By the afternoon, dark clouds had gathered in the big sky as we drove along a muddy river, more cars now following Mrs. Bahuguna’s jeep on the narrow road. For the next many miles it rained, a harsh blinding rain. From the windows, now fogged over, I could make out barefoot children in rags, their wet hair plastered on their skulls, running after the bouncing, rocking cars and pouncing upon the propaganda leaflets thrown from their windows.
At the next riverside stop, in front yards messy with straw and dung, women sifting wheat stopped to stare at me, their pink and purple saris bright against the pale mud-yellow of the houses. Naked children with distended bellies shrank to one side as I passed. An old man slumped on a string cot gestured at me from inside his hut; and when I went in, he wanted to know if I was from the government.
It was cool and fragrant inside the hut, the smell of cow dung turned into something almost heady and intoxicating by the rain. Two boys in their early teens came in: both thin, with stick-like legs, their large eyes glowing in the dark room. Their father was a rice farmer and fisherman, like most people in the village. Rice and fish was what they ate—the food cooked on the chulha fire in a little alcove before the room, cakes of cow dung stacked to one side of it. They had never been to school, and had no other clothes than what they wore—oversized polyester pants and nylon shirts torn at the armpits and around the collar—clothes bought by their father from the nearby bazaar two years ago. They were adequate for ten months of the year, and when winter arrived, they tied straw to the insides of their shirts. It had taken the boys some time to get used to my presence and even then they spoke with difficulty. They did not understand the simplest words; their sparse vocabulary reflected the bareness of the room, words and things both absent and making for a kind of all-enveloping vacancy.
Back where the cars had stopped, a few old women stood speechlessly, their wizened, toothless faces half hidden by sari veils pulled down to nose-level, as Mrs. Bahuguna asked them about their “problems.” They said nothing, and so Mrs. Bahuguna began to explain to them Sonia Gandhi’s presidency of the Congress, and how women were best placed to understand other women’s problems. They looked on, puzzlement appearing in eyes that held great anxiety and patience. And now an embarrassed Dal Bahadur prompted them, “Don’t you know who this is? Don’t you remember how her father once distributed lai chana?”
Lai chana! The puffed rice and chick peas that was the poor man’s snack, stuffed in rusty tin containers in the gloomy one-room shops in the shanty markets we had passed. It was hard not to feel the pathos of the situation. Decades after it had been made, the old women were being asked to remember a meaningless offering from a long-dead politician, in a village which near-total destitution had taken beyond the simple deprivation of the rural poor elsewhere, beyond lack of water, electricity, primary schools, and hospitals to the earliest, most elemental form of human community, where the outside world intrudes only in the form of election-time visitors and the propaganda leaflets the ragged children had pounced upon.
The more you examine the reclaiming of India by Indians, the more uneven the process looks. It is never very clear who is reclaiming what. Mr. Patel had presented himself as a Dalit to me. It now turned out that Mr. Patel wasn’t a Dalit at all. He was a Kurmi, which—so important these differences—made him a member of a technically “backward” caste but much better placed, socially and financially, than the Dalits. Accordingly, Mr. Patel turned out to be the owner of a large agricultural estate outside Allahabad. He also was a very recent member of the Dalit party, whose strategy for instability he had explained to me. Dalit leaders in their few months in power in the state of Uttar Pradesh had emptied the state exchequer and had created little empires for themselves in addition to building grandiose monuments to Dalit leaders. In this, they hadn’t turned out to be very different from the higher-caste men they supplanted.
The words used by Mr. Patel—Brahmanical forces, Dalit assertion—stood for certain recognizable realities. But misused by politicians, they had acquired the neutrality of mathematical figures; you could fit them anywhere in the hectic accounting of electoral politics, which in a socially and economically restricted society had become a very attractive means for upward mobility.
