AT the Sangam, where the holy waters of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati mingle, the wiliest pollsters on the plains of northern India ply their traditional trade as Mallahas (boatmen) to thousands of pilgrims who come from afar to bathe at the confluence. The devotees talk and the Mallahas listen.
I have great faith in the political wisdom of the Mallahas who only reveal their knowledge after many protestations of modesty. "What do we know? We are poor and unlearned. Who cares about what we think or say?" I persist as they were dead right in their poll predictions when I had last visited them on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections in December 1984 and before that, on the eve of the fateful March 1977 elections which had sent the Gandhi family packing for a few years.
After much prodding, Jagannath Nishad, 45, comments: "BJP ka zor hai. Par ham garibon ki kaun sunega?" (The BJP is going strong. But who is bothered about us poor?). A younger boatman, Ramnarain Nishad, 32, contests Jagannath's statement. Ramnarain says that Saroj Dubey, the sitting Janata Dal MP since 1991 from Allahabad, does listen to the poor and has solved some of the Mallahas' problems. Saroj Dubey is contesting again this time as the Janata Dal candidate supported by the Samajwadi Party and faces a tough fight against the BJP's leading light, Murli Manohar Joshi. Ramnarain has decided that he will vote for Saroj Dubey and Jagannath has decided defiantly that he will not vote for anyone. None of them listens to the poor.
Jagannath's angry dismissal of politicians, parties and the electoral process is echoed among several poverty-stricken folk I meet during a trip (April 21 to 24) through Khajuraho and Satna constituencies in north-eastern Madhya Pradesh and Phulpur and Allahabad constituencies in eastern Uttar Pradesh. I had...