If Kajal takes pride in being one of the only two students in the eastern Uttar Pradesh village of Baksha who won a laptop from the government last year on the basis of her class ten score – 86.3% – she does not show it. Even her parents are understated in their joy over their youngest-born’s achievement.
“Mehnat ki bachchi ne.” Our daughter worked hard, said her father Shardanand, a grey-haired man in his fifties, as he lowered a headload of potatoes to the ground with a smile.
The family had spent the day digging the potatoes they had sown in November on their tiny farm, smaller than one-fifth of an acre. One quintal of seed potatoes bought at a cost of Rs 1,100 had yielded seven quintals of potatoes, of which two quintals had been sold for Rs 1,200. With the investment recouped, a portion of the remaining potatoes will be saved for the family, and a few more quintals will be sold for a few more hundred rupees. In the summer, the same cycle will be repeated with maize. In between, Shardanand will look for some daily wage work, and he and his wife will hope to get some remittances from their sons who are working in Gurgaon.
Despite living in such precarious circumstances, the couple did not shy away from putting money on Kajal’s education.
They sent her to a private school from class six onwards, paying a monthly fee of Rs 300 from class eight to class ten. Part of the reason to choose a private school was the proximity. Baksha, in Jaunpur district, has three government primary schools, but the middle school and the high school are some distance away. “She would have had to cross the highway, cross the railway line, walk another kilometre and half. We thought it was better to send her closer,” said Shardanand. “Bachchi hai.” She is a girl.
But even for their boys, the first preference of Baksha’s residents is a private school. The refrain is that in the government schools, “the master log come and mark attendance and then spend the day sipping chai”.
While parents spurn government schools, teachers covet them. The starting salary of a primary grade teacher in a sarkari school is about Rs 45,000, while jobs in private schools fetch as little as Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000, said Sarvesh Kumar Yadav, who teaches at the Vivekananda Junior Girls School, where Kajal studied till class ten. Such is the allure of a government job that when the founder-principal of the Vivekananda school got selected for one last year, he left the daily management of his own school to Yadav and others, and moved to Gonda, 200 km away, to take up his government posting. “He spends the week there and the weekend here,” said Yadav.
It isn’t just teachers who have one foot in the government education system and another in the private one. For all practical purposes, Kajal studied at Vivekanand, but the teaching was couched as “after-school tuitions”, since Vivekanand School does not have government recognition beyond class eight. To ensure she could appear for the board exams, Shardanand had simultaneously enrolled Kajal in the government school.
He took all this trouble in the hope that one of his children would graduate.
“I am a high school fail,” he said, squatting next to his wife, Asha, outside their brick home in Baksha’s Harijan basti, home to Chamars, the Dalit caste to which Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati belongs. “I was in class one when we got married,” he said, exchanging glances with Asha. “By class seven, the gauna happened, and she came home. By class ten, our first one was born. That was the end of my education.” Asha smiled, but protested: “Kha pi ke jaayin, picture dekh chale aayin.” He would eat and leave for school, watch a film, and come back.
Their older sons could not go much further, dropping out after high school to pursue factory jobs in the cities. Kajal’s sister, too, was married off to a factory worker. “Ek shaher hai Gurgoan.” There is a city called Gurgaon. They make chappals there.
The younger son made it to college but then fell in love with a classmate. Her parents did not approve and the young couple eloped to Mumbai last year.
Kajal is the only one left to fulfill Shardanand’s dreams.
In the Harijan basti of Baksha, dreams are hard won. Families have few assets. Everyone lives from hand to mouth.
“Hum yeh jaante hai ki haath per salamat hai to kamaa khaa lenge.” We know if our limbs are intact, we will earn enough to feed ourselves, said Lal Chand Gautam, who had returned from Delhi in November after the shoe factory, where he and his son worked, shut shop. The owner had no money to pay wages. The government’s decision to demonetise 86% of India’s currency has led to massive layoffs in industrial areas around India, including Delhi.
In the village, his brother, Dhruv Rai, who pushed a handcart and rented out diesel-fuelled lights for weddings, was struggling to find customers. The loss of income had forced the family to harvest potatoes early. “There is no money to buy vegetables,” said Lal Chand. “Kya khayenge. What will we eat.”
