BHAGWATI Devi says she will go back to crushing stones for a living when her tenure as a Member of Parliament is over. But till then, the newly elected Janata Dal MP from Gaya (Bihar) swears by Sant Kabir and Ma Shabari, "I am going to wage a war in Dilli for the poor and the backward". A simplistic agenda, perhaps, in these days of rhetoric-ridden political programmes. But one she firmly believes in because she knows what being poor and backward is all about. The daughter of a Mushahar (rat-catcher), a stone quarry worker herself and mother of sons who are khet mazdoors (farm labourers), Bhagwati Devi is truly a representative of her people in a thriving democracy. Her war for the downtrodden will see her fighting for her ilk.
Restless to change the world, she already seems to have launched her campaign for social equality in the capital's Bihar Niwas where she will have to stay till the new Government gets going. Visibly awkward, as she is in alien and air-conditioned environs, the unlettered MP has flouted conventions by ordering that her bodyguard sleep in her room. Despite the tittering state guest house staff. "I know they laugh at me, they think I am a rustic and that drivers and bodyguards are supposed to be relegated to the dormitory. The other MPs do that. But it's so hot there. Netas (leaders) can't be comfortable when the praja (subjects) are not," she says in a confident tone.
But there is a lot that Bhagwati Devi is uncertain about. Like her age, which she estimates to be around 65; the signboards in the capital because she can't read; her allowance as an MP; the curiosity of the city scribes who want to interview her. Is it against decorum to put one's legs up on the chair while sitting through those gruellingly long Parliament debates, she wonders. "And, most importantly, I must check whether it's okay to have tiffin with ladies from opposing parties during lunch hour," she confides.
Then, quickly dismissing these little worries with a wave of her heavily tattooed hand, the sexagenarian talks of her larger anxieties. Even though she has been an MLA from Barachetti (Gaya district) thrice, she has never had a Brahmin purohit agreeing to get her children married. "The neighbourhood barber has done the job. This, despite the fact that I am a neta . Imagine what it's like for the rest of my people. And then they say that untouchability is no longer prac-tised in the country," she observes with a sad nod of her head.
Bhagwati doesn't want to exert her influence as a politician to change her lot in society. She lives in a house allotted to her under the Indira Awas Yojana meant to benefit the poor. Despite her stints as MLA, she has no telephone at home. She doesn't possess a vehicle. Not even a sofa set. And, never having used her contacts to secure jobs for her sons, they have grown up to be farm labourers.
Not that the people's representative minds. "Why should I feel embarrassed that we labour to live? Much part of the country's population does so," she says. A grandmother of three, Bhagwati says she would have no quarrel with the world if they also grow up to till the land for a living. "But they must be educated, they must not feel like the rejects of Hindustan and they must have the Brahmin getting them married," she pronounces emphatically.
Small demands maybe. But with large implications. Implications that, she hopes, Laloo Prasad Yadav will help her fight for. "He is the messiah of the backward communities. He'll help me," she assures herself. Make queries about other political leaders and she is diplomatic. Atal Behari Vajpayee should be ruling a temple not a country, she says. "...Narasimha Rao...well, he's our political ally now, so he's khatha-mitha (sweet and sour)," she giggles uncharacteristically.
WHAT of her women colleagues? A baffled Bhagwati wonders why Mamata Banerjee is always angry. She understands Phoolan Devi and likes her very much. Not so much Maneka Gandhi. "One is from the grassroots and the other is from an affluent background. One had a villager for a father and the other had a Prime Minister for a mother-in-law... How can you understand the agony of the people if you haven't known agony first-hand?" Bhagwati Devi says. Adding with a mumble that those who have never milched cows will naturally demand that cows be treated like humans: "Arre bhai, we also respect the gau mata? Are we made environment ministers?"
Ministers, believes Bhagwati, should be 'real' people. A modest laugh later, she admits that she is an eligible candidate fora ministerial job. Any ministerial job. No portfolio, she challenges, is impossible to handle when you have a personal assistant and IAS officers to help you. "You don't have to be literate. Listen to advice, think things over, dictate notes and run the country," she says, "Even the Prime Minister does just that. And I won't be alarmed even if I were to be given the Prime Minister's job. I'd quite enjoy it!"
However, choosing not to linger on the fulfilment of that seemingly remote possibility, an excited Bhagwati talks about the real fruits of her recent achievement: two AC first class tickets free whenever she wants to travel to the rajdhani. But she'll have to pay for the fare of her grandchildren from her own pocket, her worried bodyguard observes. Bhagwati grimaces, thinks for a moment and then smiles. Thanks to her new allowance as an MP, she will be able to afford the extra tickets now, she assures the man. "They should be paying me close to Rs 8,000 right? I have won a bigger election this time," Bhagwati tells him with a twinkle in her eyes. The man nods his approval.
The matter settled, the new MP talks of her plans in the near future. To begin with, she'll take her entire family to watch a movie the day she gets her first pay as an MP. "The last film we saw was nine years ago—Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki. The children are so thrilled...they are wating for me to come back. Just for the film," she guffaws.
Then, on a more serious note, Bhagwati reveals her agenda as an MP. She has it all worked out in detail. She is going to listen to all the problems of the people who approach her for help, hire a literatevillager and tell him to write it all down. "That's half the problem solved, you see. Once the problems are written down, I can refer to them later and work out solutions for them!" she exclaims triumphantly. Happily oblivious of what her stance should be on issues such as liberalisation and Kashmir, Bhagwati is strictly following her own course of action. She wants to make a difference in the lives of her village people—without creating much of a fuss.
"Bhagwati is really simple at heart. Her concerns are simple and sincere, as are her solutions. Just the kind of representative our Indian people need," says Railway and Parliamentary Affairs Minister and Janata Dal leader Ram Vilas Paswan. "I taught her how to sign when we were both first timers in the assembly." That was a long time ago.
Bhagwati Devi has learnt a lot since then. "Neta logo ko boojhna padega, bhashan doge raashan nahin doge to log kursi nahin denge" (Leaders will have to understand one thing. All speech and no food for the people mean that next time they'll be voted out of power). That's the tenet of democracy. That's the lesson from the Lady of Gaya. One that she has taught herself.