apart from the EC norms and vigilance exercised by the official machinery, the advent of technology too has played its part in the changing styles of campaigning. Media savvy leaders have also shown a penchant for Internet and SMS culture. State BJP spokesperson Hriday Narain Dixit, while admitting that EC guidelines on posters and banners have somewhat rendered campaigning difficult, said his party has taken a lead in reaching out to maximum voters through SMSes and door-to-door campaigns. He, however, accused the BSP government of trying to sabotage the poll campaigns of rival parties by intimidating their workers and removing publicity material with the help of police.

Samajwadi Party spokesperson Rajendra Chaudhary, while leveling similar charges against the Mayawati government, said that restrictions on banners and posters have made it difficult to campaign in the rural areas. “SMSes and TV advertising can help in reaching out to urban voters but in rural areas we need publicity material or else people would not come to know about the candidates. We apprehend this can impact the results in the elections,” he said.

However, irrespective of the views of political parties the common man on the street is pleased with low-profile and peaceful campaigning. “Earlier, once elections were over the parties would pay no heed to the mess created by the publicity material. While it was left to the civic bodies to clear the roads, cleaning home walls was people’s responsibility. At least, this time we have spared from the ordeal,” said Manish Rajput, a resident of Hussainganj.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Veggies with vengeance

(Published in The Times of India, Lucknow...May 25, 2010)

Move over mutton. For, veggies have arrived with vengeance. Hand-pulled carts are their ‘bat’tle mobile and arsenal full of katahals, gulars, soyabean, raw banana…the hegemony of shaami, galaawati and boti had never been so ambitiously challenged. Welcome to the latest fad on the Awadhi platter – the vegetable kebabs and biryani.

It’s a sheer delight to watch the dexterous hands move in unison and swiftly fry, fold and wrap the cuisine in paper napkins before handing it to a queue of people whose watering mouths can hardly wait. And as the empty stomachs bite into it, contentment on their faces is palpable. All this at a price which is light on the pocket.

Its scrumptious taste would make you forget the aromatic bylanes of Nazirabad and Chowk, eternally famous for the mouth-watering shaami and galaawat kebabs. For long, confined to the menus of a select few hotels and restaurants in the city, the vegetable kebabs and biryani have now ventured out on hand-pulled carts. Circumnavigate the lanes of Lucknow and you can see numerous such carts, thronged by food lovers and doing brisk sales by the roadside. The “roadside cuisines”, as one may befittingly call them, have tickled the taste buds of denizens in the land of nawabs.

It is in fact surprising that a city quintessentially known for its cordon bleu non-vegetarian delicacies has lapped onto the green meal with such enthusiasm. Harmeet Singh quickly sensed the public flavour and made a switch over from selling paav bhaaji to veg kebabs and biryani. He explains the phenomenon: “The rising mutton prices have made kebab rolls and biryani costly. Whereas a non-veg roll does not cost less than Rs 15-20 now, you can buy a veg roll for somewhere between Rs 8-12. Who would mind this bargain.” He goes on to add that people were also looking for some change in culinary taste and this ‘product’ came up as an ideal replacement. While busy folding veg rolls, almost incessantly, Harmeet hit the point: “Now, more and more people are turning vegetarian and this cuisine just suits them.” Non-veg aficionados can differ with Harmeet but cannot dispute the popularity of his culinary product. He daily sells 400-500 kebabs along with 80-90 plates of biryani, no mean achievement for a roadside vendor whose “equipment” includes a hand-pulled cart, steel utensils, a gas stove and battery lit CFLs.

So, what’s the hit formula? Mohd Rizwan, another vendor who is reaping profits in the trade, spells it out, and perhaps aptly. “Modestly priced, reasonably hygienic (as there is no fear of inferior quality mutton as in the case of non-veg rolls), easily available, quick to eat and sumptuous; what else does one need,” he says, adding, “In Rs 20-25 one can have two kebabs and two paranthas. Vegetable biryani is priced around Rs 10-15 (for half plate). The meal is thus, quite reasonable and filling, and that too in times of inflation.”

Though most vendors say that profit margins are not very high, they are happy to see foodies making a beeline at their carts. The peak sales hours are between 7pm and 10pm, though you can savour them anytime between 5pm and 11pm. However, for the men behind the carts, the day begins at around 10am. “The preparation takes around 3-5 hours, followed by the ‘decking up’ of the cart for daily business,” informs Rizwan. Ask him for the ingredients and he reveals a wide range: “Raw banana, khatahal, gulars, chana dal, masur dal, soyabean and some other items for garnishing.” The end result is succulent kebabs whose each bite is relished by umpteen foodies.

While Harmeet says that veg rolls and biryani started gaining popularity in the city about two-three years back, they have become a roadside rage only in the last 6-7 months. “Earlier, the trend was restricted to the markets of Alambagh and Charbagh. But now, these carts are omnipresent, and interestingly, most of them are doing reasonably well,” he said even as he extended a plate of biryani to a waiting customer.

The cuisine has come on the wedding menu as well. It’s almost common now to find a stall of vegetable kebabs in any wedding in the city and guests relishing it with full satisfaction.

So, next time if you happen to smell the aroma of the “roadside cuisine”, do not just stop and ogle at the carts. Go ahead and take a bite, for missing out on it would deprive you of the culinary delight.

Vijay Chopra