Posts Tagged ‘Indian caste politics’

The state of Rajasthan has just concluded its elections for all local level bodies at the village, block and district level.

A week before the elections, in the little corner of rural Rajasthan where I currently live,  we had some unexpected visitors.  A man leading his aged sister and young veiled wife walked in, all of them bowing low with hands folded in namaste.  They were introduced to me as being from our village, and that the visit was to solicit our votes for the young woman in question.  I perked up instantly.  I had heard that this time round, the seat of the Sarpanch in our village was  reserved for a woman.

In a long line of thinking on the subject of grassroots democracy in independent India that started with the 1948 Constitutional debates on Gram Swaraj (“Self Rule”), followed by the enactment of Village Panchayat Acts by different state governments in the early 1950s, and  the many Committees that sat through the decades of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s to “remove inherent weaknesses” and “strengthen decentralized democracy”, the Constitution of India was amended  in 1992 (73rd. Amendment) to institute elected bodies at the village, intermediate and district level as Constitutional bodies, and strengthen them with financial resources and decision-making powers.  Further, the Amendment ensured that these bodies would have sufficient representation in them of “weaker sections” like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Women.

The system is that once every five years, a system of lotteries determines for which villages and wards within villages seats for Sarpanch and Panchayat members will be “reserved” exclusively for candidates who are Women or who belong to a scheduled caste (SC), or scheduled tribe (ST).  The Women category is further subdivided into “women general”, “women SC”, and “women ST”.

The young woman before me was a beneficiary of this affirmative action in favour of women in general.

After having ‘shown’ her to us the husband rose to leave folding his hands, and the two women accompanying made to follow suit.  I couldn’t believe that this was all that an electioneering visit consisted of.  In all my years of living in Mumbai, no candidate had ever come to my door, and I was determined to make the most of this visit. I invited them to stay on for a cup of tea, excited by what seemed to be an opportunity to engage with the candidate and find out what her agenda for the village was going to be should she win the election.

To my great surprise, the young woman said that she had no agenda at all.  She laughed a tinkling laugh and looked at me playfully through her veil, as if to imply what a silly question that was. I stared at her pretty face in disbelief and asserted that surely she must have some “vision” for the village?  Hadn’t she walked around? Hadn’t she met the people of the village?  Hadn’t they told her stuff? Hadn’t they wanted stuff done by their political representative?

She heard my questions with respectful indifference and silently glanced towards her man. He in turn now looked in a definite hurry to leave.  The older woman –  her sister-in-law – glanced at me in alarm as if I was being preposterous. Clearly they were all being called upon to go beyond the call of duty.

Aware only of the sudden freezing of the atmosphere in the room, but still continuing in my characteristic metropolitan, bookishly ignorant manner – the kind of attitude you encounter in English language TV political talk shows every evening, the kind of shows I watch -, I asked the young candidate to tell me why I should not have asked her the question.   “My vote is precious”,  I said, thinking I sounded cute and coy like her although I couldn’t quite bring out the same kind of tinkling laugh.

Her response this time was more spirited with an undertone of sarcasm.  “Everybody’s vote is precious”, she said.

I blundered on.  “Then you will have to convince me that you are the right person for me”.

By now she looked as if she really didn’t care about what I thought of her. “I don’t even live here”, she exclaimed.  “How would I know anything about this village?”

“Where do you live, then?”, I asked. “ If you don’t live here, why are you a candidate from here? What brings you to politics anyway?” I tried to show a kinder interest in her.  Besides, I was really curious.

“I thought I’d make a career for myself”, she said.  “My children have grown up.  I am literate and want to have something for myself and this is a good field to be in.  If I win, then I will think of what to do”. The honesty of a novice.  Once she became seasoned, she would know the right things to say.

Then, a little aggressively she went on, “And so what if I live in the city? I am from this village.  We have a house here”.

“Which belongs to her husband’s family and is kept locked up!” my husband laughingly injected.  He turned to me, “Surely you don’t think that they are going to leave their city base where her husband works, to come and live here!”

