Stumbling on Sonianomics in the land of angrezi dreams

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Dec 2 2013, 08:50am hrs
Writings on the Wall is a metaphor that emerged from travels across India, particularly but not necessarily during election campaigns (for earlier Writings, see Writings on the Wall, because as you drive across the countryside, your eyes open, its what is written on the walls that tells you the story of what is changing, and what isnt. What is on top of peoples minds and whats been junked. It tells you that change in this new India never slackens, or fails to surprise you. Particularly how logically our people have moved from grievance to aspiration, and now ambition and assertion.

You want to know what I mean, come to Borunda, a village deep in Rajasthans desert wilderness. You heard and read that name for sure, but would not have any recollection. Because the news story for which it became an unfortunate dateline is remembered more in the name of its tragic central character, Bhanwari Devi, the auxiliary nurse and midwife whose alleged kidnapping and murder in 2011 touched off political ripples in the state, even leading to the sacking of a cabinet minister. A hundred kilometres short of Jodhpur, on the spectacularly calm 250 km drive from Pushkar, mostly through wilderness and a landscape that switches rapidly between desolate desert shrubbery and still young and green mustard, channa (horse gram) and wheat, Borunda is not exactly a dhani, as a tiny, distant settlement would be called in the Thar. It is a bit bigger, but just about. Borunda High Street is about 300 metres, lined with shops, some in concrete and some wooden kiosks, on either side. Its called Sadar Bazaar, no less.

People have the usual complaints. Too little electricity, teachers bunk schools and doctors the hospital. Roads can never be good enough, everybody is so corrupt and prices ever so high. But the biggest problem is the shortage of drinking water. That you would expect in the Thar.

But what you may not have expected is signboards on not one but two shops in the same little bazaar, repairing all kinds of electrical gadgets including, specifically, Aquaguard. Now if a few hundred Indian families in the middle of nowhere, in the fastnesses of one of the poorest arid zones in India, short of electricity, jobs, opportunity, money and drinking water, have meanwhile made the leap to domestic, modern water purifiers, will you not call it change A leap from aspiration to ambition, and empowerment. And if two families can make their living repairing Aquaguards, fridges, geysers, grinders, desert coolers and washing machines, there must be a large enough number of these empowering gadgets and for long enough for several to need repairing. This is change.

Or the wooden kiosk selling textbooks, abutting the main crossroad of Borunda: Prajapat Book Shop. It is owned by Bhikha Ram Prajapat, Hum kumhar hain, sir, kintu kaam likhaai-padhai ka karte hain, mitti ka nahin (I am from the potter caste, but I sell education and knowledge rather than knead clay and bake pots), Bhikha Ram says with some delight. His son Ram Lal, who passed Class XII but didnt go to college, tells me the textbook business is seasonal. Currently, the hot seller is the guidebook to help you prepare to compete for admission to Navodaya Vidyalayas, the string of model, modern schools, one of the brilliant Rajiv Gandhi ideas that endure.

But everything else is in Hindi. Chemistry, physics, biology, accounting, even computer applications. What happens if a student wants to take English medium on her own Where will she get textbooks from, I ask, somewhat from personal experience, having been brought up in Hindi-medium schools in several such places, but where my parents leaned on me to take English medium and answer my papers voluntarily in English. They have to go to Jaipur, says Bhikhu Rams son, Ram Lal, who at first glance you could confuse with cricketer Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Or, they have to go to private schools, he says, pointing me to Paradise Public School, opposite the police station in the same Sadar Bazaar. Several parents register their children in the government schools, for formal certification as well as for midday meals, but send them to study at private schools. Here, Rajasthan simply confirms the pattern we have seen in the past in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.

Over a chatty dinner in Jaipur, Congress leader and head of the state campaign committee C.P. Joshi talks passionately of the challenges before his state. It is very heterogeneous, the most heterogeneous of all Hindi states, he says, so it is difficult to spot state-wide trends. He rues the fact that though Rajasthan was quick to build physical infrastructure the state has among the best roads in the country, comparable with Gujarat, in fact it was too slow in bringing in higher and technical education. As a result, he says, it got left behind, particularly compared to the southern states. Now we have scores of new engineering and management colleges, he says, but the problem is the English language. We are so weak in English, where do our boys and girls find jobs

But why does Joshi sound so helpless when he describes his state as most heterogeneous Because Rajasthan is a mosaic of castes and ethnicities unlike any in the heartland. To begin with, there is no such thing as a dominant caste. As an outsider, you might presume the Rajputs are dominant, but Joshi tells you they are just over 3 per cent of the state. Jats, Gujjars, and Meenas are all more numerous and electorally powerful than them. And each group has its own issues. The three groups work to counter each other in east Rajasthan. Then you have the challenger, Vasundhara Raje, a famous royal, but remember she is not a Rajput. She is essentially a Maratha married into Jat royalty (Dholpur). Now you know why the BJPs Rajput stalwarts, led by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, so resented her as an upstart, if not outrightly a fake pretender to royalty. Rajasthan is a political mathematicians nightmare.

