In those long ago Nehruvian socialist times when we wore our poverty proudly on our sleeves,only the prime minister used to fly to election meetings. As an innocent,young reporter with a naïve faith in our socialist ways,I saw nothing wrong with this not even when I saw the impression it made on illiterate voters. I remember vividly an election in Uttar Pradesh when Mrs Gandhi was prime minister and the effect her chopper had on the audience.
Election rallies in those days were attended mostly by villagers who were either illiterate or almost illiterate and the looks on their faces when they saw the udan khatola was something to behold. Some gasped in wonder,others ran helter-skelter to escape the clouds of dust and women and children cowered in terror. When they saw Mrs Gandhi emerge out of the flying machine,they gazed at her as if she were a goddess descended from another planet.
How the times have changed. In the election in Uttar Pradesh,whose results next week could change the destiny of Rahul Gandhi,there were so many leaders flying about in helicopters that they no longer caused even a flicker of excitement. I happened to be chatting with Dalit voters in a village in Rae Bareli when Sonia Gandhi flew overhead and I was the only one who bothered to look up at the sky. Political leaders in choppers are now a common sight even in one of our poorest states.
The average voter has no idea that it costs lakhs of rupees an hour to fly in private aeroplanes and helicopters so they ask no questions. But,as someone whose duty it is to report on political and economic changes,I found myself pondering over many weighty questions as I bumped along the ribbon of broken tarmac that is the road from Rae Bareli to Amethi.
As I went past schools that had no walls,mud hut villages of the most primitive kind and filthy bazaars filled with flies,I found myself wondering whether the Election Commission would not do well to include a ban on aerial transport in its code of conduct. If politicians were forced to drive around their constituencies,they would get a much better understanding of the daily problems their constituents face. And,that is only the half of it.
If we want to expose some of the black money that funds electoral democracy in India then an excellent way is to track aerial transport. Then there is the level playing field question. Should candidates not be morally bound to terrestrial transport during election campaigns? If incumbent governments can be banned from announcing new development projects for fear that this might give them an unfair advantage then what about the advantage that flying candidates get over their earth- bound opponents?
Besides,since all our political parties swear by the tenets of socialism,are they not ashamed to be wasting so much money on flying about at election time? This leads us steadily but surely to an even more important question. How did our political parties become so rich as to be able to afford to send their candidates off in private aeroplanes and helicopters? Where do they get their money from? From the accounts they,and most candidates,make public of their income and assets,they should not be able to afford public transport so what is going on here? And,why is it not possible to stop?
Commentators of leftist persuasion never fail to point towards the widening gap between the richest Indians and the poorest,and they blame this on economic liberalisation,but they appear not to have noticed the widening gap between our political leaders and us. Nowhere is this more evident than in poorer states like UP where you have only to become a politician and you suddenly become rich enough to afford homes,cars,foreign universities for your children and private choppers to fly around in. Those who voted for you,meanwhile,continue to eke out an existence much as they have always done. They have to make do with government handouts and MNREGA type largesse. Not right at all.
So as for me I could not care less who wins in Uttar Pradesh next week. The only person the results will make a real difference to is Rahul Gandhi who has put his heart,soul,blood,sweat and tears into the campaign. May he do much better than he did in Bihar. For me,what has continued to trouble me since I returned from seeing the splendour in which the politicians of Uttar Pradesh live and the poverty in which their constituents rot is why this disparity should exist? Is this the socialism Jawaharlal Nehru dreamed of? Is this the India of our dreams?
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ Tavleen_Singh