India’s governments traditionally rely heavily on the rural vote to win office, but many villagers have grown tired of empty campaign promises and have decided to boycott this year’s elections.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Garda travelled to a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where voters told him power is at the heart of the issue.
Phase one of the largest democratic exercise in history done and dusted. About 60 per cent of those registered turned up to cast their ballot and despite the deadly Maoist rebel attacks on Bihar, Jharkand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, India felt optimistic that the opening round of the elections was a resounding success.
So it felt natural that on our first free evening in New Delhi, we should sample the nightlife. The bureau intern recommended a lounge in the southern part of the capital. An hour later we found ourselves in Saket.
Foreigners are warned in my India guide book that the country is an assault on the senses. I don’t think they meant the type of senses that we felt were being assaulted.
No chapati for glitterati
The “lounge” was a combination of a nightclub, restaurant and fashion show, which one would be more accustomed to finding in the side streets of Milan than here in India.
|Imran Garda reports on the villagers’ election boycott|
Sports cars zoomed up to the entrance, their Salman Khan look-a-like owners chucking the keys nonchalantly to the man at the door to find a temporary home for the sparkling beauties.
Women in revealing skirts sipping champagne mingled and flattered each other as true socialites do, while down the aisle, diners ordered Tuna Tataki and skinny Mochachinos. I felt for dal (Indian beans) and chapati bread, but I couldn’t find it on the menu.
These were the glitterati of New Delhi. Everything around us smacked of a booming economy, made sense of eight per cent average growth over the past five years, and spoke of a nation swimming in riches beyond compare.
We were under-dressed and overwhelmed, because it was only less than a week before, and merely 150kms away from here, that we met Chanderpaul Singh and the village of Deriyo, whom it would seem lived on another planet.
It took us four hours to get to Deriyo village, or Dera as it is known to some of the locals.
The daytime drive from New Delhi pierced through dusty streets, sights and sounds of cows, temples, mosques, auto-rickshaws and one man on a motorcycle driving on the highway with his wife and two small children squeezed on the same seat – without helmets.
The village is close to the town of Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, and its inhabitants are Dalits. The so-called “untouchables” are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder based on the archaic, and outlawed, caste system.
Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister is the charismatic Mayawati, a Dalit herself and in her fourth term in office.
No power, no vote
We arrived just in time for the informal “Panchayat”, or gathering of elders, discussing the village’s most pressing issues.
Amid the 40 degree Celsius heat and pitter-patter of the village children playing on the periphery of the meeting desperate for me to take their pictures, two articulate and strong-willed characters quickly emerged from this meeting.
“We won’t allow anyone to campaign here. We will kick them out if they come here.” This seemingly hostile tone from one of the men, Kalwar Singh, was in stark contrast to the warmth our film crew was shown.
|Even the electricity cables find these poor Dalit farmers “untouchable”|
“We don’t have electricity. They always promise so much but this time we’re standing up to them. It’s not just our village but the neighbouring villages as well. We are 5,000 people who won’t vote.”
According to the Indian economics research firm Indicus, 69 per cent of all Indians have access to power. In Uttar Pradesh, which happens to be India’s largest state, that number drops to 38 per cent.
I asked the other strong voice from the crowd, Chanderpaul Singh, to take me for a short tour of the village. I needed to see for myself if they were genuine in their claims.
Aha! On the outskirts of the village, I spotted electricity cables. Could they have been lying?
“Chanderpaul-jee you keep saying you have no electricity. But what’s that I see? Those are power cables.”
He put my suspicions to rest, explaining that those cables provide power to the adjacent farm, but avoid the village.
Even the electricity cables find these people “untouchable”. The irony is that most of the village actually works on this farm’s wheat fields, earning a pittance to stay alive.
But what about Mayawati? Is she not the champion of the rights of Dalits? Is this possible future prime minister of India (if the Third Front can form a ruling coalition) not a hero to these people? This is, after all, her state.
“We don’t trust her anymore. She may be one of us but Mayawati has done nothing for us. My five children can’t study at night, my wife can’t cook anything decent for the family and life is very hard.” Chanderpaul Singh didn’t mince his words.
We stayed until well beyond sunset and it was true, the village was plunged into darkness.
I kept wondering how much of an effect 5,000 villagers boycotting the vote would have on a nation that has 714 million set for the ballot boxes. But is not the right to dissent and boycott integral to any democracy?
Perhaps we’d need to visit Deriyo in 5 years time. I doubt they’ll be serving up Tuna Tataki by then, but a few street lights, light bulbs and maybe electric cooking stoves would convince them to take part in 2014.
It’s the contradictions in this billion-strong emerging power that fascinate, aggravate and amaze.
Chanderpaul Singh’s wife cooked a one-course meal for her family of seven that night – they ate chapatis.