Voting in wilderness

Far from the maddening crowds and their mass media, in a far-flung village, how and why do these tribals vote?


Ashish Mehta | December 11, 2012

While Cong held the tribal votes for years, the BJP came up post-Godhra. But now saffron party apprehensive of the Keshubhai’s GPP factor.
While Cong held the tribal votes for years, the BJP came up post-Godhra. But now saffron party apprehensive of the Keshubhai’s GPP factor.

You traverse the whole 2oth century in reverse when you arrive at Achhala. First you leave Delhi, then Ahmedabad, then Vadodara. As you approach Chhota Udepur, the virtual capital of Gujarat’s tribal belt, you see more and more shades of green, and fewer and fewer roadside hoardings.

Achhala is nestled among scattered hills. Huts and an odd pucca dwelling too are scattered amid fields of cotton and maize. A small, potholed road linking two not-so-small villages leisurely passes through Achhala – the villagers’ main connection to civilisation, not counting the three TV sets among a population of 2,000-odd and the ubiquitous mobile phones.

This should be an ideal setting to observe elections: away from cities with their neon-lit poll ads and know-all talking heads in TV studios and large numbers of non-voters, and amid folks whose life depends more on vagaries of nature and our governance, and who vote religiously.

And yet, this vantage point should not disappoint anyone looking for newsy political trends. One significant post-Godhra trend in Gujarat is the inroads BJP has made in the tribal belt, once a formidable Congress stronghold. With Saurashtra looking risky, the ruling party is focusing to consolidate its hold in the tribal pockets. And what better place to study how that trend is proceeding on the ground than this village?

When November was about to end, and polling day was less than 20 days away, the village was, in the clichéd epithet of journalese, as sleepy as ever. There were no signs of elections. No SUVs sweeping past, no posters, no neighbourhood meetings and no door-to-door campaigns yet.

“Panchayat elections see more action here. Everybody knows candidates then. But don’t worry. Meetings and campaigns will start once the names are declared,” Zinabhai Rathwa had then advised.

A mention of Rathwa needs a footnote. Rathwa is the prominent community of the village, the other being Nayak. Both are sub-groups of the Bhil community but Nayaks, sometimes called Nayakas, have little or no landholding, and are placed lower in the social hierarchy. Everyone is a farmer here, working on their own fields or of others’.

Average landholding could be two to four acres, and main crops are maize, cotton, rice and vegetables on the side. Most households have cows, buffaloes, hen and sheep, though under the influence of reformist Hindu sects they profess to have given up non-vegetarian diet.

Harish Rathwa, who also runs one of the four or five small grocery shops, apart from tending his field, is a veteran BJP campaigner. While attending to customers, he said, “Whoever is the candidate, we will vote only for Modi-saheb. Only lotus.”

Why? In response, he explained the whole emergence of BJP here: “Earlier, during the Congress rule, we all remained backward. If we went to a government office, we could not even talk to officers. After Modi (assumed office), we have got roads here. The ‘108’ service (ambulance) is so helpful. The government has given us money for house — I got Rs 42,000 for mine. It could be under Indira Awaas Yojana or Sarsar Yojana.

“Now we have the confidence to enter a government office and present our case. In the last five years, we have benefitted even more — the only school in the village was up to class VIII, now it has been extended to class X and soon (would be upgraded to) class XII.

“Earlier, we put our thumb print wherever we were asked to... We didn’t know. Now we know; we know where things are going wrong. Earlier, there was only one party, so leaders could afford to ignore us. Now there are two parties, so they have to listen to us.”

Not all hunky-dory with development dreams
But people in other neighbourhoods were not all in agreement with this story. Kalubhai Rathwa and others assembled said power supply was not regular. They get eight to 10 hours of electricity each day in three phases for irrigation and the supply is at night every alternating week. That is a problem, especially when they have to also worry about snakes in the field and an occasional tiger.

The national employment guarantee scheme (NREGS) is something they have only heard about, though NREGS works are carried out in a neighbouring village. As a result, seasonal migration of the landless, for work in cities or fields, shows no signs of abating. The nearest primary health centre is in Haridaspur, some 3 km away.

There are teenagers roaming around fields the whole day who are illiterates, though by their own choice. There are no toilets except in a couple of homes.

