The city of Allahabad lies in the heart of the vast North Indian plains, at the confluence of the two sacred rivers of Hinduism, the Ganges and the Yamuna. Flying across the plains on a clear day you can follow the rivers as they descend from the Himalayas and then meander through great expanses of flat cultivated land, past clusters of ancient cities and towns. Three millennia ago, their waters provided the basis for the civilization of the original Aryan settlers of North India. Each winter, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims still travel to Allahabad from all across India for a religious fair near the confluence.
Yet the place isn’t easy to get to. There are no commercial flights to it, and the hectic coming and going during the recent elections to the national parliament—India’s third in as many years, called after a temperamental film-star-turned-politician from the South withdrew her party’s support from the Hindu nationalist BJP- led coalition government in Delhi—made it impossible to get a seat on short notice on the overnight train from Delhi. To get to Allahabad in time for the early campaigning, I had to fly from Delhi to Benares, along with a tour group of Italians traveling to see the erotic temple sculpture at Khajuraho, and then drive eighty miles east to Allahabad.
The flight is operated by one of India’s new private airlines. The breakfast was freshly cooked and warm; the toilets were clean and generously supplied with cologne; and the courtesy and efficiency of the staff were marvels compared to the resolute badness of the state-owned Indian Airlines. Miles out of Delhi, moving deeper into a part of India still untouched by the entrepreneurial energy and foreign investments of recent years, the flight could seem part of the good things contact with the global economy had brought to India: higher standards of health and hygiene, a greater alertness to individual needs.
The long bone-rattling drive afterward to Allahabad on potholed roads flooded at places with calf-deep rainwater, past the tin-roofed shacks and rain-battered villages of mud and thatch—the cowering huts, so picturesque from the plane, now appearing frail, in danger of collapsing onto the sodden earth, low-caste women paving tiny courtyards with cow dung, the men spinning rope for the string cots, the sky low and gray over the flat fields and tiny huts and the buffaloes placid in muddy pools—the long drive through a world that belonged to itself as fixedly as it would have two centuries ago was a reminder of how far even the superficially good things of a globalized economy were from this heavily populated and impoverished part of India.
India, with its severe disparities of income, caste, and religion, is split into a great many separate worlds. You can live in one without knowing anything about the others; and no world seems to have a clear past until you make the effort to dredge it up. I didn’t find out until later that the region between Allahabad and Benares I had traveled through—which had been familiar to me from my time as an undergraduate student at Allahabad University—hadn’t always been so impoverished. In the early years of the nineteenth century, when the British were still more interested in business than empire, the area had been an important trade center for North India, and its merchants and moneylenders came to be known for their initiative and energy.
But, as always in India, the prosperity so created was shared out among a very small group of people; it led to little except the creation of zealously guarded fortunes or the occasional opulent mansion, and when the trading routes changed and the region lost its importance, the private fortunes dwindled, the mansions fell into ruin and were taken over by squatters. The region was restored to the wretchedness and cruelties that were probably always there under the gloss of its temporary affluence.
Affluence is still a rare achievement; but its gloss is now shinier and deeper. My hotel in Allahabad was a new white eight-story building of egregious luxury, built by a local manufacturer of bidis (cheap Indian cigarettes), who had recently begun to dabble in politics. Every effort had been made to have it conform to international specifications. The menu at the coffee shop offered Mexican and Italian food. A muzak version of “The Sound of Silence” played in the elevators. When the power supply broke down, as it frequently did in the city, a huge basement generator groaned into life. The corridors were thickly carpeted; the double-glazed windows kept out the loud film music from cassette players in the small slum just outside the hotel.
Since Allahabad hardly receives any well-to-do tourists, or even traveling businessmen, the hotel was fated to remain empty most of the time. It met no local needs. Its primary purpose, if you could call it that, seemed to lie in its being an assertion of wealth and power in the midst of general deprivation, much like the colonial buildings in the new city of Allahabad the British had built after the Indian mutiny of 1857.
The British, ill-prepared for the mutiny that spread through most of North India, hadn’t been challenged much in Allahabad. The few soldiers who rebelled were quickly put down; some houses in the old quarter that belonged to rich supporters of the insurrectionists were razed to the ground. No stories of atrocities against British women and children emerged from Allahabad as they did from Kanpur, just 150 miles away. Still, the British wished to make a point; and some 6,000 Indians were hanged, shot, or tortured to death in just a few days.
It was in the months following the pacification that eight villages were confiscated from “dirty Indian niggers,” as a senior official put it, and turned into the exclusively British enclave called Civil Lines, the tree-and-bungalow-lined part of the city where the civilian members of the British administration worked and lived, and which for many years no Indians apart from servants could enter in native dress, and which after independence came to be inhabited by Indian civil servants, doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics, and business people. The decades that followed the mutiny were a time of serenity for the British in India, and it was then that the city’s great buildings were built—the Romanesque cathedral, the university tower and dome, the Gothic public library, the Baroque High Court. In Allahabad, the civil and military administration, the hospitals, schools, and High Court produced a small Anglo-Indian society, for whom the compensations for the city’s great heat and isolation were to be had in untroubled leisure, in the clubs and polo grounds and large bungalows with their wide verandahs and lawns and servants’ quarters where it was common for a family to keep fifty or sixty men.
