Raj Kishore, an elderly farmer, complained bitterly about villagers having to stay awake night after night guarding their crops from wandering cows.
With the third round of voting in India’s seven-part general elections over, speculation about who will win from where is in full swing. But beyond guesstimates and poll arithmetic, are there any clear indications on the ground?
An 1,800-km road journey last week through Uttar Pradesh, the country’s electoral barometer state, threw up two clear insights — what people are talking about depends on not only who they are, but where you interact with them.
There is a huge difference between highways and byways, between the main street and the back alley, between areas that are easy to reach and those that have poor approach roads.
Conversations in highway dhabas, run mostly by Thakurs, Yadavs, Rajputs and Brahmins, were formulaic. Be it National Highway 19, NH31 or NH30, almost everyone had more or less the same things to say. They were enthused by the Modi Sarkar and the narrative of the strongman who can save India from enemies. Young men were particularly taken in by the visual imagery of that line by Prime Minister Narendra Modi about going into Pakistani territory and taking revenge.
Durga Hotel, a highway dhaba near Jaswantnagar city in UP’s Etawah, caters to pure vegetarians. Tapash Yadav, the young man managing the place, jokes that if it’s election time, there’ll be fewer power cuts and customers should enjoy their cold drinks. Yadav, a graduate, is convinced that while there’s no wave in favour of anyone, the BJP will outsmart its rivals in Etawah and elsewhere in UP because it has been smart in its calculations and the victory will be “in the name of Hindustan and in the name of national security”. He didn’t think the political alliance of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal, contesting unitedly as the “Mahagathbandhan” could really challenge the BJP.
At another highway dhaba in Fatehpur, it’s the same talk about strongman Modi and the national security argument relentlessly pushed by the BJP. The same arguments popped up in a tony hairdressing salon in Varanasi. A young man working there admitted there had been no improvement in his own life, but he was impressed by the new roads, bridges and flyovers that were coming up. He too believed only Narendra Modi could “subjugate” Pakistan and “anti-nationals”.
That is the highway and the main street. But walk down village roads and potholed alleys to urban neighbourhoods where the poor and marginalised lived cheek by jowl, and a totally different narrative emerges.
In villages, where nearly 80 per cent of UP’s 200 million people live, the bleak state of the rural economy is the big issue. That, and jobs for the youth. I didn’t once hear the words Pulwama or Balakot.
In Prime Minister Modi’s constituency Varanasi, Phoolwaria is a neighbourhood that houses dalits and poor Muslims. It’s not easy to access the place; a car can easily get stuck in the narrow, potholed back lanes. But Phoolwaria’s residents, especially young women, are keen to have their voices heard. The talk is only about jobs and despair. One 18-year-old dalit girl said though she was of voting age, her name was not on the voters’ list.
Young dalit men talked about not finding jobs despite trying repeatedly. Shabnam, 24, is from the first generation in her family to be educated. Her father, an auto rickshaw driver, had made sure that all his four daughters had access to education. Shabnam graduated from Varanasi’s Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith. But like millions of graduates, Shabnam’s dream of landing a government job — any government job — had not materialised though she had sat for many competitive exams. Who did she support in the elections?
“The Mahagathbandhan has representation from different communities and understands our needs best.”
For Phoolwaria’s youngsters like Shabnam, jobs were the main concern. Young Muslim women I met said they had to tackle many social barriers to pursue higher education and it would be a lot easier to convince their families about the desirability of a woman going out to work if she landed a secure government job.
Last year, a national newspaper noted 3,700 PhD holders, 50,000 graduates and 28,000 postgraduates had applied for 62 posts of UP police messengers. The post requires a minimum eligibility of Class 5. But Muslim sentiment was not homogenous. In Varanasi’s Lallapura area, Muslim shopowners selling Benarasi saris were fans of Mr Modi. If his flashy style and events like the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas can get more NRIs to the city and to my shop, why should I complain, said a young man who owned a popular sari store.
Taking a detour off the Lucknow-Agra expressway and walking down to Behrin village in UP’s Kannauj district, I encountered the same disenchantment with the BJP. As elsewhere in UP, Behrin’s farmers were livid about the stray cattle menace and its impact on their crops.
Raj Kishore, an elderly farmer, complained bitterly about villagers having to stay awake night after night guarding their crops from wandering cows. “No one wants to keep cows. What will we do with them when they get old? Who will feed them? Earlier we used to sell off aged cows, now we can’t. So we have switched to buffaloes.”
The farmers were angry that the BJP governments at the Centre and the state had not created enough shelters for cows before implementing the ban on cow slaughter. This, they made clear, had knocked the rural economy where farmers would keep cattle to sell their milk. The accepted practice was to sell the cattle to slaughterhouses when they were past the age of producing milk. The ban and the open threat by cow vigilante groups supporting the BJP left farmers no choice but to let their cattle stray as they could no longer afford to feed them.
Raj Kishore talked about stray cows meeting with accidents and dying uncared for in the few shelters that had come up. College-going women in Behrin said even they were affected by the stray cattle menace because they also had to help their families protect the crops. Once again, their big issue was jobs, specifically government jobs.
On the ongoing polls, what you hear in UP depends on how far you walk from the main roads.What is the big picture from Uttar Pradesh’s 80 Lok Sabha seats? We shall know within a month.