Though there were no visible signs of electioneering yet, villagers were keenly following developments. Anyone returning from the nearby bigger village of Tejgadh would bring news — and sometimes the newspaper too. Most middle-aged men readily gave the recent history of the constituency, with voting margin, and the likely equations this time.

“Way back, Sukrambhai Rathwa was the MLA from Congress. In 2002, Shankarbhai (Rathwa, better known as ‘professor’) beat him. In 2007, BJP gave the ticket to Gulsinh Rathwa and he won. Now let us see who gets the ticket. It is still not clear who will be the candidate from the Congress. Just wait,” said Suresh Rathwa, of BJP, and the village’s representative to the gram panchayat in Bhilpur.

Everyone was ready to talk about leading political names: who contested local-body elections the last time and in the election before that, who changed the party and why it was not good for him, who would cut whose votes this time, who was from which part of the constituency and whose victory will bring developmental and welfare funds to this side. One name many mentioned respectfully was Shankar ‘Kopesar’, that is, professor, a teacher. Will the BJP bring him back this time?

Do they all vote? “Hundred percent,” said Sureshbhai. “We all vote (and) even take those who can’t walk to the polling station.”

Why? Most thought it was mandatory, a duty; some said the election officers on duty at the polling station would call them out by evening if they had not voted. (By the way, the polling percentage for the whole constituency was a mere 51 percent in 2007.)

Hemsinh put the whole case at length quite eloquently: “In the democratic process, voting right is such a thing that… we have this social system, to ensure that the leaders who rule over us deliver benefits to us, listen to our grievances, help us. We elect such leaders. If they don’t do the job, we can change them in five years. Not like the time of kings. That way, voting is good for people. In these 60 years, we have benefited a lot. The bonded labour system was banned. Earlier, who would listen to the poor? But thanks to elections, they do.

“In 50 years, so many governments came, gave us loans, built wells, so we became self-dependent. Lights (electricity) came, schools came, so children studied.”

Last-minute ‘benefits’, worries
One benefit of voting people talked about in hushed tones was the election-eve freebies. “Oh, yes, they all give. Of course, we vote for the candidate we will vote for. But sometimes some people vote for those who served liquor the night before polling. I haven’t seen an election without it,” says Rameshbhai. “People here have small demands — just serve them liquor and pay Rs 10 or Rs 20.”

And that auspicious day was nearing. No one had a clue of any code of conduct in effect, except for the rumour that ‘army’ had come to Godhra, in neighbouring Panchmahal district, to ensure prohibition and check against liquor supply at the state border.

On November 29-30, candidates filed their nominations: Gulsinh Rathwa (BJP), the sitting MLA, Mohansinh Rathwa, the sitting MLA of the neighbouring Pave-Jetpur for Congress, Arjun Rathwa for JD(U), and Shankar Rathwa from Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP).

The final line-up left Achhala confused. Vikrambhai’s first reaction was apprehension: not whom to vote for, which he would decide coolly, but with whom to be seen canvassing around.

“One (candidate) is a relative; his daughter is married into our in-laws’ family,” he said. “The other is from our village. The third has worked in the NGO that has benefitted us a lot — I also worked with him. I don’t know what to do.”

The BJP supporter who spoke of voting for “Modi-saheb, irrespective of the candidate” — a call repeatedly given by the chief minister — changed his tune. Harish now said, “It would have been nice if the party had given the ticket to Kopesar (Shankarbhai). Now the whole enthusiasm goes away.”

His reason is somewhat personal: “Kopesar is a gentleman. If you go to him, he will greet you, ask about your problem, will immediately call up officers to solve it. Gulsinh is different. He will sit there quietly, without greeting you. If you tell him about your problem, he will ask his peon to do the needful. Is that the way to do things?”

Soon the invitation came for Gulsinh’s first public meeting in the constituency, right in Tejgadh, but the campaigner decided to give it a miss even while sending a whole team there.

A youngster says few days are now left. Yes, till the previous week, they were taking it calmly, and now post nomination, it seems 17-18 days are too short a period to do all those ‘faliya’ meetings where a whole bunch of households will go one way or the other depending on a complex set of equations including family ties, native place, pressing local problems, past track records in delivering funds and solving problems. Not to mention the hooch.

(Some names have been changed to protect identity.)



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