POLITICS
08/05/2018 8:03 AM IST | Updated 08/05/2018 8:04 AM IST

A 48-Year-Old Engineer Is Leading AAP's Campaign In Karnataka Elections

"I'm fighting to win."

Indrani Basu
Aam Aadmi Party state convener Prithvi Reddy poses for a photograph in Bengaluru, Karnataka on May 3, 2018.

BENGALURU, Karnataka -- Prithvi Reddy is a man constantly on the move. Every morning, the 48-year-old wakes up at the crack of dawn to go meet morning walkers at 6.30 am and urge them to vote for him. The convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Karnataka is taking on one of state's most powerful politicians — Congress' K.J. George — by contesting from the Sarvagnanagar constituency in northeast Bengaluru in the upcoming state polls. George hasn't lost an election here in a decade and was elected from the area twice earlier when it was called Bharathinagar constituency. How does Reddy expect to defeat such a strong contender?

"I'm fighting to win," he told HuffPost India during a hurried interview in between his various campaign meetings. "I know it's an uphill task," he added in the same breath.

That's putting it mildly. Sarvagnanagar is one of the 225 constituencies in Karnataka and over a dozen candidates, including the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) M.N. Reddy and Janata Dal (Secular)'s Anwar Sharieff, are contesting in the area. It has a history of recording one of the worst voter turnouts in the state — just over half of the 2.8 lakh electors bothered to vote in the last state election as opposed to the state average of 71.83 per cent. The constituency comprises of mostly minorities — Muslims and Christians make up the majority of voters and hundreds of mosques and churches dot the area. Voters here have continued to elect a Congress representative for years. It is also part of Bangalore Central, one of the 28 Lok Sabha constituencies in Karnataka, represented by BJP MP P.C. Mohan. The electoral fight has been traditionally between Congress and BJP, with the former firmly holding the upper hand in state elections.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Minister of Development and Planning KJ George on March 23, 2018 in Bengaluru, India.

The constituency's incumbent MLA, 71-year-old George, is the minister for Bengaluru development and town planning under the present Congress government. He has been accused of corruption, land-grabbing, and abetment to suicide of a senior police officer. Yet, he was recently rated the top incumbent MLA in Bengaluru and won the previous election with a comfortable margin of over 20,000 votes. His closest rival at the time, the BJP's Padmanabhan Reddy, is not contesting in the constituency this time. Instead, BJP has given the ticket to M.N. Reddy, chairman of the Ayodhya Ram Temple Complex, who made news last month by transporting a 62-feet Hanuman statue to a disputed land, and accusing George of being "anti-Hindu" when he opposed it.

It appears to be a pretty straightforward match between two parties, with George as the clear frontrunner. But not if Prithvi Reddy has anything to do with it.

"It is a very polarised constituency and we are selling a product not offered before."

His decision to take on such a strong opponent was fueled by his belief that George "represented everything that is wrong with politics today," he said. He was referring to the various allegations of crony capitalism against George, who is a multi-millionaire businessman with a penthouse apartment in a tony Bengaluru neighbourhood. Reddy, meanwhile, is a mechanical engineer who worked overseas for a few years before returning to Bengaluru to run his family business. This is his first time contesting in an election.

"The impact of defeating one K.J. George sends out a very strong signal," said Reddy. "It is a very polarised constituency and we are selling a product not offered before."

In the last election, almost half the votes in the constituency went to Congress, while BJP won a third of the votes. The BJP candidate this year has a clear Hindutva appeal and George enjoys a huge following among Christians in the area. Muslims afraid of the BJP's Hindu-first campaign have traditionally voted for Congress. Reddy hopes that he would be able to win over some of both the Congress and BJP voters by offering a non-ideological alternative. His door-to-door outreach programs, cycle rides down Sarvagnanagar neighbourhoods, and campaign rallies where middle-class supporters flank his sides are all efforts towards targeting every voter in the area.

Indrani Basu
Prithvi Reddy with AAP volunteers during a campaign rally in HBR layout in Bengaluru, Karnataka, on May 3, 2018.

The AAP strategy since its formation in 2012 has been to appeal to a large disaffected middle class, promising a non-ideological corruption-free government. In New Delhi, where the party successfully formed government twice, it has focused on healthcare and education. Reddy's approach in Karnataka, where AAP has fielded 29 candidates (with 11 just in Bengaluru), is similar. In pamphlets distributed by him and his team in door-to-door visits across the Sarvagnanagar constituency, photos provided a visual comparison of schools and hospitals offered by Karnataka and Delhi governments. Voters could save thousands of rupees each year at schools and hospitals if they gave "honest politics" a chance, the pamphlets claimed. In speeches and rallies leading up to the election, he repeatedly stressed on transparency and accountability in governance, hoping to ride on an anti-corruption wave.

