16 villages, 15 km on foot: A day in the countryside at an altitude of 1800 m

Virtual campaigning is futile in Ranikhet in Uttarakhand, the scenic hill town nestled in the Himalayas. Located around 1,800 meters above sea level, internet connectivity here is poor and often dependent on clear weather conditions.

Constituency BJP candidate Pramod Nainwal (50) found this out the hard way. With physical gatherings and roadshows banned due to the pandemic, it relies on village-to-village campaigns.

“In places like Ranikhet, virtual campaigning is not an option. We’ve tried twice to hold virtual events, but it just doesn’t work here. There is no internet. Twice we planned a virtual Prime Minister’s rally, but rains and snowfall ruined our plans,” he says.

And so, the BJP leader’s day starts at 4am. After a breakfast of sabzi-roti and coffee, he leaves his house, all wrapped up in a saffron kurta, a green sweater, a traditional Uttarakhandi cap and a pair of Adidas shoes. By night, he wants to cover 16 villages to achieve his goal of 178 villages that fall under the Ranikhet Vidhan Sabha.

Uttarakhand votes on February 14 to elect its next state assembly.

“I have to physically go through every village and touch every house. In case there are a few villages very close to each other, we organize a small jan sabha and invite them all to one place,” Nainwal says after speaking at a small gathering in the village of Matela Manihar, his first step of the day.

The cold weather and the terrain don’t make it an easy trip. “In one day, we all cover about 90 to 100 km, of which about 15 to 20 km on foot… A few days ago there was also heavy snowfall and all the roads were covered with ice. Campaigning at such a time is a Herculean task,” says Aman Joshi, Nainwal’s brother-in-law who travels with him. Throughout the day, Nainwal – a doctor of law – is followed by his aides and supporters. Loudspeakers mounted on the SUV he is traveling in are playing a campaign song for the BJP: “Jo Ram ko laaye hain, hum unko layenge, duniya me phir se hum bhagwa lehrayenge”.

Yet Nainwal has an even tougher electoral battle. He is battling incumbent MP Karan Mahara, the two-time Congress legislator who was again chosen by the opposition party.

The BJP leader, who fought and lost the 2017 Assembly elections from the seat as an independent, is betting on anti-incumbency against Mahara – the same factor the BJP is likely to struggle with in the State.

Aware of the risk, Nainwal continues his day.

Early morning gatherings are rare, with only 20-25 people present, but Naniwal’s convoy picks up the pace. In the afternoon, nearly 100 people gathered to hear him in the village of Jaina. He gives a short speech in the Kumaoni language and asks his audience to remember that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the one who provided free Covid-19 vaccines in addition to the Rs 6,000 given to farmers every year under the PM scheme Kisan Samman Nidhi. The only way to thank the Prime Minister is to press the “lotus”, he said.

Regular stops in the villages are also an opportunity to recruit members for the BJP or at least to ask them to take a symbolic oath of support for the party, but not everyone is convinced.

“Nainwal is my distant relative and that is why he asked me to symbolically join the party. Membership here means wearing a BJP garland and scarf. I’m not going to tell him no, but that doesn’t change anything. My vote is in my heart,” says Deewan Singh Mehra, 72, owner of a kirana shop in Saula village.

“Here’s my vote,” Mehra says, pointing to a passing Congressional campaign vehicle. He adds that Mahara has done a lot for the village while the BJP-led state government has done little to alleviate the unemployment problem of the residents.

As night sets in and the winding roads empty, Nainwal, visibly tired, finds himself about 60 km from his residence with two more villages to go.

“It’s something that’s going to continue until late at night. I go to bed around 1 a.m. and I still have to get up at 4 a.m.,” he says, stepping forward.

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