A high percentage of Dalits has given Pipri, in Sitapur, two hours from Lucknow, the status of an Ambedkar village. This means the village gets priority ‘saturation’ by all ongoing central and state social welfare schemes. And so, 75 homes have been built in the past two years under the Indira Aawas Yojana, some of them have attached toilets under the Total Sanitation scheme, the entire village has CC (cement-concrete) roads under the Gramin Sadak Yojana, and there is an Ambedkar Health Centre. No one in the village had received the benefits of the Savitribai Phule Aarthik Madad Yojana under which girls from BPL families who get through the 10th grade get Rs 15,000 and a free bicycle (we came across an example in another village). Make no mistake. Pipri is an exception. These benefits have been extracted only after fighting a malfunctioning administration and corrupt contractors who wanted to mix low-grade sand into the cement. In their fight, they had the assistance of Richa Singh, a local activist. Other Ambedkar villages aren’t so lucky. We’re told of the nearby village of Chowkhadia, where the contractors had their way and the roads have already deteriorated in the rains. But even Pipri, for all its political alertness, suffers from delayed ration cards, an underqualified schoolmaster, a school building that’s yet to be completed, and pensions denied arbitrarily. So who will Pipri vote for? Behenji, of course. Why? Because benefits, even if hard won, have come. As one of them tells us, even if they vote for the Samajwadi Party, no one in the SP will believe them.
The Babalog Endures?
I heard a now-familiar tune playing on the speakers: “Why this Mayawati, Mayawati ji.” It’s currently top of my list of election parodies.
At a recent Rahul Gandhi rally in Babaganj constituency, in Pratapgarh, on hand to supervise arrangements were Pramod Tiwari, eight-time winner from the nearby Rampur Khas constituency and Gandhi family loyalist, and the gracious Rajkumari Ratna Singh, of the Kalakanker royal family and Congress MP from Pratapgarh. Tiwari was irked at the selection of the venue, a remote maidan hours from the nearest town with poor road connectivity. The Rajkumari had brought brownies and chicken patties in case Rahul felt peckish. The Congress candidate from Babaganj, a reserved seat, seemed overshadowed by these feudal stalwarts. With good reason: he is an import from the BJP. If UP is the laboratory for Rahul’s attempts to democratise the Congress and turn it into a meritocracy, Babaganj is not the best example. Elsewhere, in Sevapuri near Benares, we met one of what are known as the Congress’ ‘inner party democracy’ candidates, meaning young men and women from the Youth Congress who have been given tickets. Harshvardhan, whose arrival was presaged by a gaggle of raucous bikers, told us that he holds the record for getting the most votes in eastern UP in the Youth Congress elections held in 2010, which is why Rahul gave him an assembly ticket. But there is a catch. Harshvardhan is not a political outsider. His father was a block pramukh, his grandfather a four-time MLA from Sevapuri. He says he wants to fulfil their incomplete dreams. Who could argue with that?
Uma by Numbers
The ‘importing’ of Uma Bharati from Madhya Pradesh may not have set the BJP’s fortunes on fire in UP, but she continues to offer rich material to the diarist. She told a small roadside crowd in Bundelkhand that she had selected her constituency, Charkhari, because it numerologically conforms to the number six, which she considers auspicious. This evokes cheers. Encouraged, she adds that Khajuraho, in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, from where she has won Lok Sabha elections, was also chosen for the same numerological reasons. Further along, she asks her vehicle to pull over near a village. A motorcade of about 20 suvs comes to a halt. Uma wants to feed a cow, another favourite ritual. A candidate is located, tied to a post near the village entrance. She first tries offering a banana, without luck. She then asks her guards to bring rotis. But the bovine remains unimpressed. Uma maintains her calm. With only a mild touch of petulance, she presses both offerings into the hands of the cow’s owner. “Main jaa rahi hoon,” she says. “Baad mein khila dena.” And then, almost as an afterthought, “Vote dena mujhe zaroor.”
As dusk falls in Uttar Pradesh, dozens of handcarts selling eggs—boiled, fried or made into bhurji—spring up at the junction of every town, kasbah and village. Not at all uncommon in rural India, but the number seemed inordinately high. A few enquiries confirmed our suspicion: the sale of eggs, the favoured post-drink snack of the heartland, has jumped during election season, as, doubtless, have Mr Ponty Chadha’s profits.