To the mass of peasantry and workers, and the middle class of lawyers, doctors, engineers, bureaucrats, teachers and businessmen, a new class of professional politicians has been added since 1947. Thousands of men have emerged from among deprived people and taken important positions within central and state legislatures. These are professional politicians, many of them with no larger aim than self-advancement. Some of them do not have the basic skills of literacy and oratory. A large number of them have criminal records. Many of them are content to plunder the state’s resources, and sometimes share the loot with members of their family or caste members. But they all seek the power that in societies degraded by colonialism often comes without a redeeming idea of what it is to be used for. That power, in most cases, amounts to little more than an opportunity to rise above the rest of the population and savor the richness of the world: junkets to New York for Mrs. Bahuguna, helicopter rides for Mr. Patel, free railway passes and gas connections and bodyguards and chauffeur-driven cars and crowds of supplicants outside one’s door.
Behind the rhetoric of caste and religious redemption, the defections and betrayals, the constant intrigues in Delhi and the state capitals, there lay little except the fear that at any moment their exalted status might collapse and they might be returned to the mean lives from which the profession of politics had rescued them. With this fear often comes a contempt for the electorate, an impatience with the process of appeasing and wooing the people you have left behind. The people, in turn, aren’t slow in developing their own contempt for the upstart from among themselves. A lot of people in Allahabad claimed to have known Mr. Joshi, the incumbent MP, during the time when he lived in a two-room house, dressed in khaki shorts, and hitched rides on scooter pillions to the university where he taught physics—unmemorably, people said. But Mr. Joshi, traveling now in a bulletproof Ambassador with tinted windows, had managed to place himself well above small-town envy and resentment.
The reference to Mr. Joshi’s humble past was usually followed by some example of his new-found arrogance, which was in fact the irritable manner of a man prevented from rising even higher. Under Vajpayee, the prime minister, he had been considered the third most important leader of the BJP, and during his tenure as minister for Human Resources and Development he had sought to impose the teaching of Sanskrit and recitation of Hindu prayers in school. But he was stopped by Vajpayee. At a meeting of pro-BJP businessmen and lawyers at my hotel, he boasted of how he had got rid of all the “Communists” in government-run academic institutions. He had played up his reputation as a man of science among the urban middle classes; among rural Brahmins, he did not fail to mention his campaign against cow slaughter. “Hindu civilization,” he lectured me, “couldn’t have existed without cows, without their milk, curd, manure. They are at the basis of our national identity.”
But it was of a different basis for national identity—nuclear bombs—that he spoke to the small crowd of peasants and menial workers outside a small technical institute in Allahabad three days before polling day. He had arrived four hours late, and until then most people, many of whom had been paid to come, had just stood there, wearing bright orange BJP visors, punished by the harsh sun. The tone was set by the first speakers, local politicians who scrambled to touch his feet, tore garlands out of the full arms of a boy wearing a grimy sleeveless undershirt and draped them around Mr. Joshi’s neck, and applied a few more layers to the vermilion caste marks on his forehead. One of them reported a conversation with a visiting lady from Paris: she had exclaimed at the mention of Allahabad, “Isn’t that where the great son of India, Mr. Joshi, lives?”
Mr. Joshi, sitting hunched on the floor, looked impatient as speaker after speaker went on in this vein. When his turn came, he started off by mentioning the great boost given to India’s prestige by the nuclear tests, and added that the disapproval of the international community could not deter India. “How many bombs should we build?” he prompted the audience in the interactive style I was told he had developed after being criticized for his uninspiring oratory. A few feeble voices went up. “Twenty!” “Fifty!” “A thousand!” Mr. Joshi nodded at the last figure. He mentioned the battles in Kashmir. He said he had told Pakistan, “If you provoke us one more time, we’ll smash you to pieces.” There was a smattering of applause from among the perspiring faces in the crowd. He mentioned the water-sports complex he was planning to build on the Ganges.
And then he was through, and quick to leave, a small, brisk figure walking in the narrow corridor the commandos created for him by pushing blindly at the pressing crowds, back to the white Ambassador where he was once again inscrutable behind his tinted glasses as the cars raced through, past the auto repair shops and tea shacks and the bewildered men in rags squatting on ground turned into black paste by diesel oil and rainwater.