At the public library—a solid Gothic mass built as a memorial to the official who dispossessed the “dirty Indian niggers” of Civil Lines—there are relief figures of Indian peasants and potters and silk weavers on carved capitals. The peasants are wiry, obviously well-fed men with turbans; the potters and silk weavers have been similarly improved. The sight is unsettling, not least because severe British methods of revenue collection had ravaged the countryside, forcing generations of the rural poor into vicious circles of endless debt and bondage to local landlords and moneylenders. It is hard to imagine that the architect was aware of the crude irony of his representations; more likely that he was indulging a romantic fantasy.
That romance has faded, but the distance between rulers and subjects hasn’t really much diminished with independence. Soon after my arrival in Allahabad, I found myself at the office of the commissioner, the chief civil servant of the district, whose job it is to supervise the work of the state and central government in Civil Lines. At his office, an old sprucely painted bungalow with trimmed hedges, a middle-aged woman in a torn white sari held a creased piece of paper and pleaded before attendants wearing red-sashed livery. She was the widow of one of the laborers killed in a mining accident. She had traveled a long way from her village that morning to beg the commissioner to expedite relief money sanctioned more than two years ago by the state. The audience wasn’t granted; the woman was told to take her application to a lower official and not bother the commissioner’s office with petty requests.
Two days before the elections in Allahabad I accompanied the commissioner and the district police chief on their inspection tour of rural police stations. We went in two white Ambassadors with blue sirens and official flags on the bonnet. Villagers with fearful and wary eyes turned to look at us as we raced through a series of traffic jams on the narrow country roads. At the first sign of an approaching bottleneck, the driver put on the siren and bodyguards cradling AK-47 guns leaned out of the windows and forced big, overweight trucks off the roads and onto muddy ledges, where they stood, leaning over dangerously.
Policemen everywhere stood at attention and saluted the car as it went past. When we arrived at the official bungalows with their little flower beds and manicured lawns, junior officials vied with each other to open the car doors and escort us to dining tables overloaded with plates of hot food. More members of the civil service joined us there, election observers sent to the region from other states, men in their thirties and forties, eager and fluent. A brisk bonhomie ensued around the dining table as people compared notes on who was posted where and who was about to be promoted. There was little talk of the election, or of the police stations we had visited, some of them in total disarray—small dark rooms full of dusty files and broken furniture, urine and alcohol smells emanating from the lockups—settings for the third-degree torture and custodial deaths and rapes you read about in the papers.
At the beginning of the inspection tour, the police chief, who had the rare reputation in Allahabad of not soliciting bribes, looked concerned. His English marked him as a man who had come to the civil service from a modest small-town background; he couldn’t have been unaware of what went on in the police stations. But he had hurried through them, holding back the little scoldings he had given at the first stop to a paunchy stationmaster who was counting up the number of men arrested and guns seized. The commissioner looked restless throughout the little tour, and found his voice only with the other civil service men at the official bungalow; then he spoke mournfully of the criminals who had now become “honorable ministers,” to whom he had to show proper deference.
Dignity, and how to hold on to it: it was what preoccupied these men, most of whom the civil service had rescued from shabby lower-middle-class lives—the dignity whose emblems were the bungalows, the white cars with sirens, the red-sashed attendants and the attentive lower officials, the dignity that came from asserting one’s distance from everything tainted by the ordinary misery and degradation of India: the widow outside the commissioner’s office, the criminals working as ministers, the corrupted men in the rural police stations.
In the assertion of that distance had lain the self-image of the colonial administrators, and it has changed as little as the actual hierarchies and structure of the administration itself. Only the gap between rhetoric—more intense now in an India with democratic aspirations—and reality has widened. Consider this village thirty miles out of Allahabad: a huddle of huts and unpainted brick houses and narrow mud lanes on a stony slope. My car was the only motorized vehicle on the rutted country road one dusty late afternoon; its appearance from behind an abrupt bend startled the bullock cart drivers and shepherds, and it excited fear among the people at this village who were standing by the side of the road, holding little green plastic flags of the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party, waiting for the local candidate for parliament, Mr. Rewati Raman Singh, a member of the state legislature and one of the three major candidates trying to get into the national parliament by defeating the incumbent MP, Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP, who had won the two closely contested previous elections from Allahabad.
They stood stiffly, not daring to come closer until summoned by the driver, then surrounded the car. Anxious, thin, sun-hardened faces with roughly cut hair, young and old, pressed upon the windows; their frankly curious eyes quickly took in my camera, diary, pen—glamorous items. When I asked them about local issues they wished the new member of Parliament to resolve, they shook their heads: the best-dressed person among them, an old man in white kurta and dhoti and thick white moustache, said that there were no problems at all, and resumed examining my personal effects. It was only when my exasperated driver introduced me as a journalist and urged them to tell me the truth that the old man began to speak.
The others prompted him, whisperingly at first, and then everyone spoke at once. The village was privileged in having a tube-well for drinking water, but, they said, the nearest hospital was nine miles away, and though the government had installed an electric line, there had never been any current. The biggest problem related to the government primary school: it had been around for several years, but the teacher came only once a week from Allahabad and even then only for a couple of hours. There was no way of knowing when he would come and so the boys and girls dressed each morning for school and spent most days waiting for the teacher outside locked doors. That wasn’t all: the teacher swallowed all the rice the government sent for the students each year. He had also carved out for himself personal profits from the building of the new one-room school for girls: the foundation for it was nine inches tall instead of the usual twenty inches, and the building could collapse at any moment.
