This project is an exploration of politics by way of a food-cart-by-food-cart stumble through Delhi.  Here in Delhi, election season is in full swing.  Like any democracy, that makes this the year of the common man.  Narendra Modi, candidate of the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, perfects this.  Modi is a fascinating portmanteau of political archetypes, an up-by-his-bootstraps success story with his party’s finger pointed at an ethnic minority.

Modi used to sell tea—a chai-wallah—in a bus station in Gujarat, the state he now governs.   This February, he will be broadcasting live into a thousand tea stalls across the country, selling his own image while presumably also helping others sell some tea.  For those who buy the narrative that he promotes, he offers the promise of unshackling India from the lingering bonds of the Nehruvian welfare state.  He conjures a neoliberal wet dream of deregulation and limitless growth.  To his detractors, Modi is a demagogue and even a criminal.  In 2002, when he was Chief Minister, he condoned, and some think facilitated, riots that left as many as 2,000 people—mostly Muslim—dead.   But for those who carry less concern for the past—or for India’s Muslim minority of 176 million—and more concern for their own futures, Modi’s success could be everyone’s.

Part of Modi’s story is the flux and polarization of the economy.  Here in Delhi, wealth is increasingly apparent.  Shiny Range Rovers cruise alongside autorickshaws and mopeds, past barefoot pedestrians and beggars.  New restaurants serve increasingly globalized cuisine at increasingly globalized prices.  Despite this, for every new upscale restaurant, there are a dozen street carts offering affordable meals to the vast majority of India’s population, the yet-to-be-success stories. 

This project—its method and ethos—was inspired by an interaction I had at a food cart.  I sat down for tea at a kebab stall situated in the bureaucratic heart of central Delhi.  The stall was adorned with two posters, one proclaiming it “Lucknow’s best kebab,” the other of Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s perennial first man.  Like many cities, most people in Delhi are from somewhere else.  The stall’s owner, Sarfaraz, was no exception.  His grandfather made kebabs in Lucknow.  Sarfaraz’s father started selling tea on trains, but died young, and Sarfaraz came to Delhi alone as a teenager seeking work, eventually combining his family’s tea-kebab skill set in this cart.

Mouth full of kebab, I asked him what he thought of Modi.  Bad for Muslims, he replied.  But he conceded that his fellow chai-wallah had worked hard, contrasting him with Rahul Gandhi, the opposition candidate.   A diplomatic response, particularly from a Muslim who has every right to be suspicious of Modi.

I switched topics to the other poster, asking what his favorite Bachchan movie was.  “Deewar,” he replied.  In this 1975 film, Bachchan’s character struggles and succeeds against the odds of his childhood.   Bachchan gives the impression of taking on the world—cigarette in hand, monotone and ready to fight—and winning.   What irony, I thought, for Bachchan’s character exudes the very same freedom and complete self-fashioning that so powerfully attracts people to Modi.

My goal is to understand and explain Modi’s rise.  In a few months, India is going to cast one of the most important votes in recent memory.  With a large Muslim minority, and sitting right next to predominantly Muslim Pakistan, India may be on the verge of electing a party whose prominent affiliates have gone so far as to promote Hindu terrorism, praise Hitler, and say of Muslims that “they are spreading like a cancer and should be operated on like a cancer.”  (This statement was made by Bal Thackeray.)

I begin with a series of basic premises:  everyone eats, everyone (even the wealthy) eats street food, and people tend to speak their mind truthfully when queried over kebab.  I add to this one more premise:  that understanding each other is important in an increasingly populous, connected world. 

This project is a biopic of Modi written through the lens of the stories of those who will cast a vote for or against him—folks like Sarfaraz.  In that spirit, and with the above premises in mind, I will eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next six weeks at street carts, talking to every Tanya, Deepak, and Harish willing to share their story and opinion over kebabs, dosas, or chai.    I will knit this together into the larger tapestry of Modi’s personal story and contemporary Indian politics and economics.

Photo by Carol Mitchell, Creative Commons License.