Tales of the chowkidar

The chowkidar is, quite unfortunately, not the most loved or respected entity in Indian society. Examples of this are everywhere. Before the 1980s, the Railway Protection Force (RPF) worked like chowkidars and were regarded as the “watch and ward” staff with weak discipline and uncertain judicial grounding. If an IPS officer was appointed to the RPF, it was considered a demotion – the officer had to make it a point to tell his visitors that he was, indeed, a senior police officer. All this changed when the RPF was turned into an armed force of the Union and on par with the rest of the police forces. The watchman, less-than-desirable as a role, let alone a career, finally, acquired the status of a policeman.

Night watchman

In common understanding, the chowkidar conjures up the idea of a night watchman, the one who is supposed to stand guard through the still of the night – less as an armed sentry and more as a signal to the passing thief to go elsewhere because someone is watching this gate. The sound he creates is supposed to act like a pre-emptive strike. Traditionally, the only equipment he carries is a lathi with which to beat the ground, the emanating sound is also offered as proof that he is awake and on duty through the night. Most chowkidars though tend not to stay awake at night.

This is because the modern-day chowkidars working across housing societies and in many other establishments are actually a sorry lot. They do an assortment of duties – from checking the building’s water supply to ferrying household goods to washing cars and watching the main gate – and routinely work 12-hour shifts without any break.

Given the BJP’s well-oiled machinery, its better preparedness for the polls and a more organised management of its media presence, the chowkidar campaign may well go through. Yet, there are already some indications that the approach is producing some unexpected fallouts – from the laughable when every BJP minister appears to have added the salutary chowkidar as a prefix to their names, to the Congress which had to do nothing more than call out Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya as fellow chowkidars of the Prime Minister.

Usually, the system forbids them from leaving the workstation until the next person on the duty roster takes charge, and if that does not happen, then the duty extends to 24 hours and more. This then is not the candidate who can keep up the guard. The watchman naturally and regularly sleeps on duty, a concession many employers seem to allow because, well, what is the way out? They are paid a pittance, work multiple shifts and sleep has become an allowance that now seems to come with the job. As the newly posted New Delhi correspondent of the Washington Post once wrote in his paper about the person who guarded his house: “But like most Indian chowkidars, I discovered not long after my arrival in India, he is incorrigibly somnolent.”

Chowkidar is answerable

All of which acquires a very different connotation when the role of the Prime Minister of the country is compared to that of the chowkidar. This is more so because should something go wrong, the question has to be and will be asked of the chowkidar, and he usually would not have the liberty to say that the responsibility lies with the previous chowkidar. But since one highlight of the current chowkidar is to point to the previous ones on duty, way back to the time the nation won independence from the British, one wonders how the election campaign of the incumbent will square up with how people treat chowkidars when a theft actually takes place.

In 2014, Narendra Modi related well to the ordinary chaiwallah, and was ably- supported by the Congress party’s rather erudite and overrated Mani Shanker Aiyer, who did him the favour of mocking that humble role. Modi had only to say one simple line: chai hi to becche hai, desh to nahi beccha. (I sold tea, not the nation). He of course romped home. This time won’t be as easy.

The campaign is well underway but is fraught. Given the BJP’s well-oiled machinery, its better preparedness for the polls and a more organised management of its media presence, the chowkidar campaign may well go through. There surely will be the coming of the second and the third and further rounds of the campaign, which will build on the initial push. Yet, there are already some indications that the approach is producing some unexpected fallouts – from the laughable when every BJP minister appears to have added the salutary chowkidar as a prefix to their names, to the Congress which had to do nothing more than call out Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya as fellow chowkidars of the Prime Minister.

String of allegations

The campaign has been chosen by the BJP at a time the allegations surrounding the Rafale deal are still in court, and can spring a nasty surprise. Further, the head of the group involved in the follow-on contracts in the case is Anil Ambani, who also is in the news for avoiding what looked like an imminent jail sentence in another case with Ericsson. More noise has come in from Nirav Modi, the scamster who did what no one else has done in the history of Indian banking by literally walking away with more than USD one billion. He has been caught on camera by an ordinary looking-journalist of The Telegraph newspaper of the UK while the government here is still struggling to respond to his escape from Indian soil. Vijay Mallya sits pretty meanwhile in rural England.

In 2014, Narendra Modi related well to the ordinary chaiwallah, and was ably- supported by the Congress party’s rather erudite and overrated Mani Shanker Aiyer, who did him the favour of mocking that humble role. Modi had only to say one simple line: chai hi to becche hai, desh to nahi beccha. (I sold tea, not the nation). He of course romped home. This time won’t be as easy.

The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)