I had been traveling earlier that day with Mr. Singh, the candidate for whom the villagers were waiting. Fierce monsoon rains had followed our progress from Mr. Singh’s rambling old mansion. The windshield wipers flailed uselessly; the road was indistinguishable from frothy mud. But when the rain stopped, soft parkland rolled out on both sides, the green of the grass, trees, and bushes brilliantly vivid and separate in the grey light from the still turbulent sky. For a moment it was possible to take pleasure in the poverty-ravaged landscape, to see pastoral beauty in the young boys and girls herding sheep and buffaloes on the grassy slopes.
Mr. Singh was a tall, stooped man; he walked with a slight limp and gave in his appearance an impression of some deep debility, along with a great kindness. He sat in the front seat of the jeep, hardly moving even when his personal attendant—a thick-set man in a safari suit—reached out from the back seat to adjust the silk scarf around his neck. The scarf, stiff with starch, was important: Mr. Singh belonged to a distinguished old feudal family of the region, one that had made its name and wealth in pre-colonial times, and the external symbols of his prestige had to be maintained. At a railway grade crossing, a blind man in wet rags came up to the jeep, hopping a bit on his bare callused feet, and sang a devotional song. Mr. Singh obliged with a generous gift of one hundred rupees, three times the daily wages of a laborer. There was both approval and envy on the faces of the small crowd of onlookers as they watched the rupee note passing from Mr. Singh’s attendant to the blind man: Mr. Singh, or “Kunwar Sahib”—Prince, as he was called—had done the thing expected of him.
There were many supplicants at the villages we stopped at—men mostly from the low Nishad fisherman caste, small-limbed and dark, who ran up half-naked to his side of the jeep, hands folded, heads bowed. Mr. Singh addressed them in the local dialect; his manner was easy yet authoritative. He asked them directly about their problems, and was quick to respond. He promised if elected to fire the policeman who had been extorting money from one village; he promised to build a culvert linking two villages across a canal within a month of his election; at villages requiring water, he promised to have tube-wells dug. He reminded them of the electricity and water he had brought to villages in his region, although he didn’t say that he had done the good work in his official capacity as a member of the state legislature.
The faces in the crowds looked satisfied; and as he prepared to leave, people lunged forward and tried to reach their hands through the open window and touch his feet. It was as if after the unmet expectations from the borrowed institutions of democratic India, an uncared-for people had found some security in the still-persisting ideals of noblesse oblige.
Drinking water, police harassment, electricity, schools and hospitals: these weren’t the themes being discussed when I left Delhi, although the press had been as obsessed with the elections as it had been with Kashmir. In India the media grows each year, with new newspapers, magazines, and TV channels appearing almost every week. But only a very small part of what it produces could be called journalism. During the recent battles in Kashmir, the press had assumed the role of cheerleaders, and worked up a lot of hysteria among the metropolitan middle classes, for whom war and jingoism appeared to clarify, if only momentarily, a self-image that had been blurred by eight years of rapid social and economic liberalization.
And then as abruptly as they had started, the battles were over, and forgotten. Political pundits and analysts replaced military strategists and experts on television, chatting about “swings” and “anti-incumbency factors” and “index of opposition unity.” The suave spokesmen for the two main political parties, the Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), exchanged creative insults every day in debates about the foreign origins of Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress, and the alleged failure of the BJP government to act on early intelligence reports about the intruders in Kashmir. The television experts and newspaper columnists called it an election without issues. But the separation of issues from elections had occurred long ago. Elections have become an annual drama, preceded and followed by even greater dramas of betrayals, defections, buying and selling, no-confidence motions, coalitions collapsing, new ministries, etc. The drama helped to suppress the real issues and brought about a temporary passion among a fragmented and apathetic population.
But even drama was missing in Allahabad, whose reputation as the most politically minded city in India had attracted me to it. It was a reputation created by the Nehrus, whose family home in the city became a base for the independence movement, and sustained by a series of local politicians who had done very well for themselves in Delhi. It was disappointing then to find the old coffeehouse empty of the politicians and lawyers who, dressed in contrasting white and black, once gathered there every morning and evening to gossip about various political personalities and the size of their wealth. Waiters in scruffy white livery and turbans now stood around vacantly under fans hung high from the cobwebbed wooden beams of the ceiling; lizards made drowsy by the moist heat clung without moving to the faded portrait of Gandhi on the walls, whose bright-blue paint had peeled off, exposing the solid masonry underneath. At the Nehru ancestral home, now a memorial to the independence movement, gaudily dressed peasant women and children sat cross-legged in the long arcades, cautiously running their hands over the cool marble floors. Outside, the posters at pavement stalls were all of fleshy-lipped Indian film stars. The party banners, the loudspeakers, and the motorcycled boys with party flags and bandannas were hardly visible on the streets.
Most middle-class people I talked to had to think hard when asked about the chances of the four main candidates competing to represent Allahabad in the national parliament. They often couldn’t remember their names; and they worried more about the uncollected garbage on the streets of Allahabad, the potholed roads, the power and water breakdowns. They talked about growing corruption and crime in the city, the rise of mafia dons, the deteriorating environment. They said they lived with large fears about their property, their family, and sometimes their lives. This sense of foreboding is a curious fate for the middle class that, created during colonial times, had inherited the British instinct for law and order.
