Former migrant worker contests state elections in India, with focus on unemployment

Women form an integral part of the electoral campaign machinery for Mr Sanjay Sahni.
Women form an integral part of the electoral campaign machinery for Mr Sanjay Sahni.PHOTO: ROADSCHOLARZ/TWITTER

NEW DELHI - Election speeches in India are mostly delivered by leaders on a dais and received by the masses that are assembled further away and below the platform. This separation between the hoi polloi and politicians is an abiding feature of electioneering in the country.

But when Sanjay Sahni addresses a crowd, he stands among them.

A former migrant worker, Mr Sahni is contesting state polls in Bihar next month as an independent candidate - his first electoral foray. He is mounting a political rebellion on behalf of migrant workers, like himself, and other rural poor, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and whose concerns, he feels, remain unaddressed by the state's political elite.

Mr Sahni, therefore, makes it a point to cast himself as one of the masses.

During a campaign drive in his Kurhani assembly constituency this month, he stood surrounded - mostly by women - in a narrow lane in Chandrahati village. Clutching a mic in his left hand and dressed in a loose-fitting untucked shirt and worn slippers, Mr Sahni, 39, made his fervent pitch.

"We have been giving political leaders our votes so far and ensuring they win each time. But from today onward, we are not going to let them win," he said.

"You make them win but they don't work for you. They indulge in politicking and work for big corporations, not for the public.

"This time, poor labourers are getting together to fight the election. We want to win this time, not hand another win to political leaders," Mr Sahni added, further blurring the divide between himself - the candidate - and his potential voters.

Indian democracy, despite the many foibles that make it an inequitable battleground, throws up uplifting stories of grassroots mobilisation where the marginalised take the political centre stage. Mr Sahni, who worked as an electrician in Delhi until 2012 and has now plunged himself into state-level politics, is one such example.


Migrant workers and rural workers are pitching in with their support for Mr Sanjay Sahni. PHOTO: ROADSCHOLARZ/TWITTER

His candidature has brought focus on one of Bihar's - and even the country's - biggest challenges today: unemployment.

A recent survey found that 54 per cent of its respondents felt unemployment was the "main issue" for Biharis. The state, which has an unemployment rate higher than the national average, saw more than 1.5 million migrant workers return home during the lockdown, further compounding this problem.

Mr Sahni was drawn to social activism, which led him to give up his work in Delhi, after he heard of problems encountered by locals in his village in securing work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a government programme that assures at least 100 days of paid work per year for rural residents.

"It was a fluke," he told The Straits Times on the phone from Ratnauli, his village in Bihar. The conversation was repeatedly interrupted by a steady stream of visitors, even though it was just 7.30am on Saturday (Oct 24) morning.

His activism grew over the years. He has helped locals in rural Bihar access several government services and has empowered them to demand accountability and fight widespread graft that diverts public financing meant for the poor.

However, this has come at a heavy price. His household finances were poised precariously until he received a monthly fellowship of 15,000 rupees (S$275) in 2015. It has even drawn the state's ire: He has been arrested and continues to face charges, including for obstructing the work of government officials and caste atrocities. He denies them all.

This track record has helped cement his reputation among locals as someone who stands up for them. "We are not being allowed to work, we are not given our rights and when we sit at protests, we are put in jail," he told ST. "How long should we remain quiet? "

A recent analysis by People's Action for Employment Guarantee, a civil society group, found that Bihar had one of the highest unmet work demand levels under NREGA. The percentage of people who demanded employment under this Act but did not receive it was as high as 24.24 per cent.

This disillusioned the locals and convinced them that one among them had to take up the political gauntlet. "It was decided that one should represent us at the state assembly, while we continue protests on the streets," Mr Sahni said. That responsibility was passed on to him by locals who often refer to him as the "NREGA-wale bhaiyya" (NREGA brother), inspired by the work he has put in for them.

His intervention to secure help for thousands of stranded Bihari labourers in different parts of India during the lockdown further reinforced his public standing. "My phone (number) had gone viral among migrant workers during the lockdown. They thought it was a government helpline number," he added.

Not surprisingly, it is migrant labourers and their families, along with other locals, who form the backbone of his campaign outreach. People are pitching in whatever way they can - including through donating rice and wheat. Migrant workers who cannot return to vote are also telling their families in Kurhani to vote for him.

An ongoing online crowdfunding initiative to fund his campaign has raised around 730,000 rupees of the targeted two million. A team of like-minded activists from other parts of the country are also canvassing on his behalf.

Mr Sahni, who has a grade 7 education, acknowledges that he cannot match the political or financial muscle of his rivals. "But I have something that they don't have: public support," he said.

One of his foot soldiers is Mr Vikas Kumar, 25, a migrant worker from Ratnauli. He worked in Mumbai as a tailor until the lockdown in March when the daily wage earner had to stop working. Stranded, he reached out to Mr Sahni, who helped arrange support for him and his four other roommates.

Besides food, they also received financial assistance that allowed them to return home in May. "He supported us through a really difficult time," Mr Kumar told ST, explaining his decision to support Mr Sahni's campaign.

He now spends time telling locals about the work Mr Sahni has done to help migrant workers as well as those during the July-August floods in Bihar.

Migrant workers and locals from the region are especially drawn to Mr Sahni's resolve to create jobs in Bihar, the lack of which has forced them to migrate. "He has been a migrant worker like us, which is why he understands our pain and promptly steps in to support us," added Mr Kumar, who is currently unemployed.

"When he says he will give us jobs, he means it."

Can a poor labourer also sit in the state assembly? This is the key theme often heard in his campaign speeches.

"Just posing that question itself is important," said Mr Nikhil Dey, a founding member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a grassroots organisation that has campaigned for causes such as guaranteed rural employment and the right to information.

"It is important to question why the electoral process is so skewed against someone (like Sahni) who is committed, has organisational backing and wants to follow an ethical process."

He described Mr Sahni's decision to contest the election as "courageous". Most social activists tend to stay away from electoral politics as they fear a loss could weaken their public standing that was painstakingly built during long years of activism.

"But irrespective of whether you win or not, it is a victory if you manage to bring electoral focus to the issues you fought for, including setting an example of how one can campaign with a commitment to ethical practice" he added.

While asserting that he is going to win, Mr Sahni acknowledges his electoral experience, irrespective of its outcome, has reinforced his campaign for the poor and marginalised, bringing greater focus on their plight.

"We will continue the struggle at a much larger scale because this is a small attempt that many of the current politicians may not want to succeed. But this will give us more strength and we will continue to fight," he added.