Vaguely remembering the day, April 20, 2009, 70 year old Birgha says, "suddenly Rahulji walked in and asked about my problems. I told him I needed a roof over my head and a BPL card. I get only kerosene from my card. He heard me out and officials too came calling." That pretty much was the beginning of Birgha's problems. While the ruling BSP party directed him to seek help from Rahul baba whenever he approached the civic authorities with his request, the local congressmen all but forgot about that brief summer encounter. It remained the briefest of encounters in Birgha's life and he is puzzled about who should get his vote this time.
Caught between a harsh geography and an opportunistic politics, Bundelkhand, rich in folklore, is impoverished beyond imagination. Seven districts here fall in the most backward list in development and some of the worst social indicators in the country are widely prevalent here.
Farmers suicides (three in the last two weeks alone, taking the toll to 8000 since 2004), migration (about 70 percent of the young males are out), illiteracy, severe malnourishment among children (more than 40 per cent), lack of government jobs, lack of governance and few factories are the staple of common man's conversations but not that of the politicians determined to follow the fantastic development visions of their leaders.
Says Birendra Singh Bundela, the Congress candidate from Lalitpur, "Can one really set boundaries for development? We are here to fulfil Rahul Gandhi's vision." Just a few days ago, 26 year old Azad, a farmer, committed suicide by consuming poison in Bachlapur village which falls in his district. Like Rahul Gandhi, Birendra Singh also blames Mayawati for not spending enough on the poor and for the rampant corruption. Sitting in his sprawling mansion surrounded by fawning yesmen, he shoos away questions about the impact of corruption at the centre in the assembly elections.
"Madam, these issues don't matter here," he says. The fortunes of his party are anyone's guess. He says, “we will do well.” While others say the party will be comfortably placed in the third —behind SP and BSP —or fourth, after BJP, position. His nephew, Guddu Raja, is the suave face of the Samajwadi party determined to follow in Akhilesh Yadav's footsteps. The people of Lalitpur whisper about the uncle and son nephew responsible for the dismal state of affairs in the district. The district boasts of seven dams and an acute water crisis aggravated by failing monsoons in the past.
Like elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Mayawati faces a tough fight here as she battles incumbency and battles corruption charges. Her letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking a division of Uttar Pradesh into four states is being seen as a gimmick by many. The region goes to polls on February 23. Last time, when her men performed well for her party winning 14 of the 21 seats, she reciprocated by making seven of them ministers in her cabinet. Three of them face corruption charges. Former PWD Minister Naseemuddin Siddiqui and Babu Singh Kushwaha, now in BJP, both face charges of corruption. Another MLA stands accused of raping a minor girl.
The opposition smells an opportunity here and everyone from Rahul Gandhi to Uma Bharti have raised the corruption issue. It is a word that is a charge that slips easily off the tongues of her rivals, the Congress, BJP, and the SP. The fiery Vinay Katiyar targets Mayawati for widespread corruption as he promises laptops, jobs, businesses, factories for the youth if his party is voted to power. "Hum sab kuchh denge. Laptop se naaukri tak. We will hang Afzal Guru. Kamal ko khilne denaa," he says. (We will give everything, from laptops to jobs. We will hang Afzal Guru. Just allow the lotus (party symbol) to bloom here)
The feuding parties show a remarkable lack of concern for the people, as is evident in their speeches and the vulgar display of wealth and a feudal mindset.
It is pretty evident from the manifestos of the parties that the agrarian crises or the plight of children doesn't register a blip. Neither will it fetch votes. In Charkhari in Mahoba's district which shot to fame for the large number of farmer suicides, where BJP's Uma Bharati is making her presence felt, children in neighbouring villages suffer from acute malnutrition. But for the party, it is her strong backward caste credentials which will pull the votes for her. And though she faces two strong contenders from the SP and the BSP, both from the Lodh communities, it appears she can pull it off. "People here find themselves in news for the first time and for them, she is a national leader who can change their fortunes," says Ram Dutt Tiwari, adding the question to be asked is not whether Uma Bharti will win, but the margin by which she wins.
If Charkhari happens to be a foregone conclusion for the moment, there is optimism in the SP camp too as they see a wave for the party. "I cannot see any fight here. People are disgusted with the BSP and the Congress and the BJP are not forming the government. We will win. I only believe in the BBC which says our party will get 205 seats," says Afsan Siddiqui with a confidence bound to confound everyone as the state faces a long eight-phase elections.
The demand for a separate Budhelkhand state promised by Maywati at the last moment before the Asembly elections, has receded to the background. The only party pressing for statehood is Raja Bundela's Bundelkhand Congress, making its debut this time after the actor-turned politician broke off with the Congress to float his own party. Contesting in all the 42 seats, Bundela says, "We have worked out an alliance with the Trinamool and the Peace Party. In fact, Mamta Banerjee is likely to come here for a rally," he says.
While the biggies like the SP, BSP, Congress and the BJP may scoff at the remote chances that Bundela's party may have in this elections, there are many who think he may act as a spoiler by splitting the votes for the Congress and the BJP. "The upper castes, Thakurs and Muslims may end up voting for him" says Ajay Srivastav is an NGO activist. Bundela, says he has fielded candidates with good credentials. "I am only promising statehood if voted to power," he says.
The Bundelkhand package promised by the Congress, which saw the Centre disbursing Rs 3,706 crores and Maywati spending just 10 per cent of the amount does elicit interest but only just. Caste and religion are strong emotive factors that development will find difficult to dislodge here.