Achhala gets into election mode with night meeting

As election date nears, electioneering gets to a slow start. After Congress candidate’s night meeting with locals, Achhala folks wait for ‘meetings’ of the other candidates

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Ashish Mehta | December 10, 2012


This late-night meeting on December 7 was Acchala’s first brush with this year’s assembly elections
This late-night meeting on December 7 was Acchala’s first brush with this year’s assembly elections

“Tonight, we will have a meeting in the village. Mohansinh-bhai (Rathwa, the Congress candidate) is coming,” Suresh Rathwa told me. Suresh, a soft-spoken young farmer, runs a grocery shop, leads the pack of Achhala village’s followers of a new sect, Sat Kewal Saheb, and is the elected member to the village panchayat (which is based in Bhilpur, comprising five villages including Achhala).

He is also known to be a BJP campaigner. But the meeting on the night of December 7 was more of a social event and a BJP man inviting you for a Congress election meet was not a surprise. He and his friends were there by evening.

The host was Bilsinh-bhai Rathwa, a veteran Congress supporter and former elected representative to the district panchayat. He is also the owner of the only house in the village with an upper storey, which thus serves as the venue for any community meeting – the previous day, about a dozen farmers had gathered there (and Bilsinh himself did not even need to be there) when a drip irrigation company wanted to make a sales pitch.

Tonight, it was a different kind of sales pitch. The meeting was to be at night, beyond that there was no point in fixing a time. When I reached the place at around 7, there was a small gathering across the road, at one of the four-five shops of the village, next to the only school, which will incidentally serve as the polling booth. Youngsters were fooling around, children were playing and the aging took their seats on the benches (on each of which somebody has put tar on the lines that these were built from Bilsinh’s funds).

They were busy narrating their encounters with bears, quite common at night, and when the electricity supply for irrigation is at night, the farmers can’t avoid them. There was a serious discussion on how to distinguish the monkey shit from the bear shit (the latter could be sticky) and which trees attract bears at night. As Ravji Rathwa, he with his impressive moustaches and more impressive oratory, held forth, a couple of teenagers described how they were assaulted by bears at night, and sought tips for such occasions.

Politics, in other words, was not on the agenda.

Getting set for the meet
Meanwhile, Bachu, seating next to Ravji one moment, getting up and saluting every shop customer, was already drunk. He was holding dialogues imaginary and otherwise but with his slur it was difficult to follow him. Yet, he repeated this threat, at the prompting of a couple of fun-seeking younger ones: “I will speak. If no others speak, I will. I will ask questions.” At the meeting, that is.

A word soon came from the house, which sported two rows of blue and red blinking lights, previously employed during the Diwali holidays. The food was ready. “It is like ‘jaan’ (the bridegroom’s party), no need for an invite. Let’s go,” somebody said. (The comparison was to be repeated when the meeting proper was about to start.) Half the crowd went to the right of the house, and took seats on the ground in a row for the feast (menu: dal, sabzi and a sweet item called laapsi, the staple of feasts at marriage and similar occasions, and I found it rather tasty after days of surviving on makke-ki-roti). Separate arrangements for women, who didn’t turn up in good numbers but noticeable they were.

Back to benches, now waiting for the bridegroom. Rolling of bidis, chewing of khaini ensued. Bachu, like most smokers, had a sheaf of timru leaves in his breast pocket and when he heard that the newcomer here didn’t know how to roll a leaf into a bidi, he proceeded to give me a demonstration, while smoking one. No politics discussed yet. Even the venue is bereft of the usual political iconography – no posters, no handbills, no party symbol anywhere.

Larger crowds were soon breaking into small huddles, many leaving for home – it was dark, a bear could be roaming and in any case the main thing was accomplished. Many like Bhalubhai had not turned up because, as he had said earlier in the day, “We don’t go to (election) meetings. Ours is a small household, there is work on the farm.” R. opened up when he learned of the presence of a journalist in the company. “See, who brought all this development here? Who built those wells? The Modi government. You see, we have to come here to show our face, but who knows whom I will vote for once I am inside (motioning to the school)? Moreover, there is a difference between hearing from others and listening (to the candidate) oneself. (So we have come.)”

He greeted Vikram Rathwa, who was greeting me. Now R. was surer of my identity (he spends most time on his farm three km away and hence little seen in the village). Vikram has put an old, worn-out BJP poster showing Modi and the then state party president, Purushottam Rathwa, along with photos of deities – though on a separate wall.

“We are from the same family,” R. said. The way it is, there must be a total of five families in this village of 2,000-plus. Is family a unit of relation or household or clan? The clarification came unasked: “Our doha (grandfather) has 26 chulhas (cooking stoves) in this village.” Kitchen signifies a household.

As more got up and started leaving, the few fellow Congress workers listlessly shouted that the cars had left the neighbouring village and they all would be here soon. Hardly any women were left now. Not so soon, Bilsinh arrived in an SUV, wearing the regular white khadi kurta-chudidar, and asked if everybody had food. Yes. “They are just coming, behind me.” He asked people to come nearer to the row of ten plastic chairs, which served as the dais, and people moved a bit while sitting on a black tarpaulin spread over the ground. So, the supporting staff came to the fore. One of them muttered, “The public does not understand.” But the public was pleaded more courteously, “Friends, will you please come slightly forward? Come, come.”

