Indian comedian running against Modi says he’s not being allowed to file his papers

Indian comedian running against Modi says he’s not being allowed to file his papers

A comedian known for his viral impressions of Narendra Modi has accused officials of not allowing him to file the paperwork that will let him stand as an independent candidate against the prime minister in India’s mammoth general elections.

Stand-up comedian Shyam Rangeela, 29, had said he wanted to compete against the 73-year-old prime minister from the northern city of Varanasi, which has been Mr Modi’s constituency since 2014, but that his efforts to file nomination papers had been rejected by local election officials for the past three days running.

The holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh will go to the polls on the seventh and final day of voting in the election, which is spread across six weeks and involves almost a billion registered voters. Mr Modi is seeking a rare third term as prime minister and his Hindu nationalist BJP is widely expected to win a large majority, riding on a wave of populism and dog-whistle campaigning.

Mr Modi filed his nomination papers in the city on Tuesday morning, after offering prayers at the River Ganges, a spectacle which dominated all major Indian news channels for much of the day. The nomination centre was heavily fortified ahead of the prime minister’s arrival.

Mr Rangeela, a stand-up comedian who went viral on social media in 2017 for his impressions of Mr Modi, said he had lined up outside the nomination office on Friday, Monday, and again on Tuesday from morning until afternoon. A native of the western state of Rajasthan, he said he was not even allowed inside the office to wait to file his nomination, let alone submit his paperwork.

"[It was] not just mine, they are not accepting any other independent candidate’s nomination. They closed the doors at 3pm. I am still less troubled. Those who lined up at 8am have broken down and are crying. They have not eaten or drank water since morning, they are waiting till 3pm,” he said in a video shared on his social media accounts.

“The officials at the nomination office told us, ‘please understand’. Even they look helpless.”

Talking to The Independent in New Delhi before he left for Varanasi, Mr Rangeela said his decision to fight the elections stemmed from what he claimed was “unfairness and discrimination against political competition” in some of the big seats such as Surat in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate Mukesh Dalal was declared the uncontested winner from Surat after other eight candidates in the fray withdrew following the rejection of the Congress opposition party candidate Nilesh Kumbhani’s nomination. Local officials claimed Mr Kumbhani’s nomination was rejected due to discrepancies in signatures of his proposers, but several local opposition politicians have alleged serious cases of obstruction and police intimidation.

“Mr Modi is talking about taking 400 seats out of a total 543 constituency seats. He can take 450 seats also if he so desires. But if he gets even two like this (lack of option) in a democratic country, that is problematic because then you are taking away people’s right to vote,” Mr Rangeela told The Independent.

He argued that the people of India should have options at the time of election if Indian democracy is to thrive. He said he wanted to fill that void for voters, even if he did not have the political acumen to actually pose a threat to the prime minister.

“I see the entire country’s eyes there. I will address India from Varanasi by standing against Mr Modi. I want voters there to at least listen to me and cast their ballot. This is the beauty of democracy, let people enjoy choice,” Mr Rangeela said.

But when he reached Varanasi on Friday to file his nomination, he said he was not given a copy of the required form, and was made to wait in a queue for hours alongside other aspirants. He said other people who queued up with him were asked to present their government ID card, 10 people proposing their nomination, and submit their phone numbers for an official form.

Candidates filing their nominations need to have at least one proposer who must be a registered elector in the same constituency, according to the rules set out by the Election Commission.

Even on Tuesday, during his third hours-long attempt, Mr Rangeela said he was not allowed inside the office.

“I’ve seen democracy being strangled today, it has not been completely killed but I’ve seen democracy being strangled. They are not letting anyone enter the office,” he said in a video shared on his social media.

Mr Rangeela has not even considered the prospect of actually winning against the PM; he said he would regard it as a victory just to be able to run against him.

“I don’t need the votes being guarded by Mr Modi. All his devout voters can back him, and those wanting to vote for me can vote, but they should at least provide a name against him for a competitive option. There is no other name other than Mr Modi’s on the voting machine,” he said.

“Whichever political party you are from, I urge you to see how democracy is being slowly murdered,” he said.

The polling body officials at the Varanasi nomination office denied reports of discrimination against independent candidates, reported The Times of India.

They added that security measures had been scaled up to allow Mr Modi to file his nomination in person, with all the protocols followed.

Varanasi will not see Mr Modi run unopposed – for the third time running, his major competition in the city is set to be Ajay Rai from the opposition Congress party. In 2019 Congress came third in the constituency, with just over 152,000 votes compared to more than 195,000 for Shalini Yadav, representing the regional Samajwadi Party. Mr Modi secured more than 674,000 votes. Results this time around will be announced alongside the rest of the country’s on 4 June.