Tuesday, Dec 23, 2014

Writings On The Wall: Taking the poor out of Poorvanchal

Probably one of the most convenient generalisations in Indian punditry is the concept of the Hindi heartland. Probably one of the most convenient generalisations in Indian punditry is the concept of the Hindi heartland.
Written by Shekhar Gupta | Posted: May 10, 2014 2:10 am | Updated: May 10, 2014 10:13 am

Probably one of the most convenient generalisations in Indian punditry is the concept of the Hindi heartland. As if the vast swathe of mostly fertile plains along and between the Ganga and the Yamuna and their tributary and canal systems was politically homogenous, or at least explained on the same basis of caste and religious divisions. Test this against facts, and like many other lazy political hypotheses, this too falls flat.

Why, for example, do the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh vote for Mayawati, but not elsewhere? How come Mulayam Singh Yadav gets the Yadav and Muslim votes in UP, but Lalu Prasad owns them just across the river in Bihar? Then, how come neither finds even a passing mention in the electoral calculations of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand (formerly parts of UP and Bihar, respectively)? And how come Chaudhary Charan Singh’s dynasty (Ajit and his son Jayant) are the Jat leaders of western UP, but just across the Yamuna in Haryana, it is the dynasties of Devi Lal, Bansi Lal and now Bhupinder Singh Hooda? None of them count for anything more than zilch across the river. At one point, Nitish Kumar sweeps Bihar in partnership with the BJP. But then, the same parties are wiped out in the assembly elections that follow in contiguous UP. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party dominates Delhi, the very heart of the heartland, but wanes even in next-door Gurgaon and Ghaziabad. So, what is this about the rivers? And is there, then, such a thing as the heartland?

The prudent thing for a political reporter, particularly one who’s been around for a bit, is to not even try looking for ideas and attitudes that span the heartland, and never when it involves a river-crossing. You drive a mere 250 km from Patna to Varanasi, and whether you choose the alleged national highway that takes you to the Ganga bridge across Arrah and Buxar and which looks like it was laid by the East India Company for its conquering armies in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 and hasn’t been repaired since, or the relatively better parallel highway through the once Maoist-ruled Bhojpur district, you see dramatic change, even in the landscape as you cross from Bihar into UP.

Outlines of a modern factory (you can drive for days in Bihar and not see any such, except brick kilns) appear to the left of the highway, the ACC cement plant. But, more importantly, even the language changes. Fast food carts now sell “veg” instead of “bhej” chowmein and electricians’ shops are repairing “inberters”, not “inbherters”. How does this happen just because you crossed a river? The basic culture, dialect, caste equations, social tensions and relationships are quite similar. This is purab, the very thickly populated political epicentre of the heartland. Its power is underlined by the fact that it has given India seven prime ministers.

No wonder a likely prime minister has now migrated here from the far coastal west to get that essential qualification. It may have lost the pre-eminence in our popular culture that it had in the 1950s-60s genre of Dilip Kumar/ Raj Kapoor films, with their great Bhojpuri hits (“Nain lad jaye hain”, “Dhoondo dhoondo re sajna”, “Mere pairon mein ghungroo”, “Hum us desh ke waasi hain”, “Chalat musafir moh liya re” and so on), but Bhojpuri cinema thrives again, is producing its own stars — Ravi Kishan and Manoj Tiwari are key candidates in these Lok Sabha polls — and is popular on both sides of the river. Yet, politically, these are two utterly different republics.

One similarity is, however, becoming evident now. And you see it, where else, but in the writings on the wall. More than a decade ago, when we started this series, we had noticed education as the new, virtuous common denominator for attitudes and aspirations. This then graduated, quite logically, to empowerment through decent, competitive career-oriented training. We saw, thereby, the rise of several three-letter acronyms that defined this new India’s dreams: IIT-JEE, PMT, and so on. Perhaps less spectacularly but more significantly, these have now yielded place — on the walls — to an entirely new series of four-letter acronyms: CBSE, ICSE, UPSC and now an even greater surprise in five letters: NCERT.