After 1857 a small group of Indians had grown to new kinds of self-awareness by embracing some of the inadvertent benefits of empire. In 1887, the year Kipling arrived in Allahabad as a young journalist from Lahore, the network of English-style universities was extended to Allahabad. The general British policy was to consolidate their empire in India through exposing an elite class of Indians to European civilization. This class was to grow fast; and for at least six decades after the establishment of the first college in 1873 (where the father of India’s first prime minister, Pandit Nehru, was a student), Allahabad was to witness a political and intellectual awakening without precedent or parallel in North India. The Congress Party was to find a base in the Nehru family mansion and recruit many important members in the city. There were literary associations and clubs, new magazines and newspapers, libraries and reading rooms.
Few traces of this flowering now survive; it seems more and more a freakish episode that nationalist passion and the British had together brought about. The scramble for survival has now undermined the colonial institutions that were built for very different purposes. The most prominent example in Allahabad is the university, once known as the Oxford of the East, where much of the intellectual fervor of the colonial period had originated. Soon after independence, it was overwhelmed with students from nearby poverty-stricken areas who came not for the higher learning the university offered but to improve their prospects for government jobs.
But there weren’t many government jobs available (opportunities in business and private industry had been further limited by Nehru’s decision to adopt a socialistic economy for India), and most of these students, adrift after acquiring several useless degrees, had become part of the floating reserve army of the unemployed who ultimately found subsistence in the related vocations of crime and politics.
There had been a police raid on one of the student hostels just before I arrived in Allahabad. During my time at the university this hostel, known as Hindu Hostel, had been much feared for its large population of criminals who had taken refuge there, encouraged by old laws that forbade the police from entering the premises without authorization from the university. Over the years, the criminals had driven out most of the students and had come to rely on pure terror. When the electricity board cut off the power supply after bills remained unpaid for several years, they burned down the local power station. Power was duly restored, and when a student leader from the hostel arranged for a tube-well to be dug on the hostel’s grounds, the residents became fully self-sufficient.
Finally, the university administration acted. The local police, bolstered by additions from outside the district, surrounded the hostel early one morning; roads leading to it were sealed off before they went in and took the residents by surprise. The yellow police trucks and dirty canvas tents on the hostel grounds were, however, seen as temporary; as soon as the policemen were gone the criminals were expected to throw out the students the university was going to assign to the hostel in the new academic year. Middle-class people learned to live with these little setbacks, even came to see them as commonplace, secretly hoping that they would move on without being sucked into the violent world around them—something possible at any time, as I myself found out.
After a week in the hotel in Allahabad, I had become used to its silence, and I was surprised to be woken up one night by noises coming from next door. I checked the time: it was two in the morning. The man at the reception desk said he would “do some enquiries”; he never called back. I waited for the noises—mobile phone tinkles, hectic shiftings of furniture, room-service orders, television baritones—to cease, but they only grew louder. They went on for about half an hour.
In the morning, the elevator and lobby were full of young aspiring politicians—recognizable by their white cotton kurta pajamas, mobile phones, and keen-eyed look, signs of a tainted priesthood—although what they were doing there wasn’t clear.
Silence was restored in the adjacent room the next night, and I didn’t think more about it. Three days later, I was introduced to Piyush, who worked as a local correspondent for The Times of India. He came up to my room, and the first thing he said was that he had met Raja Bhaiyya at the room adjacent to mine three days ago. Raja Bhaiyya was one of the feudal lords of the region. He belonged to one of the many landed families whose control of small principalities, mostly by means of terror, had been tolerated by the British as long as the revenues came in on time, and was now sustained in independent India through politics.
With several cases of murder, kidnapping, extortion, and gun-running pending against him, Raja Bhaiyya, like many other scions of pseudo-royal families, had become a politician, and he had secured his victory in elections to the state legislature by the simple expedient of “booth-capturing,” whereby armed men took over voting booths, drove away all legitimate voters, and then filled up the ballot boxes at leisure.
Unaffiliated at first, Raja Bhaiyya had joined the Hindu nationalists after they promised to make him a minister in the state government. Soon after assuming office, he arranged for the transfer of a police officer who had shown unusual zeal in pursuing criminal cases against him. It was then that the national press had taken notice of him. There were accounts of his brutality, a trait believed to have been inherited from his father, who, according to one story, used to feed his opponents to the crocodiles in a nearby lake. The story was probably apocryphal; but the legend had held. Piyush told me that it was good I hadn’t gone up to his room that night in my irritated state. Apparently, Raja Bhaiyya didn’t take well to criticism. A Muslim shopowner who had spoken against him had recently been hacked to pieces in the middle of a crowded bazaar by one of his henchmen. (The murderer was arrested but as always there were no witnesses.)
Piyush detailed Raja Bhaiyya’s excesses with sarcastic energy. But behind his eagerness lay boredom. Later, when the talk turned to his work as a journalist in Allahabad, he asked me about jobs in the Delhi papers. Researching spectacular crime and corruption, chasing after provincial politicians—he had done all this for two years, and he now wished to get out of Allahabad. I recognized that urge. It was what I had myself felt as a student in Allahabad, when stories of Raja Bhaiyya, and people like him, weighed upon me oppressively, and I longed constantly for a life elsewhere.
That life for most people lay open mainly in Civil Lines, the British-created refuge from the chaos of a poverty-stricken, restive India, whose prestige and glamour after independence were to grow in Allahabad, and in hundreds of other towns and small cities across India, all with their own Civil Lines. For hundreds of thousands of educated Indians who had just come out of poverty and backwardness, a job with the colonial bureaucracy, kept more or less intact after independence, was the chief way to get to Civil Lines; once there, you inherited, almost instinctively, the lifestyles of British colonials.