They all smiled and nodded as if a great joke had just been cracked. A little bit of bantering with some kind enquiries thrown in. A few smiles. A few bows and namastes.  That was all that this encounter was meant to be, something that both they and my husband – who was familiar with the local culture – had understood from the start.

But none of them had reckoned with me and my unwillingness to give up!  My simple mind which had kicked in and its simple bookish reflexes did not grasp the subterranean political consciousness that was on subtle display before me.  I was being kindly, politely, asked to mind my own business. And I didn’t get it.  I was already thinking that what the young woman needed was some assurance of moral support.  A boost to her self esteem.  I thought I could be of help in this.  “Why don’t you come to live here, at least for the next week before the election.  Walk around, talk to people.   You could talk to the women, take up their cause plagued as they are by their mens’ alcoholism.  And the cause of their children, who are having to witness domestic abuse everyday in the home.  There are so many issues in this village crying out to be addressed which even I, as an outsider who lives on the periphery, can see. But even if you take up the cause of only women and children, you will be making a dent.  The previous candidate from this village who won on a reserved seat for a “woman SC” did nothing for the village during her five year tenure…”

“But I am a Rajput,” she protested feebly, “and Rajput women are not expected to be seen outside the house nor are they allowed by their families to do so.  I cannot very well go around the village.  First let me see if I win.  Then I will think of something to do”.

I eagerly offered help in framing a manifesto, in defining issues, in helping brainstorm.  My husband, who could see my suicidal journey into nothingness, nevertheless felt compelled to support my stand.  “We will both help you,” he said.  “Become a candidate worthy of an election.  One of your opponents is a formidable Jat family and they might well win, and you must be prepared for that.  But even if you lose, go down honourably as a thoughtful candidate, as a person who did her best. As a woman who tried to make a difference.  As a clean person who did not try to buy votes with money or liquor.  Then you can make a comeback the next time when elections come around, on the basis of better familiarity with the issues in the village, with better contact and communication with the women of the village. But let the village know that there are people in it who want to work to set high standards for public office.”

By now the visit had extended to an hour.  It was a Sunday, probably the only day that the husband had earmarked for such visits.  They patiently heard us out, we who sounded far more passionate about the election than any emotion that the candidate or her husband were able to bring to their faces or words.  Finally, they bowed low with folded hands and left.

Ten days later the election results were announced.  The young Rajput woman had won.  The real story behind the whole thing was unraveled for me helpfully by Gopal who lives in the village and who hires out his camel cart to those who need things transported – grains for the market, bricks and gravel for house construction, etc.

The reason why she had sauntered into the village just a week before the election was not due to any neglect or near-sightedness on their part.  She just needed to be ‘shown’ to some influential households – and presumably we were one of these –  like the decorated bulls that are shown to people on the streets by mendicants when soliciting for alms.  For, it is not the women who are elected, but their husbands.

I learnt that the lowest common denominator for acceptability as a candidate is that the man must be seen as a decent sort.  It is he who has to work for the elections if his wife is to get elected.  After an election, it is again the husband who performs all the functions of the elected office, with his wife in mock attendance.  When important politicians visit the village or when elected representatives are expected to present themselves at the district or state headquarters, the women are escorted by their husbands and are generally expected to be visible but remain silent.  We learnt that our new Sarpanch’s husband was known to be decent.

Also, of all the candidates from the cluster of four villages in the constituency, he had spent the most money –  Rs. 14, 00, 000 or fourteen lakhs – on buying votes.  He had paid Rs. 4000 per vote across the four villages in the constituency, plus liquor for men who looked stubborn or who had an alcohol addiction (which must have accounted for a sizeable section of the constituency).

Thirdly, there was the caste factor.  The previous term had seen the election of a dalit woman, since the seat was then reserved for a woman who was from a scheduled caste.  And the term before that the Sarpanch had been a Brahmin.  Both belonged to our village, which has had a tradition of unspoken agreement that every caste must get its turn, since elected positions are seen, pragmatically, as nothing more than avenues to reap the spoils of office.