But its a Hindi state with zero linguistic chauvinism. There is hunger and hankering, instead, for English. The state is urbanising at a pace matched by few others, barring Gujarat and Haryana. Jaipur now looks a very modern town. Wide new avenues and planned construction along them. More stunningly, a metro and a BRT system coming up alongside, in some cases, one on top of the other. The six-lane expressway to Ajmer is an endless display gallery of hoardings and fences marking out new housing and commercial developments. If you want evidence that India now urbanises through highway building, drive from New Delhi not just to Jaipur but also beyond. Maybe it is the proximity to Delhi, or the fact that the state is bisected by Indias commercial jugular, the highway between Delhi and Mumbai, or the exposure to foreign tourists for decades, and because so many Rajasthanis joined the armed forces, that despite such brutal feudalism, this is such a non-chauvinistic, open-minded state. There is a buzz in the modest crowd, all seated on plastic chairs, as seems to be the trend in modern campaigning, at Pushkar, when Rahul Gandhi talks of how the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) will pass through Rajasthan and transform it with its R3 lakh crore investment. How it will make the cities of Rajasthan globally as famous as Bangalore. Remember, it is the first time you have heard Rahul Gandhi sell the urbanisation dream in an election campaign. And remember this big shift in his politics came in sleepy Rajasthan.

You see the same urban dream play out in the distant desert capital of Jodhpur as well. An argument breaks out in the office of eminent Rajasthani editor Padam Mehta, who owns and edits the Jalte Deep daily, a local powerhouse. Most of the other guests are from the BJP and, funnily, they are not attacking Gehlot for wasting money in his many schemes. They only say how it could be done better and why Rajasthan could afford it. You see, sir, I am a man of macroeconomics, says professor Mahendra Singh Rathore, the former head of the BJPs buddhijeevi (intellectual) cell in the state. It is only now, he says, that the state has the surpluses to be able to afford welfare economics, or the BJP would also have done it in the past. And what brought about this transformation

Evidence is visible just around 80 km from Jodhpur, at Pachpadra, where Rajasthans new refinery, among Indias biggest onshore ones, is coming up. While all of us have been dissecting the BIMARU state politics and economics, Rajasthan has fast grown into a petrodollar state. In 2009-10, its revenues from oil royalties were just R100.37 crore. In 2012-13, these jumped to R5041.46 crore. This years target is R5,500 crore, but with R3,300 crore already achieved by October, and output at Cairns Barmer oilfields going up, the figure of R6,500 crore will most likely be crossed. It is entirely because of these oil revenues that Gehlot can afford to give five million old and destitute people pensions, free medicines in government hospitals, wheat at R1 a kg, and now a promise of 35 kg per family for all (except income tax payers) absolutely free. He has also abolished taxes on a wide variety of spices and condiments, like jeera (cumin), saunf (fennel), haldi (turmeric), ajwain (carom seeds), etc. Reminds you of the Gulf Remember, we just now said Rajasthan is becoming a petrodollar state. Rahul Gandhi has to be careful, however, as inspired by Rajasthan, he now promises free medicines all over the country. For that, either oil will have to be struck in many other states. Or somebody will have to make sure that other such wealth creators are not subjected to the utterly inexplicable, obstinate and self-destructive obstructionism that the UPA has subjected Cairn to. Talk about strangling and skinning the goose that lays golden eggs.

If Gujarat has been called the laboratory for Moditva, Rajasthan is one for Sonianomics. The state has more freebies now than any other, even if, thanks to the Election Commission, you do not see these written on the walls. These have had to be blanked out. But if Gehlot defies anti-incumbency, credit will need to be given to Sonia and these schemes. These will then set the trend of a new wave of populism for 2014. And if it doesnt work, you will know that even poor, far-out Rajasthan now votes not for freebies but for a better life. Thats why Indian politics will be determined in the short run by what happens here. And if you see the number of hoardings and signboards offering to teach spoken English, even at an institute called Brain Bench in Jodhpur, you can see the upsurge of ambition. It is written on the wall.