There had to come a time when the old life of Civil Lines began to feel the weight of the anarchic world just outside. An ominous new kind of person and style had recently begun to appear in Civil Lines. It was the wife of a judge at the Allahabad high court who spoke of this to me one evening at her bungalow. There was no power, and we sat, perspiring, in her candle-lit living room. Two servants carefully wiped golf clubs outside on the dark verandah. One bungalow away, a local mafia don had forced out the original landowners and started building a commercial complex called Mak Tower. The building was only four stories high; the word “tower” to the judge’s wife was a menacing sign of the man’s vanity and ambition, a menace she felt extended to the whole of Civil Lines.
I had met the mafia man she mentioned. His name was Atiq Ahmed. He was a Muslim politician who had just resigned from the Socialist Party over its failure to back Sonia Gandhi in her attempts to form a coalition government after the BJP government’s collapse, and he lived in the warren of narrow lanes with small shops and overhanging houses two or three stories high, which now made up the old quarter across the tracks from Civil Lines.
It had rained heavily on the evening I went with a friend to see him. A stench from uncollected mounds of garbage hung in the humid air; the unlit road was all large water-filled craters, treacherous and almost impossible to negotiate in the dark. Mr. Ahmed had famously shot his greatest rival in one of the more public squares in the old city. By living where he did, he had made it difficult for his own would-be murderer to reach his house. The walled compound was patrolled by armed men and ferocious-looking Dobermans, and filled with gleaming new Toyotas and Hondas and Tata Sumo jeeps. Tall stocky men walked around the long verandah of the low wide house, speaking into mobile phones.
Mr. Ahmed’s thick curling moustache, his burly frame and brisk waddle, suggested a brute panache. But Mr. Ahmed dressed simply in a white kurta pajama, a long scarf wound around his head, Bedouin-style, and he received us in a small bare room, where a vest hung limply from the lone hook on the yellow walls, and a wrinkled sheet with a faded red-roses print covered the bed in one corner, under a glossy calendar picture of Mecca at night.
Ostentation in general wasn’t Mr. Ahmed’s style. His power seemed to partly lie in remaining, or at least appearing to be, a man of the people: someone who had begun his career by stealing tar from road-construction sites, had become a contractor for the railways, successfully contested the elections to the state legislature, and then, after a series of well-chosen murders of potential rivals, had emerged as the unchallenged authority in a part of the old quarter populated largely by poor Muslims—thin, gaunt, angular-featured men in prayer caps who stood idle before the lightless shops and gazed warily at the passing cars.
For local politicians in need of Muslim votes, he was the person to talk to. The phone rang constantly, with callers entreating him to visit neighboring constituencies and work his special persuasive magic on Muslim voters, who formed up to 20 percent of the electorate of the region. Mr. Ahmed usually pleaded busyness, uncancellable engagements. In between phone rings, he talked, seriously and engagingly; he spoke like a man who had moved on, after petty crimes and murders, to a higher idea of himself. He worried about the Brahmin “vote bank” in Allahabad. He feared that most of it would go to the BJP’s Brahmin candidate, the incumbent Mr. Joshi, even though the Congress had also put up a Brahmin candidate. He worried, too, about the “fascist” tactics of the BJP: the Hindu nationalists had no respect for democracy, he said. They had staffed the district administration with their upper-caste sympathizers—it was something I had heard often—and were going to rig the elections in their favor.
It wasn’t just his expressed concern for democracy that made judgment on Mr. Ahmed difficult. In his neighborhood, almost a ghetto with its shut-in cramped houses and restricted lives made insecure and fearful by the rise of the Hindu nationalists, Mr. Ahmed, with his wealth and political power, offered certain guarantees to otherwise unprotected people, largely Muslim. His power, though often asserted in violent and arbitrary ways, kept at bay the violence and arbitrariness of other men in other ghettos: the Raja Bhaiyyas, the extreme Hindu nationalists, the corrupt policemen.
Now he was extending his suzerainty to the city across the tracks; and he made the inhabitants of Civil Lines nervous. In this nervousness you can see the beginning of the end of an India that once thought itself safe in the cocoon of colonial privilege and was forced now to accommodate people like Mr. Ahmed.
The middle class which had for so long depended on its close affiliations with the executive and legislative branches of the administration—and on its class loyalties, now weakened at a time when every man was for himself—the middle class in small cities and towns sees itself as besieged. And its insecurity can only deepen; the reclaiming of India by Indians—the long-delayed result of independence from colonial rule—often appears to have only just begun.
This process is to be hardest and longest for people whom the caste system and poverty had kept in darkness for centuries. Ram Dular Singh Patel, the candidate in Allahabad of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which claimed to represent the interests of the Dalits (the all-inclusive term for all formerly untouchable and oppressed castes), thought politics could short-circuit the process. Dalits form roughly 20 percent of India’s population. By using their vote effectively they could be a force for instability, and instability is good, Mr. Patel said, looking searchingly at me, since “it confuses and bewilders Brahmanical forces and hastens their breakup.”