So here is a truly pan-heartland phenomenon. At a time when states are becoming more powerful and autonomous, and political arrangements increasingly decentralised and federal, here is one thing that is being centralised, and it is the most important thing in the lives of our children: school education. On both sides of the Ganga, in bigger cities like Patna, Allahabad, Varanasi, even Lucknow, or small towns, the walls are plastered with advertisements of schools offering CBSE or ICSE curricula, NCERT textbooks.

You can walk into any school building or tuition centre and ask children why they are seceding en masse from their respective state boards and the answer is the same. Dhiraj Kumar Nirala, a 19-year-old father of one in a Dalit basti not far from village Saidapur in Bhadohi parliamentary constituency, is jobless, having failed in the army recruitment rally. He dropped out of college after intermediate, is now working on his BA through distance learning while tending to two buffaloes and a tiny patch of land. He says he would have done better if only he had gone through the CBSE system. “State ke board mein, sir, woh sabko average marking kar dete hain. Is liye uski koyi merit nahin banti,” he says. We heard the same explanation at the Super 30 and Rahmani 30 centres in Patna and at the three evening tuition centres in Allahabad, where I dropped by. There is a merit- and quality-based rejection of the trashy, corrupt, leaky and non-meritocratic state education boards. This is one area where the Centre is winning.

Broad data confirms this. My colleague and assistant editor, Anubhuti Vishnoi, in the formidable Indian Express New Delhi bureau, covers the human resource development ministry, and tells me that the number of CBSE schools in UP has jumped from 1,173 in 2009 to 1,937 in 2014, an increase of 65.13 per cent. In Bihar, the rise is even steeper, from 285 to 593 or 108.07 per cent. Across India, the number has gone up from 10,011 to 15,215 or 51.98 per cent. The total number of students under the CBSE is now a staggering 1.25 crore. Data on ICSE schools is not readily available yet, but the HRD ministry believes there has been an even more spectacular increase. This, when so much Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and now Right to Education Act money has been going to state governments. Please do note that almost all of these Central board schools are being set up by private entrepreneurs.

Change, particularly change of such profound nature and depth, often has unintended consequences. And in the heartland, one utterly fascinating collateral benefit of the flourishing of quality education is also the rise of the teacher as the new star and brand. You have seen schools and education institutions build brands as exotic as our new real estate developments: Daffodils, Harword and, of course, good old Symbiosis, Amity and Lovely. But the first look at the walls in the heartland may intrigue you as you spot giant graffiti and hoardings offering Physics by A.K. Singh ‘sir’, Chemistry by Dr C.P. Sharma with 17 years of experience, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry by Sujit Kr Singh sir, Vijay Dwivedi sir, Physics again by Er (engineer) Virendra Singh, Er J.P. Singh sir and Pandey Classes by S.C. Pandey sir and so on. Just when we were rueing the decline of teaching as a profession in terms of social and economic status, here is the rise of the new teaching star, particularly in science and math. You build a name, a reputation and a brand, and there will be a waiting list of customers. The combination of CBSE and great tutors. In today’s heartland physics, it can be defined as the escape velocity for the underprivileged student, or the once-hapless HMT, the Hindi Medium Type.

However flawed, the massive expansion of education is the one success story of the UPA’s decade in power. No surprise then that education has also emerged as the only real white-collar job creator in what is otherwise an industrial wasteland. You want to see how, come to Saidapur, a sizeable village about 60 km eastward along the Ganga from Allahabad. At 2 pm, admittedly on a 43-degree afternoon, the village of 8,000 looks as if abandoned. But it isn’t. It is just that almost nobody has any work to do now that the wheat has been harvested and, more importantly, the schools are closed for vacation. Breadwinners of the first six houses as you enter the village and in its Brahmin quarter, in a manner of speaking, are all school and college teachers.

