It is five in the evening. A few hours after starting from Varanasi, the Sabarmati Express chugs into Shahganj in Uttar Pradesh, already over an hour late. Sitting on his AC-III tier side-lower berth, 26-year-old Rohan Singh tells a story. “Once, a friend and I went on a road trip from Vadodara to Rajasthan on my two-wheeler. We got lost while coming back at night, so I asked a villager near the border if it was Gujarat or Rajasthan,” he says. “The villager pointed to an area shrouded in darkness and said that was Rajasthan, and beyond that, where you could see lights, was Gujarat.”
Singh, who comes from a family of farmers in Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh, has been posted at an FCI office in Vadodara for the past one year and he isn’t missing his hometown. “If it wasn’t for the little bit of agricultural land that my family holds in Chandauli, I would have gladly got my parents to shift to Gujarat,” he says.
In the midst of a bitterly contested election, it is not difficult to get strangers cooped up in a train for 34 hours to talk politics, especially about Narendra Modi.
The train, remembered for the Godhra fire of 2002 that left 59 passengers dead inside two coaches, remains a popular transport option to Gujarat for migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Notorious for delays, the train runs thrice a week, crawling through three states in the Hindi heartland and stopping at 51 stations.
In the evening, the train enters Ayodhya station. The station and some nearby localities are dark. It’s apparently a power cut. Sales executive Anil Yadav, 30, is amused. “Darkness in the land of Ram… And they distribute laptops in UP. Modi sab theek kar dega,” he says.
Modi often speaks of migrants from UP and Bihar flocking to Gujarat. Seen through the eyes of the migrants, Gujarat almost assumes the proportion of a fabled land. “What roads! Nowhere will you find the roads that you see in Gujarat. And if you have a pair of able hands and don’t mind working hard, you will surely get a job,” says Behraj Khan, 32, a driver at a sugar mill in Bardoli near Surat. Ever since he shifted to Gujarat in 2003, Behraj has helped six of his relatives near Lucknow to migrate to Gujarat. “I started with Rs 6,000, now my salary is Rs 17,000 with a yearly allowance to visit home. Where would I have managed this UP?”
More such claims emerge — women can wear gold and walk down the streets of Ahmedabad in the dead of night, unescorted; traders can carry cash in bags and not get robbed.
Khan’s co-passenger in coach S-6, 25-year-old Raj Mohammad from Rae Bareli, went to Ahmedabad five years ago to work in a pipe fabrication company. In Rae Bareli, he says, he would have been either unemployed or become a helper to some mason. Over the years, he got his brothers and some friends to join the company. “In our village, the netas come to ask for support but the village remains the same. In Gujarat, we’ve seen things improve and we are yet to see any neta. We see only Modi on TV,” he says.
Indian Railways carry around 2.3 crore passengers a day. Even if less than half that number is unable to vote because they are on board a train on a polling day, that leaves almost nine crore people out of the voting exercise this nine-phase election. Many of the passengers say they could not vote.
As you stroll down the 20 coaches, you can hear “Ab ki baar Modi sarkar” jokes, and talk of “why Akhilesh is not able to work…”, how “Behenji is giving a fight to the BJP”, whether Modi will keep Vadodara or Varanasi, and even “Kejriwal”.
At stations, there is a scramble to get water and food as the Sabarmati Express does not have a pantry car. The garbage bins soon start overflowing and the stench from the toilets lingers on as the train carries on its 1,500-km journey. There is little mention of the 2002 riots. Most say they were not in Gujarat when it happened.
“Our family is divided 70-30 in favour of not voting for the BJP. Modi may talk development, but what about the RSS and such organisations?” asks Mohammad Sadiq from Lucknow who works as an assistant manager at a multinational company in Ahmedabad.
Not much has changed in the sleeper coaches of the train since the fire 12 years ago. Now there are emergency windows, but no firefighting equipment in the non-AC coaches. Railways says the upholstery is now made of fire-resistant material.
The train enters Gujarat at Dahod, a district headquarters around 200 km from Ahemdabad. A few get off. It is 1.30 am as it enters Godhra. If you stare in the darkness, you see two coaches at an abandoned corner near the yard — the charred remains of the coaches from 12 years ago.
“If you want to know you have entered Gujarat,” says the young coach attendant, “just look at your cellphone. It catches a 3G connection. In rural UP and MP, you might not have found network at all.”
You check your mobile to see if it is true. Turns out it isn’t.