The leaders of Mr. Patel’s party had been known to begin their press conferences by asking all Brahmin journalists to leave. It was a kind of reverse humiliation. I went early one morning to his house with the hope that he would be more receptive to a visitor at home. He lived in a residential area built on sloping ground near the Ganges, where the broad straight streets of Civil Lines turned into a maze of narrow, often unpaved lanes with open gutters and piles of filth. The houses were no more than two or three square or rectangular boxes of brick and cement stacked on top of or next to each other, their façades moldy and grimy after three months of monsoon rains. Some of these were boarding houses and lodges where many students from the region around Allahabad lived. The lanes were choked with cows and pigs, who seemed unusually big in that constricted space, but a steady stream of rickshaws, scooters, and motorcycles still managed to wend past them.
Mr. Patel’s house, a white two-story building, was separated from the main lane by a stretch of bare ground which heavy rains had scored into a miniature mountain valley of gullies and mounds. My shoes left a trail of mud as I walked up a staircase at the back of the house to a couple of rooms where bleary-eyed young men in undervests and pajamas sat cross-legged under fast-spinning fans. There was no furniture apart from a wooden cot and an old sofa with its straw stuffing exposed. The walls were bare except for a poster with the words “God loves you” and an oil painting in garish colors of Ambedkar, Gandhi’s rival and the original leader of the Dalits.
The men in the room shot quick glances at my clothes and shoes, and it came to me that I was the only fully dressed person in that room. One of them introduced himself, ordered tea, and then informed Mr. Patel, dressing for the day in an inner room, of my arrival. His name was Sandip. A thick beard covered his round, rather jovial face. His undervest had tiny holes in it; but the upright way in which he sat suggested authority. He told me—speaking with the practiced fluency of a public speaker—that the other young men, most of them Dalits, were student volunteers for Mr. Patel’s campaign.
Mr. Patel soon appeared. He was tall and lean, with thick hair and a pencil-thin moustache, and a mole in the middle of his forehead that looked incongruously like the caste mark of the devout Brahmin. He was at first surprised, and then pleased, to see me: it turned out that there hadn’t been any press coverage so far of his campaign.
He had little time, he said. The leaders of his party were soon arriving in Allahabad to lend support to his candidacy, and they were arriving in a helicopter. Mr. Patel planned to travel with them—the resonant fact for Mr. Patel, which he kept repeating to the point where it seemed that the helicopter had become, like the expulsion of Brahmins from press conferences, another way of experiencing power.
After his first moment of surprise, he spoke to me slightly mockingly, dismissing my questions in his slow, deliberate voice, inviting smiles from the students who watched his face intently. The real issue in this election, Mr. Patel said, wasn’t one that anyone outside his party had taken up. It was this: How can Dalits live in India with dignity and self-respect and receive equal opportunities in education and employment? Fifty years after independence, most Dalits were victims of the worst kind of exploitation: they were worked into the ground and underpaid; in villages they were not allowed to draw water from the communal well; they were killed at random, and their wives and daughters raped. There was only one way of stopping all that: by welding the Dalits into a solid political unit. Mr. Patel clenched and unclenched his fist to illustrate his point. It was an unsettling gesture in view of the softness of his voice. The combined strength of the Dalits, Mr. Patel went on, sweepingly and somewhat inaccurately, would then hold the balance of power against “Brahmanical forces, who after all were just 20 percent of the population as opposed to 20 percent Dalits, 30 percent other backward castes, and 15 percent Muslims and other minorities.” And then Mr. Patel quickly pattered down the stairs, a small retinue of partymen with flags and banners running to keep pace with him.
Sandip stayed behind. He told me he was a “student leader,” the first Dalit to have won an election to his college’s student union, which so far the upper castes had monopolized. His ambition now—and here his voice suddenly became full of passion—was to help elect Mr. Patel as the first Dalit member of Parliament from Allahabad, where duplicitous Brahmins from various political parties had managed to fool the Dalit masses with false promises for over fifty years.
Later that afternoon, I was at a tea shack in Civil Lines when a Tata Sumo jeep flying the BJP flag—saffron-colored, with a lotus in the middle—stopped before it. Two students emerged, identically plump in tight jeans and T-shirts with mobile phones strapped to their trouser belts. The jeep was new, plastic covers still draped across the seats. It would have been a temporary gift, along with the mobile phones, from the party. The students had been going from door to door in the middle-class parts of the city, campaigning for Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, the BJP’s Brahmin candidate for Allahabad. They saw themselves not as active politicians but as members of the Sangh Parivar—the network of both extreme and moderate Hindu nationalist groups who, since they do not take part in electoral politics, are free to make unpopular gestures of Hindu assertion, such as recent anti-Christian campaigns.
They were trying, they said, to present the issues before the people, such as whether India was to be ruled once again by a foreigner (the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi); whether India was to defeat attempts by Islamic fundamentalists to destroy it; whether India was to regain its past glory as a strong, self-sufficient Hindu nation.
They looked confused when I asked them how the BJP proposed to achieve the last-mentioned aim. One of them began to say something about India’s nuclear tests, and then stopped. When I asked them about the Dalits and Mr. Patel, they were scornful. The politics of hate and animosity Mr. Patel and his party practiced, they said, was going to weaken Hinduism and India. The Dalits were welcome to join the mainstream of Hindu society, but their current demands for more government jobs was going to lead to civil war. As it is—and here they became agitated—India faced all kinds of challenges from abroad. Did I know that Osama Bin Laden had issued a call for jihad against India? The Pope already had a dangerous agent in India: Sonia Gandhi. And now America had declared war through its missionaries, who were bribing innocent Hindus to convert to Christianity. Had I heard about the beating up of the missionaries last winter in Allahabad? It was the right thing to do; it had sent a clear message to America that Hindu India would fiercely rebuff any attempts to undermine it.