His next stop that day was a new mansion of gray marble and fake Spanish tiles in a high-walled compound several miles outside Allahabad. It was where the Jaiswals—a merchant caste—had arranged an election meeting. Paunchy men in baseball caps, dark glasses, gold broad-band watches and rings and chains sat on plastic chairs before a stage where the banner read: “All fellow caste-brothers are welcome.” This was Mr. Joshi’s constituency: middle- to upper-caste men with money, part of the strong network of Hindu nationalist sympathizers and volunteers, whose complaints about his aloofness and arrogance had grown louder as the elections approached. He had no choice but to sit through the banal comedy of speeches and introductions and garlandings that began all over again.
Almost all of the speakers spoke of how the Jaiswals through their success as shopkeepers had forced the rest of Hindu society to treat them with respect. But they had been deprived of affirmative action in government jobs—a great injustice, which they expected Mr. Joshi to rectify as “honorable minister” in the new government. Mr. Joshi sat, his legs dangling, on the edge of the stage, looking impatient. In his speech, he dealt with this request in the same way he had dealt a few days earlier with a similar request at another upper-caste conclave—where speaker after speaker had spoken of their exploitation by the Brahmins as well as, astoundingly, by the Dalits: he promised to give the matter his “most sympathetic consideration.”
There was a swimming-pool lunch afterward. Mr. Joshi sat in the middle of the table and ate fast from his leaf plate. One of the more persistent speakers—a plump, safari-suited man, he was the owner of the mansion—sat next to him and kept shouting at the serving boys to refill Mr. Joshi’s plate.
His lunch finished, Mr. Joshi looked ready to leave. But various people now came up to him and whispered in his ears; he nodded and nodded. The commandos ate in another corner of the pool; they looked surprisingly relaxed. One of them rinsed his oily fingers in the swimming-pool water. There were others who had done so, but it was the commando that the safari-suited owner saw, and, wrenched away from Mr. Joshi’s conversation, his face suddenly filled with horror.
It rained early in the morning on polling day. But the voting booths in the city—set up in schools and colleges and small city parks—were still empty by late that afternoon. An unusually low 30 percent of the electorate had bothered to show up by 4 PM, an hour before voting officially ended. Bored policemen played cards, their truncheons and rifles resting on the ground. The streets in the old quarter were deserted.
The only noticeable crowd was in the Muslim quarters. The vote here was going in the Congress’s favor: it was what Mr. Ahmed had asked of his fellow Muslims. They weren’t the only reason why the polling agents of the BJP looked nervous. Most of the Hindu middle class on which the BJP had depended in past elections had decided to stay away, a setback to Mr. Joshi’s chances. There weren’t even enough people to cast fake votes, an easier process this time owing to the introduction of electronic machines.
At a polling booth a few miles outside Allahabad, there had been a fight among party workers from the BJP and the Socialist Party. A new Tata Sumo jeep stood on the road, its windshield and windows broken, its tires slashed; a small crowd of local villagers stood still around it, as though wondering at the swift destruction of something so apparently solid and expensive. A few miles away, in a shanty town, one of the victims, beaten with iron rods, was in a half-built hospital: his bed had no sheets, only a torn mattress with its straw stuffing exposed, and he lay, moaning softly, in the dusty corridor, blood-soaked bandages around his head and ribs, blood-transfusion tubes attached to his thin arm, surrounded by white-clad BJP men busily summoning press photographers on their mobile phones.
But away from the main roads and deeper into the countryside, the polling was quiet, and the turnout was up to 60 and 70 percent. There were no surprises here; most people affirmed their caste solidarities, and the undecided or the weak and ignorant followed decrees issued by the local chieftains. An old man walking to the polling booth, his immemorially peasant face creased and wrinkled, said he had been ordered by the government to vote for the BJP. There were others who weren’t quite sure whom they were voting for; most of them recognized the parties only by their symbols: bicycle, lotus, the palm of a hand. But there were crowds everywhere—even at a primary school where you had to wade through knee-deep rainwater in the front yard to get to the voting booth—and they brought a holiday atmosphere to the proceedings.
