May 31, 2020
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Notes From Some Dark Nowheres

A traveller takes the rubbled roads of MP, gathering political whispers

Notes From Some  Dark Nowheres
Getty Images (From Outlook 02 December 2013)
Notes From Some Dark Nowheres

When we left Gwalior around 10 am, the concierge at the hotel said, “In your Innova, you should be reaching Indore in 10 hours.” About 450 km. We gave ourselves three extra hours: on the way, we’d be stopping a few times to chat up people. After Shivpuri, the constituency of former state minister Yashodhararaje Scindia, the road became difficult; but after Guna, the parliamentary constituency of her nephew Jyotiraditya Scindia, it became impossible. As the evening darkened, the highway—a stretch of rubble, mud mounds, craters and loose metalling—led us deep into the heart of a dark nowhere.

We tried some country detours that had been suggested to us. We found them equally back-breaking. After a particularly rough ride that covered all of 70 km in three-and-a-half hours, we gave up all hope of dinner at a restaurant in Indore; around midnight, we stopped at the first roadside dhaba we spotted. A bunch of policemen from Indore were having drinks with their dinner. They had a tale of a road to tell.

The policemen had started from Indore at six in the morning, escorting a prisoner for a court appearance in Gwalior. They couldn’t make it to the court before seven in the evening, well past court hours. A magistrate unfamiliar with the area would have given the police team a piece of his chagrined mind. The one on duty had probably encountered such delays before: he asked the policemen to leave the prisoner in the local jail so he could be produced in court the next day. He knew if the Indore police took him back, the wheels of justice would run in reverse slo-mo.

“So how do you patrol this route?” I ask the assistant sub-inspector. Rum makes him blunt. “We usually don’t.”

Doesn’t that lead to an increase in crime? “No, the people are nice. Only rape cases have increased. But rape...there was so much hullabaloo about it in Delhi at the time of the December incident there. Most of these cases are false, you know, women often lie to settle scores,” he says, nonchalantly wearing his prejudices. “Look, just before elections a false sleaze CD has been circulated about a Congress MLA.” How does he know it’s false? “We know.” Will it affect the Congress’s chances in the polls? “No. Just as the Raghavji sodomy scandal won’t affect the BJP.”

He has a simple line. “People have to choose a government. They will choose Shivraj Singh Cho­uhan’s government over the Congress.” I remind him that Uma Bharati had brought the BJP into power in the state on the promise of bijli, sadak, paani. Don’t the bad roads bely the BJP’s claims of governance? “No, the roads were worse during Digvijay Singh’s tenure as chief minister. We now have a first-class Bhopal-Indore road. Shiv­raj’s ministers are all corrupt, but he is a good man. Money does not reach the people sometimes because of corruption, that’s why roads don’t get repaired. But the Congress is also to blame: it never raises these problems as an Opposition party should.”

He says the region belongs to the Scindias—Jyotiraditya is in the Congress, his aunts are in the BJP. “But the Congress, here, is a party of the feudals and elites. Maharajas don’t feel for the people. Shivraj is from among the people. But his ministers and MLAs will be taught a lesson: therefore, the BJP will lose seats. But Shivraj will form the government. Tell you what, the BJP will get 134, the Congress tally will rise to 95, the others will get 20. We have intelligence.” The numbers don’t add up: the Madhya Pradesh assembly has only 230 seats. We know the intelligence is rum-inspired.

Corruption in the BJP and an increase in the Congress tally—that's what people are talking of. The BJP and Shivraj will win, but they'll get due punishment for corrupt governance.

Corruption in the BJP and an increase in the Congress’s tally—these are the constant refrains in Madhya Pradesh these days. An NGO worker from Shivpuri district, where many children of the Sahariya tribe have been dying of malnutrition, says results in various constituencies will be influenced by local factors. “It seems Jyotiraditya and his aunts have made a pact not to campaign virulently against each other. So the results in the area will be interesting to watch,” he says. “Because of his humbler background, Shivraj connects more with ordinary people than the royals do. But for all his humble demeanour, he still has a disconnect with the poorest of the poor: after all, he comes from the upwardly mobile rural middle class.”