Acchala’s first brush with polls 2012
It was 9.30 by the time the main party arrived; fellow campaigners in SUVs, the candidate himself in an Innova. Mohansinh (khadi kurta etc plus Nehru jacket, no Congress scarf) apologised with folded hands, “I am sorry, friends, for the delay. Did you have food? On the way, every village stopped us. ‘Just talk to us for five minutes,’ they said,” said the eight-term MLA and former minister who currently represents the pre-limitation neighbouring Pavi-Jetpur.

Not counting the couple of newspapers that come to the village, less than dozen TV sets which mostly play entertainment channels, word coming in from bigger villages via people, and the occasional campaign vehicles throwing pamphlets, this late-night meeting was Acchala’s first brush with the assembly elections 2012. It now got down to business. A leader introduced the leader (“elected MLA since 1971, the senior most member of the assembly, pride of our community”), and then the speech.

The crowd swelled a bit, some women stretched their necks sitting by the window in the houses and huts nearby. The women of the host’s family assembled in the verandah of the first floor of the house. What Mohansinh said, in his tone of the village elder giving guidance but with wit and colloquial humour spiced with anecdotes, was in contrast to the formal, short speech his BJP rival Gulsinh made at Tejgagh (a bigger village 2 km away) dished out. If an issue did not touch upon the quotidian lives of villagers in these parts, then it was not in his speech. The ones he touched upon included:

* The lease to carry sand from the Orsang river: why should it be given to outsiders and why not the local farmers who are affected by the river’s destruction? (The question was not why such leases should not be stopped. A local daily that day had alleged that Gulsinh’s son-in-law was running a racket of granting lease permissions.)

* The Modi government is changing a rule about inheritance of property. To register inherited land and other you will have to pay stamp duty at the current market price. Modi (singular, not the formal plural of courtesy) spends in crores and then this is how he plans to make money.

* I was a sarpanch in 1965, we used to issue all certificates in the village. Now everything is – what do they call it? ‘Online’ – yes, online. So spend Rs 20-25, go to Chhota Udepur, stand in a queue and they will say the computer is not working today, come tomorrow. Waste your day’s wages or farm work.

* In the land record (called saat-baar or 7-12), they don’t mention the trees you have grown. So 20 years later you go to seek permission to cut the tree (this is forest land) and they will say these trees are not mentioned in the saat-baar. You say, but the trees are very much here. But, no, you can can’t them. What do you do then? Then the officer will tell you, ‘You will have to do something for me’ (gesture of counting money). This government has brought rules like this. We are only 52 (Congress MLAs), they are 123. If you vote us in power, we will change such rules. (Meanwhile, it seemed somebody was clapping as if to give a prompt, but he was only preparing his khaini. Bachu then filled his promise, he slurred speech was now more audible than Mohansinh’s. Some laughed, others picked him and took him away, but he came back. The speaker paid no attention to this seemingly routine matter and went on:)

* Beat guard recruitment process is not youth-friendly.

* Village-level cooks and staff of the mid-day meal scheme are being retrenched.
* Housing for BPL under Indira Awaas Yojana: the village has numerous beneficiaries and many eyeing it.

* “And we have many such pledges, which we have printed in pamphlets. You might have received them (they did, the previous day).We are distributing them to every village in Gujarat.”

* Moreover, “Many of our folks are forced to go out to work as labourers. If they cannot come to vote, please tell us, arrangements will be made for them to come home. Luxury buses can be arranged.” Did anybody have any questions to ask, confusion to clear, he asked.

Villagers remained silent. (It was quite late in the night, but time here is told in round figures and nobody bothered about any election campaign rules. In any case, there was no campaign material anywhere.)

As the meeting was formally over, those with ‘questions’ and ‘confusions’ sought out the candidate. “This is our vevai (son or daughter’s father-in-law),” one village-level party supporter introduced a fellow to Mohansinh, and then presented the problem, something about recruitment for a government job. Mohansinh listened patiently, very patiently for this time of the day after hours of hard campaigning, and promised full help. Another had a trickier problem, for which the only solution could be, “Once we form the government…”.

On the way to his car, Mohansinh sought out Bachu, the troublemaker, who held his hands and made a few steps of dance. The candidate complied with a smile.

Two villagers who helped me find way back immediately started off with their analysis. “Spoke nice things, but delivering is a different matter.” “Yes, they all want credit. Who started this 108 (the ambulance service run across Gujarat by an NGO in association with the state government, lifeline of remote villages)? Sonia Gandhi (that is, Congress) has so many chief ministers; how come those states don’t have this service?”

The next events Achhala folks awaited were ‘meetings’ of the three other candidates: Gulsinh Rathwa (BJP), Arjun Rathwa (JD-U) and Shankarsinh Rathwa (Gujarat Parivartan Party).

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