I hadn’t asked, but I knew the speakers were Brahmins; their political affiliations and opinions were enough evidence. Most of the educated upper castes were with the BJP; the other parties fought over the backward castes and Dalit and Muslim votes in the intensely competitive politics based on group identity that had come to India after the politically torpid years under the Congress.
Just fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have encountered people like Sandip or the BJP’s supporters; Dalit students wouldn’t have been clustering reverently around someone like Mr. Patel. The Congress then had a brute majority in the parliament. For much of the time since independence, it had managed to keep the lid on most of the bewildering social and political contradictions of India; it had appeared to address all the different claims made by rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, Brahmin and Dalit.
This elastic appeal was the party’s legacy, along with its nationwide organization and its association with the great names of Gandhi and Nehru. It had been sustained as much by the glamour of its dynasty as by the ineptitude of the opposition parties and by the monopoly it came to have over the institutions of the colonial state, the system of rewards and punishments it created within the civil bureaucracy and the newly opened state-controlled industries. Political and intellectual life in the country was simpler then. Academics and journalists looked for shelter in the great network of state patronage created by the Congress. It was rare for the politicians and journalists who used to cluster at the old coffeehouse to do more than speculate about who was in or out of favor with the big bosses of the Congress.
In the end, the Congress had been undermined by its own inner complexity. The peace it maintained between antagonistic groups began to crumble, and this was as much due to an ossified leadership as to the fact that individuals as well as special-interest caste and regional groups had become more conscious of what was owed to them. Provincial party bosses challenged the leadership and were, in turn, themselves challenged by newly emergent men from below. India had now reverted to being a nation with many minorities, with their own grievances. The Congress had been late to wake up to the fact that it could no longer meet their conflicting needs. It tried to appease everyone and sought renewal through the few surviving members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty; and in all that it did—helping to topple governments, boosting Sonia Gandhi’s young children, improvising untenable coalitions—it was going nowhere.
An election meeting at the university student union suggested a measure of its confusion. It was to be addressed by Rita Bahuguna, the Congress’s candidate from Allahabad. She had been elected the mayor of Allahabad three years ago but this wasn’t going to help her defeat Mr. Joshi, the BJP MP. She was blamed for the deteriorating civic conditions in the city; but she was, in effect, a powerless mayor since the municipal corporation spent most of the little money it had on staff salaries. The hall was packed, a mixed crowd of students and teachers perspiring under slow fans. Mrs. Bahuguna was late and a series of student leaders assured the audience of her imminent arrival, and then proceeded to harangue the audience. Their oratorical style was fierce: the huge speakers squatting under tall portraits of independence fighters boomed as the students shouted into the microphone at the very top of their voices. The passion in the student leaders, who looked so much like other students, thin-limbed, dressed in ill-fitting shirts and pants and plastic sandals, was disturbing. After expressing their frenzy they sat at the side of the platform, half-listening to speeches, their sweat-glistening faces blank.
They spoke of many things—the BJP’s failure in Kashmir, the arrogance of Mr. Joshi, whose commando bodyguards had physically evicted from his house the father of a man who had been drowned in a boat accident. But they never strayed far from their chief target: the BJP-dominated police and university administration that had “conspired” to force students out of their hostel.
The speeches stopped as more leaders arrived: not students, but middle-aged men, their large paunches showing under loose white kurta pajamas, many-ringed fingers clutching mobile phones. These were the local Congress’s senior people. Small garlands of stringy sunflowers and roses mysteriously appeared in the hands of the student leaders as they lined up to greet the new arrivals.
A tall long-faced man in a stylish white cotton kurta with gold-rimmed glasses hung around his neck received the most flowers. He didn’t look like a politician, and in fact he was a former admiral of the Indian navy. He had been recently sacked by the BJP for not very clear reasons, and since then had taken to touring the country on behalf of the Congress, denouncing the government, particularly the defense minister, who was responsible for sacking him.
Cut off from the easeful life of high office and navy clubs, he appeared to be struggling to know his new audiences. Hailed by the preceding speaker as a national hero, he started off his speech with an exhortation to the students to emulate Stanford University.
This provoked no titters, just puzzlement: few students in that hall would have even heard of Stanford. He improved as he went on, speaking in sentences composed of as many English words as Hindi of the fascist tactics of the Hindu nationalists, their attempt in particular to “saffronize” (saffron, the Hindu color) the armed forces. Then, while discussing parallels in Nazi history, he asked the students if they had read the chapter “Triumph and Consolidation” in William L. Shirer’s history of the Third Reich. The students, now massed around the doors, looked on uncomprehendingly.
Rita Bahuguna at last arrived just as the speakers had finished having another go at the police and administration for the assault on the hostel. Fresh garlands appeared—perhaps the same ones, I couldn’t tell—as the town leaders queued up before her. In the new hierarchy that sprang up, the student leaders had to vacate their places.