Some Sahariya tribals live near the road network. They work at the farmhouses of rich Sikhs and are better off than others from their tribe who live in the forests. They also benefit more from state schemes, as they are aware of them. Those living in the forests seem to prefer the Congress, which gifted them land rights.

A Dalit woman from Delhi has married locally and runs a dhaba here. Her grandchildren feel good about the mid-day meal served in their school. She speaks of more dignity for her community and is thinking of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Her Dalit customers want better daily wages: they root either for the Congress or the BSP. The anti-incumbency factor is discernible here for other reasons too: a Yadav farmer is angry that life has become difficult because of depleting water levels, the rising cost of electricity, the non-compensation by government for crop damage caused by heavy rain. He’s a Congress voter, he says, but just might consider the BSP.

I meet a priest, a Maharashtrian Brahmin who officiates at a Shwetambar Jain temple in Guna. He thinks the Congress leadership is unable to press the anti-incumbency factor to its advantage. He seems to have a soft spot for the Scindias and thinks the region will reflect the wishes of the durbar (former rulers). “But we don’t know what the durbar wants...complex are its ways,” he says, hinting at the complex relationship between Jyotiraditya and his aunts. His durbar thesis challenged by a juice-shop owner, the pri­est retreats with: “Look at the elections with anand (pleasure). I always have anand.” To me, his eyes seem to glint with the anand showered on him by the rich seths visiting his temple.

Feudal power is increasingly retreating into its pocketboroughs. It invites bitterness even there. In Digvijay’s Raghogarh, we meet villagers from the Mali or gardener community who are bitter about him. They say Digvijay and his kin win because they are able to use money and muscle power. “Their supporters burn down the huts of those who don’t vote for them. But they cannot mobilise such muscle and money elsewhere in the state. As long as such leaders dominate in the party, the Congress should forget about ruling the state. Digvijay’s image here is in stark contrast to his image in Delhi,” one of them says.

Some myths about caste support-bases get busted on our trip. We had supposed the tilak-sporting priest would be a BJP supporter. It turned out otherwise. A Brahmin school teacher, who teaches children from the Sahariya tribe, would also vote for the Congress. A Maharashtrian Brahmin who runs a tractor shop in Vidisha, too, turned out to be a Congress supporter. Unlike the experts who appear on television news, he analysed the seat-by-seat prospects of the major parties with objectivity. He says the BJP, in his opinion the devil, must be given its due. A Brahmin tea-shop owner we met outside Gwalior would vote BJP, but regarded Anoop Mishra, a BJP minister, as one of the most corrupt ministers. “He’ll lose if he ever contests from the same seat again.”

In the end, we covered the 200 km from Guna to Bea­wara in eight hours: we couldn’t make it to Indore. From Beawara, we turned to Bhopal. For me, it was the first time during an election trip anywhere in India that I had to abandon an itinerary because of bad roads.

In Bhopal, a beautiful city with chic roads, journalist and bureaucrat friends told us to take the route via Vidisha, Lalitpur and Jhansi. The road up to the great historical and tourist destination Vidisha, the chief minister’s hometown, is better than it was during Digvijay’s days. But what we have between Vidisha and Bina, a refinery town, is an unpaved track. We hit the National Highway at Mankhaul. The Mankhaul-Lalitpur stretch lies in Uttar Pradesh and is smooth and six-laned. Under repair at one point, the highway begs a detour to Jhansi. From Jhansi, onwards to Madhya Pradesh, it’s again rubble, pits and mud mounds. At Dabra, before Gwalior, a farmer tells us he’s sure the area is not going to have a highway for a long time to come. The story is that the contractor from Delhi, close to some Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders, couldn’t meet his Rs 18 crore liabilities. At the behest of the local BJP MP, he’d been ditched by the local subcontractors he’d hired. His earth-moving mach­ines had been seized by court and he was in jail.

In Madhya Pradesh, it seems, the big and awesome NaMo cavalcade is not a talking point. To get people to speak about Narendra Modi, you have to prod them and probe them deeply. Which might not be a bad thing, after all.

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