The huts looked freshly cleaned and paved with dung; the women had put on their most colorful saris. At village after village that afternoon, people waited patiently in long queues, under the harsh monsoon sun, the normally impassive faces brimming with excitement—images stereotypical of Indian elections and democracy, which ignored so much of what was not seen, the caste consolidations, the regimented votes, the feudal decrees, the ignorance and brutality. And yet it was hard not to feel the strength of the hopes and desires of the people lining up to vote; hard not to see poignance in the devotion they brought to their only and very limited intervention in the unknown outside world; hard not to be moved by the eagerness with which they embraced their chance to alter the world that wielded such arbitrary power over their lives.
The counting took place six miles outside Allahabad, in a sprawling Mandi, a local trade center, where thousands of men sat cross-legged on faded dusty rugs before a chaos of paper and big gray metal trunks, and echoing loudspeakers announced the results after each round.
The expectations of Mr. Joshi’s defeat after the low turnout were cancelled out later on polling day itself when the fabled network of Hindu nationalists went into action, and the voting percentages rose abruptly to 45 and sometimes 50 percent. An election agent for the BJP—the headmaster of a local school—told Piyush, the journalist from The Times of India, with anxious satisfaction how he had to bring in students from his own school and persuade the local polling official to let them cast fifteen to twenty votes each in Mr. Joshi’s favor. (The Socialist Party candidate, Rewati Raman Singh, organized a sit-down protest outside the district magistrate’s office against the rigging, which was allegedly widespread, but it was too late.)
Mr. Joshi was expectedly well ahead of the rest. Mr. Singh, solidly supported by the rural poor, was coming in at second place, and Mrs. Bahuguna, despite the Muslim and liberal votes in her favor, was placed third. Mr. Patel of the Dalit party was a distant fourth. I ran into him at one of the counting sites. He had reasons for his poor performance: the Brahmanical parties had bribed voters with cheap country liquor, and Brahmanical forces in the district administration had subverted democracy—and he was serene in his expectation of defeat. His party was doing well in the rest of the state; it would have enough seats in the parliament to be a destabilizing force. Mr. Patel himself had done his share of destabilizing in Allahabad: he had taken away backward caste and Dalit votes from the Congress and Socialist Party, thus making it easier for the BJP, with 34 percent of the votes, to win.
But didn’t that help the Brahmanical BJP? I asked. Yes, he said, but it was important for the BJP to be in power; it was the political force most likely to cause instability and disorder in the country.
There were other long-term plans being put into action in the hall where Mr. Joshi sat watching the national results come in on TV, the air thick with the excited voices of the analysts and pundits in Delhi studios. The BJP and its allies were going to win a safe majority in the parliament. The district officials, who sat at a formal distance from Mr. Joshi, looked more relieved with every passing moment. They were solicitous with Mr. Joshi, who was certain to be a minister again in the new government.
Mr. Joshi, wearing a blue embroidered silk scarf, watched, with the restless air of a man being left out of big things, the interviews with senior politicians in Delhi studios; his face turned solemn when a phone call came from the local radio station, and then he expressed, in a measured tone and well-rehearsed words, his utter lack of surprise at having won.
Later that evening—the results declared, the shops in the city now open, Civil Lines once again bustling with shoppers and promenaders—I saw his victory procession. The sirens could be heard in the far distance; people stopped to stare as the first Ambassadors came in view, moving fast and recklessly on the narrow road crammed with rickshaws and cars and scooters and motorcycles. There was a continuous hooting of horns from the cars in the motorcade. Commandos in black, AK-47 muzzles poking out of open windows, shouted abuses at the ricksha-wallahs slowing down their progress, and the startled men thrust their naked legs at their pedals and slid timidly out of the way. Jeep after jeep full of slogan-shouting young men in saffron shawls went past before Mr. Joshi’s bulletproof Ambassador appeared. There were piles of rose garlands draped around the crazily revolving blue siren. Surprisingly, at this moment of public celebration Mr. Joshi hadn’t put himself on show. He sat partly hidden behind tinted windows, remote in his soundless cabin from the frenzied sloganeering, safe from the clouds of dust launched by his swift-moving motorcade. Behind his blank face he showed relief—the relief of a man finally allowed, after a brief scare, to continue a private journey that had already taken him from the scooter pillion to his bulletproof Ambassador.