It chugged in days ahead of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. Almost a month later, the Amb Andaura-New Delhi Vande Bharat Express is not short of either passengers or political debates.
As the train pulls in at 1.18 pm on November 8, a Tuesday, four days to go for voting, one passenger shouts out to another: “Modi di train aa gayi, Modi di train aa gayi (Modi’s train has come, Modi’s train has come).” Then he adds an afternoon afterthought: “I have to go to Anandpur Sahib, but this is an expensive train.”
Anandpur Sahib is one of the four halts of the train, the others being Una, Chandigarh and Ambala.
Inside, the train has been given a local touch with all the staff, from the travelling ticket examiner to other Railway employees, sporting the Himachali cap.
Ashok Kashyap, 62, an industrialist from Dharamshala, is on his way to New Delhi from Amb Andaura with his wife Nisha, 54. Kashyap believes the BJP will win three-four seats in his part of Kangra district.
He also completely agrees with the BJP’s poll slogan of “double-engine government”, adding that development will be stalled if some other party comes to power in Himachal. “I’ll vote for the BJP only because of Modi,” Kashyap adds.
Kamal Padha, 65, a retired businessman, is about to chime in, but decides not to, after his wife seems to dissuade him.
Subhash Chander Baba, a senior citizen from Delhi, says he wants to convey his plight to Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. “Although a new platform has been constructed at the Una railway station, the height of the existing platform should be increased. For people like me, it is difficult to climb the train steps from such a low surface. The platform is open, it should be covered as well,” he says.
Baba is all praise for the train itself, gushing “waah-waah”. “It’s a time-saving train.”
Saksham Bhardwaj, 23, employed at an IT firm, belongs to Basdehra village in Una Sadar constituency. Earphones plugged in, he removes them before conveying his support for the BJP too. “Our BJP candidate Satpal Singh Satti lost last time, but he was the one who did development work in our locality. Congress candidate Satpal Singh Raizada made an appearance only recently,” says Bhardwaj.
Satpal Saini, 70, and Pawan Sharma, 62, are engaged in a lively discussion. Saini is from Ajnouli village which falls in Kutlehar constituency. He is a village pradhan and a BJP supporter. But he is not happy with BJP candidate Virender Kanwar, who is a minister in the Jai Ram Thakur government. “The Congress is likely to win. Kanwar doesn’t have good coordination with party workers.Usne chand workers ko thekedar bana rakha hai (He promotes a select few workers). But it’s not a matter of choice for me, I will vote for the BJP.”
Sharma, a businessman from Baganal village in Chintpurni constituency, says he is confused about which party will win. “But one thing is certain, the BJP will pay a heavy price for sidelining Shanta (Kumar) and (Prem Kumar) Dhumal. The situation is tight and the results will be unexpected,” he says, also calling himself a BJP voter.
As Saini and Sharma target Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, a defence personnel, from Nagrota Bagwan, jumps in, calling him “useless and ineffective”.
Pause, a pregnant pause, which gets extended as lunch is served — of shahi paneer, daal, mixed vegetables, curd, rice, paranthas and pickle, with rabri as sweet dish.
Refreshed, Manish Syal, 40, who is from Hamirpur and works in the Mumbai diamond market, is all praise for Vande Bharat. “I feel the BJP is coming back to power. The Congress is not focused,” he says.
Mukesh Mehra, 48, is from Palampur. Clearly a fan of Vande Bharat, he boarded it at Amb while his driver took his car to Delhi. However, Mehra is the rare Congress voter on the train. “The Modi government is good, this train is good, but I’ll vote for the Congress because I have been supporting that party right from the beginning,” he says.
Rajesh Sharma, 40, a Palampur-based businessman, feels similarly. “Yeh badhiya train hai (This is a great train). But this time, the Congress is coming to power since Himachal has a trend of changing governments every five years.”
About development work, Sharma says that’s not a qualifier for him. “Every government does development work. Take Atal Tunnel, for example. Both BJP and Congress governments have been associated with the project.”
But Kashmir Singh, 68, from Una, believes the BJP has performed better. “There is a development push under the Modi government,” he says.
A mantri or the Mukhya Mantri may draw flak, but the Pradhan Mantri? Not a murmur against Modi.
But, even on the Vande Bharat, like in democracy, there is a space for Independents. Karan Sharma, 28, from Moin village in Jaswan Pragpur constituency, who works in real estate, plans to vote for Sanjay Parashar, an Independent. However, that has a twist. Sharma, who claims family relations with Union minister Anurag Thakur, says: “If Sanjay Parashar wins, I know he will ultimately join the BJP.”