I have been on the road for three weeks in Uttar Pradesh and must have met hundreds of people. But, the most difficult conversation of my travel happened on the afternoon of February 28 in a thatched roof hut-cum-tea stall close to Azamgarh’s Latghat bazaar.
A broken man
An old man was sitting on a bed as we began discussing the state election. The picture was not clear, said the man, who looked to be in his early 70s.
I asked him what he thought of Akhilesh? “Look at the roads in Purvanchal. If he has done anything, it is for his area, not for us.”
What about jobs? “Yes, he created jobs — but only for his people, 60% of them have gone to Yadavs.”
Lal Chand said he wanted Mayawati back. “She knows how to run a government. When she is CM, police report for duty at 8am sharp. Now they start work at noon. She tackles goondai (lawlessness).”
One of the unfortunate realities of reporting from UP is that political views are often shaped by caste. And as much as I wanted to take his words on merit, I could not help ask his caste. “Chamar, but I am not saying this because of my biraadri.”
I asked him about his family. Chand said he had three sons, all of them bekar (unemployed). “They are bekar because I could not educate them. I did not have money for their uniform or fees.”
One of them works in a shop in a nearby bazaar, another is a driver and the third lives with Chand but is planning to go to Panipat in Haryana to work in a factory.
In these parts of India, like in others, employment still means a government job, a steady income.
Chand had no money because he had tried to set up a factory way back in 1984.
“But Bhumihars did not like that a Dalit was daring to do it. Meri maryada badh jaati (my status would have risen). They got the local police and goons to loot my property. I got stuck in a case, I lost my land and since then, all I have seen is garibi (poverty).”
His words came out in bits and pieces and I could not capture the exact sequence of events. But there was little doubt that his effort to improve his lot and break out of the caste mould devastated his life.
Tears flew freely as Lal Chand pleaded that the media should do something. I could only watch in silence.
Did he try to reach out to politicians? “I was a Congressi. Hemvati (Nandan) Bahuguna knew me, I had welcomed him here, but after that, I didn’t know anyone,” he said of the late UP chief minister.
Bahuguna was the chief minister from 1973 to 1975.
The local political dynamics had evolved, he said. Earlier it used to be only about Bhumihars but now Yadavs could take them on. But Dalits were still not in a position to assert themselves.
Chand’s story is that of the persistent structural violence in society, the enormous disadvantage a rural Dalit begins his life with, which passes down the generations. While there is some room for mobility for the younger lot, but the enduring feature is the loyalty the Dalits have for Mayawati.
The invisible women
A gaping hole in political coverage of UP — and I hold myself equally if not more guilty — is the voice of women voters.
We just don’t make enough effort to reach out to them, understand their aspirations and reflect their views. But, it is not an easy task. They are not there in public squares or bazaars where political discourse is set, and access to homes, especially for men, is very limited. That, however, is still no excuse for the skewed reportage.
At Kaurigram in Gorakhpur, I approached two women selling fruits on the street. One of them smiled when I asked her about the elections. “You tell me! Who should I vote for?” she said in Bhojpuri.
It took some talking from my part to convince Pushpa that I was not from a political party and she could share her thoughts with me. “How does it matter to us who wins? The poor will remain poor. They are all the same,” was her reply.
Her elderly companion nodded in unison. “It is the same,” she said as she pointed to her son’s shop right behind her fruit stall.
At the Jaanu Sound Shop, a young man was trying to sort out a tangle of wires. He said he had worked in Saudi Arabia. “But after four years, I quit. It was a life of slavery. I decided I wanted to be home. My mother was sick recently and I had to spend three lakh rupees in a private Gorakhpur hospital. But at least I was here for her. What is the point of living when one has to live so far?”
I brought the conversation back to the assembly election. “Ya Modi sarkar ya Mulayam sarkar (it will either be a Modi or a Mulayam government),” was his prediction.
It was strange to hear Mulayam Singh Yadav’s name, given the political marginalisation of the Samajwadi Party patriarch.
Did he mean his son and chief minister Akhilesh? “They are the same for us. Akhilesh should win. He has brought development. In his next term, he will bring work to Purvanchal. He deserves one more chance.”
I asked him his name — Omar Taureb. His mother’s was Hasina Khatun.
Omar Taureb, with his mother Hasina Khatun, is back from Saudi Arabia. He supports SP. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)
This kind of support and enthusiasm for Akhilesh is most visible among Muslim voters — whether it extends to other constituencies is the big challenge the SP faces.
But more importantly, I realised I failed, yet again. I had set out to hear women but had once again easily let a man take over the conversation.
The identity trap
There is no doubt that caste identity is a key determinant of political choices in UP. But the fact that caste is seen as the sole factor guiding electoral choices has trapped voters and prevents them from taking a different route.
In Jhansi, I met a Dalit who said one of the reasons he would vote Mayawati was because no one would believe him if he voted for anyone else.
In Gorakhpur, a Brahmin said it was his majboori (compulsion) to vote for the BJP. What was the compulsion? “We will not be counted anywhere else. If SP wins, even if I vote for it, they will never believe I am with them.”
I am not sure how representative this is but having heard it so many times now, this does appear like an electoral trend peculiar to India.
Like the idea of a wasted vote (vote not cast in favour of the candidate perceived to be winning is seen as “wasted” by many), the idea that you must vote a particular party because no one will believe you otherwise is how voters end up limiting themselves.
This is also a double-edged sword for political parties. It gives them a loyal caste group as a vote bank but restricts their ability to widen their base.
It is also perhaps a moment for us in media to introspect. For, we do as much to reinforce the perception that a certain caste group is with a particular party, reducing the space for individual choices.