Mrs. Bahuguna, sitting in her blue sari among the burly white-clad men on the platform, was small and frail. A few rose petals still stuck to her hair when she rose to speak. She gave a strangely brusque speech. She didn’t need to establish her “credentials” (she used the English word) before students, she said. She was their teacher after all (even though she was the elected mayor of Allahabad, Mrs. Bahuguna still taught medieval history at the university). She knew all about their problems, she said, none of which had been solved by Mr. Joshi, also a former teacher, of physics, at the university. She ended by denouncing the police raid on the hostel, and promised to ensure a safe environment for students inside the university if elected.
The crowd was quiet. Vinod, a young man sitting next to me, was one of the countless students from poor families at the university preparing for the civil service exams. He approved of the police operation, and so did, he said, most of the students who couldn’t find cheap accommodations anywhere outside the hostels. Mrs. Bahuguna, he said, had been wrongly advised by the city leaders, several of whom would have been close to the criminals residing at Hindu Hostel. It was another instance of the Congress being out of touch with popular feeling; it was now going to cost them votes among students.
Vinod felt, quite rightly, that Mrs. Bahuguna, who was the daughter of an influential Brahmin politician in Allahabad, should have known better. She had come late to politics herself, several years after the death of her father. She had opposed the Congress during the last elections, mocking it for having Sonia Gandhi, a foreign woman, as its president. But a few weeks before the present elections, she had managed to get Sonia Gandhi’s backing for the contest in Allahabad.
The Congress leaders in Delhi had chosen her for her father’s name, a Brahmin name that it expected would put a dent in Brahmin support for the BJP, and also attract Muslims, among whom her father had been popular. She already had some support among a small group, not more than 2 per-cent of the electorate, liberal, educated people in the city—teachers, lawyers, journalists—who, though not always political, felt comfortable with her, saw her as a bulwark against the Hindu nationalists.
The student union hall she spoke from was full of teachers from the university, many of them women in stylish saris. The next morning at her house, there were more women, door-to-door campaigners wearing fresh lipstick and smelling of deodorant. Some of them were part of a study group called Chetna (Consciousness) and also ran a private organization called Sahyog (Assistance), which supervised shelters for bonded child labor and battered women.
There was much that was admirable about these women. It was they who seemed to affirm a sense of a shared society otherwise absent in small cities like Allahabad. But working up middle-class support within the city wasn’t going to be enough to elect Mrs. Bahuguna. I accompanied her to the villages south of the Yamuna River, where she had to work hard to win Dalit and Muslim votes for the Congress. Driving out of Allahabad, the city rapidly receding after we passed the bridge over the swollen and muddy river, she seemed a bit out of her element. She held the end of her sari over her nose to keep out the diesel fumes from passing trucks and tractors, and in that posture talked to me of the conferences she had attended in European and American cities as mayor of Allahabad.
At the small roadside settlements of half-built brick houses and shops we passed, men holding Congress flags ran up to her: these were local party workers, who were to “deliver” their villages’ uncommitted voters, mostly illiterate. Important men, many of them old enough to have known her father, they would have been paid the small price for their support during election time—employment for their sons or brothers, the expediting of housing and agricultural loans.
A heavily built man with a Hindu sage-like white beard and long hair sat behind Mrs. Bahuguna in her large new jeep. Dal Bahadur was the Congress candidate from Allahabad in the last election—and prompted her as soon as he saw the party workers. He knew all their names; he knew the caste they belonged to, and introduced them to Mrs. Bahuguna with gruff familiarity. Mrs. Bahuguna got out of the jeep and exhorted them to work harder for her victory, her bookish Hindi strikingly different from the dialect Dal Bahadur spoke. As the jeep moved on, she went back to chatting with me. “I had a good time in New York,” she told me at the gas station where we had stopped to refuel, then at the same time started waving at someone behind me. “Will you remember me on election day?” she shouted at the gas station attendants. There was a fluency to her speech, and an ability to change register that she couldn’t have acquired during her long career as an academic. It seemed as if, coming late to politics, she had been surprised by her inherited political skills rising to the surface.
At one of the roadside settlements, a small crowd was waiting under a string of paper Congress flags hung between two mango trees. Mrs. Bahuguna mounted a wooden cot that served as a platform and made a speech that was barely audible. She spoke of Sonia Gandhi’s bereavement, and the sacrifices of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Many in the crowd had walked a long way through the surrounding fields to see her. They were like the people Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Vajpayee would address in Allahabad a few days later. The speeches of the celebrities were all lost in the bewildering echoes from loudspeakers, but it was the seeing that seemed important, the contact with the powerful and privileged.
I saw a number of light-eyed boys with sharp features in the crowd: they belonged to a Muslim community of horse-riders from Rajasthan that had migrated to this part of India two generations ago. This community of 3,000 lived in the little mud huts lining the road; most of them were unemployed and made a living by skinning cows killed in road accidents. Nearly all of them were illiterate. An old Hindu man from the adjacent tea shack, himself only slightly better off, was sympathetic to their plight. He told me, “Yeh bilkul zero hain”—“These people are completely zero.” Some of the boys came over as he talked, nodding with unexpected vehemence when the man said that it was a school, above all, that they wanted their member of Parliament to provide.
Mrs. Bahuguna’s secretary, a plump, friendly young man with glasses, perked up. There was no question about the areas we were traveling through, he said: Mrs. Bahuguna’s father, who had been a minister in the central government, had done so much work here, they all remembered him. Teachers all across the state (and there were 60,000 in Allahabad constituency alone), he said, were going to vote against the BJP and for the Congress. They had been on a strike protesting their low salaries, but the BJP-run government had done nothing.
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.
December 16, 1999