He admits that some of the residents of Harijan Basti were swept in the Modi wave of 2014 and had voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The Congress’s time was up. Mayawati could not have won Delhi. So people thought, let’s look at the BJP. Everybody should get a chance.”
Two and a half years later, there is disappointment. “There has been no other benefit from the Modi government. Only gas.” He was referring to the LPG cylinder that the family had been allotted under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana.
What about Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party government? “Aheers will tell you about the benefits, not the Chamars,” was the cryptic answer. Aheer is another name for the Yadav caste group.
Not that the Bahujan Samaj Party government had delivered them any benefits, he hastened to add, but at least the administration was more responsive. “There was fear among officials and the police. Now masters while away their time drinking tea, but under Mayawati, whether masters or managers, they all reported to duty on time.”
There is no ambiguity over who they are voting for this time. “Yadavs vote for their Mulayam, we vote for our Mayawati behenji,” said Lal Chand, repeating what is now conventional wisdom in the state.
But the Bahujan Samaj Party poster on the wall of his house punctured this neat binary. The Bahujan Samaj Party candidate in Malhani assembly constituency in which Baksha falls is a Yadav – Vivek Yadav. Lal Chand explained the calculation: “Our votes will definitely go to him, he will also get some votes of Yadavs and some votes of Mohammedans.”
This time, the Bahujan Samaj Party does not have a discernible statewide social coalition on the lines of its Dalit-Brahmin alliance of 2007, the year it had won the election. But its choice of candidates shows an attempt to spread the net wide: of the 403 candidates declared so far, 113 are upper castes, 106 are OBCs, 97 are Muslims, only 87 are Dalits.
Dalits might form the party’s support base, but they have internalised the electoral logic that neither are their votes enough to win the polls, nor do they have enough money to fight them.
As Lal Chand pointed out, Vivek Yadav’s other favourable attribute was his wealth. “Badi party ko behenji ticket deti hai samajh bhoojh kar.” Behenji thoughtfully gives tickets to wealthy people, he guffawed. The family joined in the laughter, till Dhruv Rai interjected: “Chutkar nikaal na payin.” The small people can’t win. “You need Rs 10 lakh to win an election,” he said. Lal Chand corrected him: “What will happen in 10 lakh. You need one crore.”
Observing the conversation from a distance was a middle-aged, bespectacled, jacket-clad man. Introduced as a lawyer and a worker of the BSP, Vijay Pratap downplayed his role, saying he was merely “a member of the BVF”.
BVF stands for Bahujan Volunteer Force. It is tasked with maintaining security during the party’s rallies and managing election booths. In the words of Pratap, his job is to make sure there is no “danga fasaad, tu-tu-main-main” (fights and disharmony).
Asked about the rumours that demonetisation had deflated the BSP’s election chest more than that of other parties, Pratap distanced himself from the election campaign, but also defended the party’s prospects: “Isme bhi to moti waali party hai. We also have wealthy candidates. Vivek Yadav has two petrol pumps. His family controls 500 acres of land. He has several businesses...”
The implication: like the other rich, he would have found ways of protecting his wealth.
Old residents of Baksha’s Harijan Basti still remember the electrifying moment when a Dalit ki Beti became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for the first time in 1995.
Two decades ago, the people here are still loyal to her. But if Modi could wean away some of their votes in 2014, does the quietly popular Akhilesh Yadav stand a chance?
In both 2012 and 2014, Kaajal’s family voted for “Haathi” or Elephant, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s election symbol. “Jhooth kahe ko bole.” Why should I lie, said Shardanand.
Will they vote for the Elephant again? “Depends on the prevailing environment,” he said. “Haathi pe hum permanent hai, yeh baat thode hi hai.” It isn’t that we are permanently on the side of the Elephant.
“Whoever does good work for us, we will vote for them,” he said.
Has the Akhilesh government done good work?
“It has given us a laptop. Our daughter can use it to study better.”
But did they get anything other than a laptop? “One laptop is a lot for us.”
Does it mean they will vote for the Samajwadi Party’s Cycle?
“Let the time come...”
Over the next few weeks leading up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, Scroll.in’s ‘A Village Votes’ series will bring readers glimpses of how the residents of Baksha, a village of 2,500 people in the eastern part of the state, are making up their minds about who to support. The next part of the series will examine the interplay between politics and social welfare.
The previous parts of the series can be read here.