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The first house to the right, roof rigged with sloping tiles and concrete and extended into a thatched cattleshed, has Dinesh Chandra Mishra, 63, sitting on a cot in his verandah in nothing but a loin-cloth, mosquitoes and flies assaulting his bare body under a silent, still ceiling fan. He is not able to swat them because the left side of his body is paralysed. He retired as a senior teacher and all three of his sons are teachers. His grandchildren play in the compound and tell you they go to Prayag Public School and would pursue what else but the CBSE system, afraid of “average marking” in the state boards. The family has the usual story of shortages, poor quality of life, price rise. I ask Mishra ji whether he has the red BPL ration card. “Why the red ration card,” he asks, with some indignation, “we have the yellow one.” Then, he puts his life and that of crores of non-BPL Indians in perspective: “I get a large pension and have other incomes. I am an income-tax payer, sir, so are my sons. We are not poor people.” But nothing about his and his family’s lifestyle tells you they are not poor.

In fact, if his caste wasn’t Brahmin but Dalit, Rahul Gandhi could have easily brought David Miliband here instead, for his one-night poverty tourism. This is the story of the UPA’s India, 23 years after reform and after a decade of 7.7 per cent average growth. A majority of families that earn middle-class incomes are forced to live suboptimally, even BPL lifestyles, simply because the state fails to perform its basic tasks, like providing power, water, law and order, sanitation, healthcare and connectivity. In a family of four income-tax payers, a half-paralysed retired teacher with a double masters from Allahabad University has to rot under a still fan on a murderous summer afternoon. If only he had 24-hour electricity, he would pay for it happily and say thank you, probably with his vote. Now I ask him when electricity comes in his village and his reply sounds as rehearsed and delivered as deadpan as dialogue from a Vishal Bhardwaj film: “Bijli aur maut ka kya bharosa, kab aa jaye. (Who can tell about electricity and death, who can predict when they will come).”

It is nobody’s case that life in India’s poorest zones has not improved. Even in eastern UP, the BPL stereotype of semi-starvation, deprivation, epidemics and malnourished children with bloated bellies is now over. The challenge is quality of life. People have enough to eat, reasonable clothing and increasingly, their homes have concrete roofs and brick walls. But this is not enough. In fact, they are even more impatient than in the past, because one thing each household has is a TV. So they know how life could have been for them and blame their leaders for denying them what their compatriots seem to enjoy. This is what Mulayam doesn’t get. And while his son probably does, he doesn’t count for that much.

This enclave along the Ganga, generally supported by the Delhi-Kolkata leg of the Golden Quadrilateral (mostly called Vajpayee ji ka swarnim chaturbhuj here), should have been one of the most prosperous and pampered zones in rural India. Between the constituencies of Allahabad, Phulpur and Bhadohi, it has given India three prime ministers (Nehru, Shastri, V.P. Singh) and nursed other stalwarts like Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and, of course, Amitabh Bachchan. Bhadohi is also the home of India’s mostly recession-proof export industry of hand-woven dhurries and carpets. But if it is one of the most miserable and backward regions, it tells you how this state’s politics has gone wrong. Also, why there is such a clamour for “badlaav (change)” now, or the charm of Narendra Modi.

Another 15 or so kilometres inland from Saidapur and you turn hard left into what looks like a scene from a dacoit film. Endless, dried, sandstorm churning Ganga flood-plains, except you can still manoeuvre an Innova over the temporary “track” of intermittent steel and Perspex plates laid during the Kumbh mela. Then a tricky crossing of the river over a pontoon bridge that shakes and stirs so scarily, even a driver’s quick invocation of Lord Hanuman doesn’t help. You then haul yourself into not a village but a town of sorts called Sirsa (yes, spelled exactly as the district town by the same name in Haryana). We find Akhilesh Yadav at his genuinely responsive rally here that fills the modest grounds of the Lala Ram Lal Agarwal Inter-College, built in 1931 as a mere inter-college but now with as many faculties as an impressive, small university. In fact, outside the women’s wing, you see the date-sheet for BSc examinations in environmental studies.

Akhilesh is cheered probably as we have seen no other leader cheered lately except Modi, Lalu and within his smaller, loyal crowds, Kejriwal. His message is also far from povertarian. Of course, he talks of his laptop freebie, but also of how many thousands of megawatts of power he is going to bring. But after all that, what is he promising? Eighteen hours of power a day for villages and 22 hours for cities — in 2016. Now you know why Modi creates a buzz when he talks of 24 hours of power in all of Gujarat. And, as Rama Chandra Tiwari, a farmer in nearby village Gandhiyon tells you, many people from here go and work in Gujarat and come back to say the same thing. Many also work in Mumbai and Delhi, but the calm and productive environment they find in Gujarat is unmatched. So is the power supply. This, therefore, is an entirely verifiable claim and requires no further propaganda or vindication, holographic or otherwise.