Despite being a first-time candidate, he has a clear goal for the constituency and a blueprint on how to achieve it. In a detailed manifesto, Reddy has promised government schools in every ward, mohalla clinics for primary healthcare, and improvements in traffic congestion, water supply, and garbage disposal. Plans for solving unique problems of each area in the constituency are described in his manifesto. Reddy has been endorsed by Justice Santosh Hegde, formerly of the Karnataka Lokayukta; Admiral Ramdas, a Param Vishist Seva and Vir Chakra awardee; freedom fighter HS Doreswamy; and former Supreme Court chief justice M.N. Venkatachaliah.

Indrani Basu
Prithvi Reddy during a door-to-door campaign to meet voters at Sarvagnanagar constituency.

Meanwhile, dozens of AAP volunteers from Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha and New Delhi have travelled to Karnataka, helping Reddy and his 28 other colleagues campaign in the constituencies they are contesting. One such volunteer is 59-year-old Rosie D'Souza, a housewife from Mumbai who is helping Reddy campaign in Bengaluru. D'Souza, who was a Congress voter all her life, changed her allegiance after AAP was formed. "I liked what I saw and I just joined in support," she said, distributing party pamphlets in HBR Layout, where Reddy was on a padyatra (campaign on foot) on Thursday.

Vicky, 35, had come from a little further away. The freelance wedding photographer lives with his wife in Texas in the United States of America, but travelled to Bengaluru to support Reddy and the AAP, he told HuffPost India. "I contacted Prithvi on Facebook and decided to do this for the sake of my country," he said, adding that he was originally from Hyderabad. The photographer arrived last month and planned to stay until the election results were announced on May 15. He also helped manage social media pages for AAP, he said.

Indrani Basu
Mohammad Javeed has volunteered his auto for the AAP Karnataka campaign.

Meanwhile, others like auto driver Mohammad Javeed had spontaneously joined in support. AAP posters were plastered on his auto, and a loudspeaker mounted on top. "Even this bottle of water is bought by me," he said, pointing at a plastic bottle near his feet. "Other parties offer you biryani and money but I am helping them because they are a good party and the next generation should not suffer like we have."

AAP's efforts to expand out of Delhi have had little success so far: the party won 20 seats in Punjab in the 2016 state elections, but drew a blank in both Goa and Gujarat last year. AAP gave up its plans to contest in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, but announced an ambitious campaign in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, where polls are expected to take place in November this year.

So is the party taking a leaf out of its successful campaign in New Delhi for the Karnataka polls? Yes and no, said Reddy.

"Karnataka is very big (compared to Delhi)," he told HuffPost India. "We are being realistic and hoping to get a few people elected."

Indrani Basu
AAP volunteers distribute pamphlets in Bengaluru.

For Reddy, this means wasting no opportunity to meet voters for hours each day, or strategising with party colleagues. Whether this means dashing off to various neighbourhoods to deliver pamphlets, meeting with local Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) to listen to their concerns, sitting in panels with civil society members and social activists or simply cycling around introducing himself to voters — he is leaving no stone unturned. His days, which typically begin with his 6.30 am visits to parks, end with RWA meetings and discussions at night at private homes of residents.

At a resident-organised debate with other candidates of the constituency on Saturday, Reddy was well-spoken and thoughtful in his responses. His sharp and concise answers to the residents' questions exhibited a smart understanding of the constituency, winning him cheers from the assembled crowd. His nemesis, George, meanwhile skipped the debate altogether, citing other commitments.

However, Reddy knows this does not win an election. "Many people are concerned that AAP won't form a government here so their vote will be a waste," he said. "To them, we are trying to say vote for local-level change."

Indrani Basu
Candidates contesting at the Sarvagnanagar constituency participate in a debate organised by residents on May 5, 2018.

If AAP manages to win any seats in Karnataka, it would help the party exhibit how things can improve, said the party's campaign manager in Karnataka, Basavanth, a 38-year-old who works as a chief design officer with IT companies. He has taken all his accumulated leave — 35 days — to help with the party campaign. "Once we have some MLAs here, people will see how quick access models will work well," he said. "We can create model constituencies."

Many others like Basavanth have taken time off their daily lives to lend support to the party. Sangeeth Samuel, for instance, works as a director for a Bengaluru-based co-working space and has volunteered for the AAP campaign.

"I'm just a tired citizen," he said.

On the campaign trail, Reddy is being called 'Bangalore's Kejriwal'. How does he feel about the moniker? He takes it as a compliment, he said, but it's an unfair comparison.

"I think I'm Prithvi Reddy," he said, just before rushing off to another meeting.