Elementary facts, complex picture
A journey through the dusty roads of Uttar Pradesh : Religions, castes, benefits, and aspirations in the fray trump psephology
I am not in the business of predicting who will win and who will lose before the elections are even held. The psephologists pore over detailed past data of wins and losses, constituency by constituency, then make sample surveys and probability calculations.
Then, in the end, the actual results mysteriously beat all the predictions. How come? The answer comes from the myriad complexity of the Indian socio-economic scene. But let me tell you the story of meeting people in the course of their everyday life and what they are thinking about the elections in Uttar Pradesh in Bagpet-Muzaffarnagar belt.
The small sweetmeats shop alongside the dusty road to Bagpet town in western Uttar Pradesh was doing brisk business right in the morning. Inside, boxes of sweets were being dispatched, while teas and milk were being served to those who are dropping by.
One of these was Dr. Sandeep, a young man who asked for his glass of milk and sweets before he goes to town for his dental clinic. Despite prodding, he refused to reveal his family name. He is a dentist and has his own chamber. Joining a conversation on the forthcoming elections, he was rather guarded how the "chamars" would vote. He insisted that they would go by their own conscience, while proclaiming that he was a "chamar" himself, to authenticate his views about his community's voting.
The owner of the shop, at the other end, insisted that his "samaj" i.e., the Jats would all go for BJP. For him, BJP has become equated with "Modi" and Jats, despite having two rival candidates from their community, would still go for the latter. The Jat shipowner maintained that all the OBCs and other backward classes would also vote for "Modi".
Three shops away in the village iron smithy, where farm equipment to shovels and scythes were prominently displayed, a couple of people were whiling away their time, awaiting their morning business. They greeted us strangers with a blend of suspicion and curiosity, giving rather bland replies to our questions on possible voting patterns in the area.
People would vote according to their own calculations about who would be winning, said Mohammad Ghafoor. The shop-owner was obviously a cautious man. But as a motley crowd gathered fast, some ventured out with their stronger views. What really is the state of the ordinary people, questioned Alam, a man with strong hands and contorted fingers from years of hard physical labour.
There are hardly any good doctors, and if you go to Delhi they would ask for Aadhaar number and they shoo you out suggesting you go to district hospitals, said Mohammad Iqbal. Quota rice and wheat given out at a concessional price are hardly worth human consumption. The litany of woes was getting longer, by when others joined in including Sharmaji, who was a brahmin and another Singh, being a Jat, to voice their views on inadequacies.
The conviviality of the village iron smithy was no distant thing. It was for us to feel sitting on the rough benches and "charpoys" laid out in front of the inadequate shop. Sharmaji or Sigh felt they would all go for their Jat candidate of the gathbandhan. There was a consensus that the Muslims would do the same and go for the rainbow coalition candidate.
As we hit the road again, we were waylaid by a few strapping young men waving us to stop. Obviously, our — some outsiders – movements were closely monitored. They led us through an iron gate into a courtyard where a group of men were sitting around a hookah with a long upright stem and a longer smoking pipe, taking a drag in turn.
There were sturdy young men as well as older senior members whose general behaviour and conversing stance was conveying a sense of overbearing confidence. They were the Jats.
They welcomed us into their charmed circle and offered "cold machine water," that is, from the water purifying units. Obviously not the down and out variety, the assembled Jats were occupying the top echelon of the local society and economy.
For them, the turning point of politics was the Muzzafarnagar riots some five years back when the then Akhilesh Yadav rulers had arrested many prominent Jats and created other difficulties in their way. But then, there were other issues. They are now getting good prices for their cane harvests and the money is coming directly into their bank accounts.
They are also getting electricity most of the time and farmers do not have to keep awake to turn on their pumps at 2 O'clock in the night when power would suddenly come for a little while. Now they are getting electricity most of the day and night.
And then, law and order have improved. You do not have to worry about the safety of your family members when they go out. Women could also venture out and go round for their work. Some money had flown into their bank accounts from the government as well.
Here was a complex scenario where castes and creed would influence their thinking on who to vote, superimposed on that the economic benefits that were coming and the expectations of what should come in the immediate future.
Given the layers of segregation into their little social boxes, their variety of vested interests, the social and religious fault lines and within that caste-based sense of identity, one has to be really audacious to anticipate the results of the forthcoming elections. But yet in the dusty haze, it is possible to delineate some broad trends.
This election is showing a split between those who are gaining from the rising prosperity in the countryside and those who are not. But at least in the eight constituencies of western UP, the number of those who are gaining from the system are not inconsequential. There is a huge block of people who are rising and have developed a stake in systemic stability.
The omnipresent cane growers of the region are a case in point: the annual inflow from cane is not something to be scoffed at. In Bagpet alone, cane purchases run up to Rs 350 crore a year. In addition, there are other avenues for work.
Secondly, Modi has emerged as a leader with his image head, neck and shoulder above the rest of the pack of political leaders. A sequence of this is the diminution of BJP as a political party. If the election is won it is the credit of Modi if it is lost it goes personally to his discredit.
One is almost goaded to recall India's past political history not many years back.
Over forty years ago, a Congress president of the day, Deb Kanta Barooah, had coined a slogan "India is Indira" and "Indira is India". Indira Gandhi did not have a particularly endearing political record after those heady days of fulsome flattery. No one has gone to that extent just now. However, Modi appears to be inching towards this larger-than-life image and not surprisingly evoking extreme feelings. There are those who are intensely antipathetic, just as those who are swearing by him.
Thirdly, "economism" is a major underlying current in determining the results of this election. The cooking gas connections in the kitchens of those who could not have imagined of this facility or the toilets have done their bit of public relations, however much denigrated.
In the end, the Indian elections have become a story of aspirations of the people and the aspirational demands are trickling down the social ladder. To the extent these are fulfilled, it will bring dividends. If these aspirations are unmet it will come back with a bang.
If UP is a microcosm of northern India —rather north of the Vindhyas— then the short visit reveals the complex fabric of society which is exercising its franchise rights: Here you witness diversity, unity, antipathy and sectarian loyalty all of which are running parallel in the polity. The election results will be the sum total of these contradictory forces and that is our India.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)