There is something charming and disarming about young Akhilesh’s demeanour. Doesn’t he feel done in by the cabal of old uncles that his father has unleashed on him? “At least I have managed them with respect,” he says, “in our politics elders have to be given their space.” Somebody says this is precisely what Rahul failed to do, without at the same time accepting any real responsibility. The problem with the Samajwadi Party, however, is that the real power still lies with the father, and his politics remains frozen in time. At a noon-time rally in Gyanpur near Bhadohi, he speaks a language you thought belonged in TV channel spoofs, something that Cyrus Broacha might have invented. The government, he says, has been cruel in keeping the poverty line at Rs 28 per day.

With this, you can’t even buy your breakfast. When “we” come to power, he says, he will raise it much higher and thereby declare many, many more of them poor. In these times of hyper-expectation and impatience, old Netaji is still selling poverty as a brand. Don’t ask me for a school, college, job, airport, highway, factories, you so-and-so. I will give you the red ration card and throw free grain at you, and you say thank you to me, my son, my brothers and my buddies and vote for us forever. For the record, two-thirds of the crowd had walked away by the time Netaji finished. Then you wonder why Modi is winning the war of 2014? You should also wonder how Sonia Gandhi overlooked Mulayam ji for an appointment to the NAC, her politburo of povertarianism.

My Lohia non-moment: As we entered the village of Gandhiyon, about 60 km from Allahabad, somebody mentioned the name of Ram Manohar Lohia, maybe because over the past four days, we had heard so many of his followers, from Nitish to Mulayam to Akhilesh. Somebody in the village then said, oh, don’t you know, this is his village. That caused a little flutter of excitement: does his house still exist? Of course it does. Can we see it, you can’t drive as it is across these fields. So we seemed to give up because we had to reach Allahabad in time for another meeting.

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The old reporter in me, however, got the better of my judgement and my knowledge of political history, or rather exposed the lack of it. I hectored a young motorcycle-riding bystander, a dead-ringer for Nawazuddin Siddiqui, if he would drive me on a rocky path through the harvested wheat fields to “Lohia ji’s” home. He agreed reluctantly, and reminded me his right footrest was broken, so I had better find a foothold on the exhaust while he belted across the dirt-and-stone track, with me contemplating a life without kneecaps. My friend was just 19 and, indeed, named Sunny Siddiqui. His bike and shades indicated either some wealth or a job. Sure enough, he told me, even as we skidded and steadied repeatedly, that he worked for Reliance, actually looked after their transmission tower in his village. Soon, we were at “Lohia ji’s” house. A half-dozen villagers had directed us to it. (See pictures on the Indian Express website and Facebook page.)

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It was a likely old home, a beautiful if understated early-20th century kind of facade and a single storey with a little cantilevered terrace on one side, where stood the young woman introduced as “Lohia ji’s” granddaughter. Soon his “nephew” also joined in. But both answered to the second name Yadav. I talked about this and that, about Lohia’s politics, his views, in English (since the “granddaughter” studied in English medium) and then both my interlocutors figured out what was going on.

“Aap shayad Ram Manohar Lohia ji ki baat kar rahe hain,” they said. “He wasn’t born here, but in Akbarpur in Faizabad,” the “nephew” said.

“Then whose home is this?” I asked, feeling like a stupid caricature from Edward Behr’s classic, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?

“Yeh Ram Manohar Yadav ji ka ghar hai, woh bhi ek bahut bade Lohiaite thhe,” he said.

That ended my ignominious Lohia non-moment. Google later reminded me how poorly informed even we older journalists are. And I can’t even blame Sunny Siddiqui for this. I wasn’t able to Google Lohia’s birthplace before setting out on that Kamikaze motorbike adventure because Airtel would only give me 2G on my BlackBerry. If I had Reliance instead, Sunny, in splits, reminded me, I would have saved myself, and him, the trouble.

sg@expressindia.com

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