This time round, the two main contenders had been  a Rajput and a Jat.  Even before a rough consensus could be worked out, a powerful Jat from the village had gone over to the neighbouring small village – also part of our constituency – which had put up a Jat candidate, and promised to bring him all the Jat votes from our village in return for a payment to him of Rs. 400,000 (four lakhs).  When news of this deal leaked out, our village apparently decided to close ranks behind the Rajput candidate.  So, the notion of competitive village supremacy also played a role alongside caste.  With our village presenting a united front, the Rajput candidate was able to win over the undecided votes from the other villages in the constituency, where the presence of multiple candidates was splitting the votes.

One distinct trend in Panchayati Raj dynamics that is becoming clear with successive elections, is that the margin of victory is getting steadily thinner. This year’s Sarpanch election in my village,  for example, was won by a mere margin of 250 votes, illustrating that the overarching and unreformed framework of our national political elections, with caste (ever-widening concentric circles of competitive caste identities) and money (in burgeoning volumes)  at its core, has taken firm root at the grassroots.  Any romantic notion that might have existed, of villages as oases of relative innocence, is forever dead.

What is reverberating more distinctly as an outcome of the unreformed political ethos is that women’s invisibility is intact, even from the seats that are “reserved” for them.  Everybody in my village talks about the young woman’s victory as her man’s victory.  The woman’s name and her face on the posters on every wall in the village were – and are – the only connections with her.  She has no intention to move to the village and will remain an absentee Sarpanch.  Her spoils will come to her and her husband mainly from the finances that the Panchayat receives from the government, and from the contracts that she will periodically be called upon to give out for roads and other public works including MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme).

So much for those who believe that the way to women’s empowerment is paved through their token participation in village-level political institutions like Panchayati Raj.  Patriarchy, ever-present, trumps again and again.  Whether it is through the dowry they bring in, their physical labour at home, their income from employment, the sons that they bear, or their candidature in elections under the protective political umbrella of “reservations”, women still remain instruments for men’s sense of entitlement.


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Sita is an illiterate Regar dalit woman.  She is the sister-in-law of Susheela, in the earlier story.  Sita’s story illustrates how women from the same background as Susheela, Shanti and Meera, but with more daring, fewer scruples and stable, supportive and ambitious husbands, are turning the system to their own advantage.  Sita is one of a handful of women who have entered politics in the wake of availability of cash in their hands from land sales.

Until last year, Sita was a farm labourer, just like anybody else, earning Rs. 3000 a month.  Sita’s husband worked as a driver to a Jaipur jeweler.  As the eldest of four brothers, he had used his position of seniority just the year before, to corner a larger than fair share of the proceeds from the sale of the agricultural land that the brothers had jointly inherited from their father.

It was around this time that the position of Sarpanch (Head of the Village Council) in Sita’s village came to be ‘reserved’ – under one of the Government of India’s affirmative policies in favour of ‘depressed’ social groups – for a woman who was also a dalit.  The confluence, for the first time ever in this area, of three favourable factors for a woman entering politics – a seat reserved for a woman and a dalit, and the availability of ready cash to invest in the electioneering process –  was too good to pass up.

Sita dropped out of her job and took the blessings of  her former employer for her new career.  With the help of her husband who, too, gave up his job in order to be able to handle her election campaign, she plunged into the election process.

She had a powerful rival in Gita,  also a Regar from the larger neighbouring village which constituted another ward of the electoral constituency for this Panchayat.  As it happened Gita,  too, had once been an agricultural labourer on the same farm as Sita, and she, too, came to her former employer for his blessings.  Like Sita, Gita  too had access to large amounts of cash, from her family having sold off all their agricultural land to a developer from Delhi, who had bought off the whole village and is now constructing a township there.  She also had a supportive husband and grown-up loyal sons to work for her.  Most importantly, Gita had a few years earlier won a seat in the Village Panchayat as a member, on a ticket reserved for a woman.  That  experience of electoral success and access to local levers of power had emboldened her to take this next step to being Panchayat President.  Her village is nearly all Regars (unlike Sita’s which has a mix of castes),  and she expected her past political success and present wealth to help her win the votes of her fellow-caste members by a comfortable majority.