At Pushkar, you see evidence also that Rahul Gandhi has read some of it as well. He is not a rabble-rousing rock star of public speaking. He doesnt thump some 48-inch chest, nor do his fans claim he has one. But after a decade of pure, flop povertarianism, and India Shining versus Declining discourse, he has now nuanced it to look the aspirational young Indian in the eye. His line is more thought out, lines better written and delivered more effectively. Finally, there is eye contact with the audience.

Rahul Gandhi now sells the idea of growth and better infrastructure. Of course, he qualifies it. We are building airports, highways, power plants, railways. Hindustan (he prefers that to Bharat, almost uniquely for our political class today) cannot do without these, he says, but we can also see a wall in front of the poor. We have to break that too, so we will keep hammering away at it, chahe hum haarein ya jeetein. And what is his product differentiation The BJP says just build infrastructure and leave the poor by themselves to deal with the wall. How does the BJP want them to break it, by banging their heads on it

It is a far cry from two Indias have come into being (Bihar 2010) and Delhi Metro is for the rich, migrants working on it are the forgotten Indians (Uttar Pradesh 2012). He now talks of airplanes, but doesnt dismiss it with cold, povertarian but-what-does-it-mean-for-you-when-you-are-starving, or something like that. He now says, instead, shouldnt you also aspire that one day your children will fly in these He is evolving and that is good news.

Shades of jholawallah-ism persist, though. Rahul leaves his audiences bemused when he wades into the branded drugs-generics debate rather simplistically. If there is marketing in it, if a company makes big profit from it, they (Vasundhara Raje) say it is fine. But if there is no marketing and it is cheap, they say it is poison. I didnt see any nods in the crowd, no acknowledgement of the point. But only until the word zehar (poison) was uttered. This is how challenger Vasundhara rubbishes Gehlots free medicine. Zehar nahi kehti, whiskey kehti hai. Saat baje ke baad, keval whiskey maangti hai, shouts a spirited flank bencher, and the crowd warms up.

Whatever they do, however, Congress leaders cannot match the BJP when it comes to oratory. A measured, nuanced Rahul is refreshing. But Modi simply electrifies the faithful. And Gehlot is a walkie-talkie disaster on a microphone, exaggerated sibilants and all. Vasundhara, on the other hand, is all clinical energy and elan.

At a halwai shop in Dudu, about 50 km short of Ajmer, off the highway from Jaipur, on a bench in front of a sesame oil mill that is a common sight in bazaars here, sit four boys. They are eating kachouris with alu and after-burner chutney. This is the favourite Rajasthani snack and deadly like much of the states great cuisine, a killer in taste as well as in its deep-fried, salt-laden kitchen-se-coronary-tak quality. But these are young boys, lean and hungry. They can handle this.

All four are from nearby villages, and friends. So this is a power breakfast of sorts. Three are Brahmins, one a Jat. Lalit Sharma, final year MCA (master of computer applications) student, is the quartets spokesman. The other three are finishing MCom. What will they do after masters

Nobody knows, maybe teach, look for government jobs. What else can we do We are not good at English. Fact check: At the Prajapat book shop in Borunda, the only career competition guides are for recruitment as LDCs and UDCs (lower and upper division clerks). Our villages are rotten, Lalit says, nothing new has come up anywhere, except mobile phone towers. Kahaan jaayein hum And he goes on to describe the clogged drain, filth on the streets, dodgy power and joblessness.

Suddenly, Lalit has taken me back 22 years to a chai shop, or rather, shack, between the Ganga bridge (coming in from Buxar in Bihar) and Varanasi. This was the summer campaign of 1991 and we joined Rajiv Gandhi for a desperately needed cup of tea and conversation. The boy making tea and his friends said to him things almost entirely similar. Angry, frustrated, resigned. I had written a short description of that conversation in India Today (Rajiv Gandhi: Friendly but lacklustre, May 31, 1991, This was unfortunately to be Rajivs last evening in the heartland.

But if his son had been in Dudu that morning, he could have resumed the same conversation seamlessly. He may also have figured then why these young boys eyes light up not when you talk about free medicines and pensions, but the moment you mention Narendra Modi.

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