But Gita had not contended with the ambitions of the woman MLA from her own village, also a Regar (an MLA is a Member of the state Legislative Assembly) who had won the recent state-level elections on a seat reserved for her caste and gender, on a Congress Party ticket.  Wanting to extend her sphere of influence, and having already made a lot of money from both land sales and from using her access to political power, this lady set up her daughter-in-law as her proxy candidate.  This act, however, had the effect of dividing the Regar votes in the village;   the two women candidates (backed by their respective men) launched on an expensive war,  their glossy coloured posters carrying their respective photographs covering every inch of the walls in the village.

Common knowledge has it that all three women – with their husbands solidly behind them – spent money like water, bribing voters to vote for them.  Common knowledge has it that voters took money from all three candidates, but voted for the person of their choice.  Common knowledge has it that the MLA’s proxy candidate – her daughter-in-law – was rejected by the voters, and in a smaller way, Gita too had repelled the voters, for the reason that these women rivals’ prior experience of political power lent a certain arrogance and raw display of money power to their campaign;  the voters decided to teach them a lesson.  The Regar caste vote was, thus, not only divided by the presence of two rival candidates from the same village;  the vote for Sita was a vote for a politically untainted person who was also appropriately more modest.   The general consensus was that Sita, who won by a comfortable margin,  had spent the least of the three women on bribes.

Within a couple of months of the election, Sita’s image as a modest and humble person underwent a makeover.  Rumours began to abound that Sita had started making money hand-over-fist.  With Panchayati Raj, and the devolution of control over village development finances into the hands of village-level elected leaders, the democratization of corruption was afoot.  So, yes, hurrah for that!  At least government money was not all being eaten up at the Centre, State or District levels, with only a feeble trickle into the villages.    But I did not hear any “hurrah !  here is a woman making money whereas earlier the privilege was being cornered by men!”  Because, everyone saw Sita’s money-making as really accruing to her husband.  And as a  proxy for her family.

A couple of months into her Sarpanch-hood, Sita  and her husband began to be spotted driving around in a brand new car which could not have cost anything less than rupees 4.5 lacs (Rs. 450,000).  Sita switched to wearing silk saris (from her former traditional simple Rajasthani skirts and veils), and could be seen at all times hobnobbing with the better-off families in the village and with the powerful political bosses at the district (Zilla Parishad) level.  Less than five months into her tenure, Sita  and her husband launched on the vacation of their lives:  a Bharat Yatra or grand All-India Tour,  that covered Delhi and Mumbai, Tirupati and Benaras, Goa and Gwalior…

It is now rumoured that Sita and her husband are making serious money from a public works project that has been approved.  Sita  already feels emboldened to contest for one of the reserved seats for women in the elected District Council (Zilla Parishad) and the Mandi Committee (Committee that controls prices in the wholesale vegetables and grain market for a group of villages in this region).

Everybody in Sita’s village speaks about her with respect…and agrees that she is doing very well for herself…After all, she has captured power, and what else does one enter politics for, if not to make money?  they ask.  She has became a role model for other women in the village…and those who have begun to dare to dream of rising above their dreary daily lives visit her to pay their respects and solicit her opinion on what government-related job opportunities at the village level they ought to be working towards…

I recently ran into Sita,  and in the course of conversation asked her what projects she had taken up for her constituency.  She replied that she had managed to get the government to sanction a water connection (a hand-pump) for the village hunter.  Was that all? I wondered to myself.  What about sanitation, the general cleanliness of the village streets and the common areas, I asked her?  How about working with the local schools to raise public awareness against the throwing of plastic bags and tea glasses and other wastes into open spaces, and bring in practical environmental education into the schools’ curricula so that the villages could look forward to a cleaner, brighter future?

Sita folded her hands respectfully and bowed to me, saying “Satyavachan” (“nothing could be truer…this is a job crying out to be done”). But she apologised for lack of time…she was going to be very busy for the next few weeks in preparation for getting her nomination approved for the elections to the Mandi Committee and Zilla Parishad (I assumed this meant visiting the powerful figures involved, etc.).  Even as she spoke, with a respectful smile playing about her lips, Sita’s eyes looked at me pityingly, as if to say, “Are these itty-bitty things all you can think of, lady?  Can’t you see that I am on to much bigger things in life? “

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