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The boatmen of Allahabad

In 2004, the nishads proved to be perceptive pollsters. Will they get it right this time? asks Jawid Laiq.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2009 23:12 IST
Jawid Laiq

It’s been exactly five years. I am back at the holy sangam, where the waters of the Ganga and the Yamuna merge, in Allahabad. I am here yet again for the fifth time as a political pilgrim during a Lok Sabha election to garner the electoral wisdom of the nishads, the boatmen who ferry yatris from every corner of the country to the sangam. On the sandy beach by the confluence, after a lot of prodding, the boatmen reveal what they have gathered from the political comments of hundreds of pilgrims from every region, clan and caste. The boatmen have proved to be more accurate election pollsters than the professional ones commissioned by TV channels and newspapers.

Among a group of nishads, sitting on a rough wooden platform embedded in the sand, there is a definite consensus: the top two contenders for the vote in Uttar Pradesh are the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress. As they repeatedly put it in colloquial Hindi, “Haathi aur Panjey may takkar hai”. (The contest is between the elephant and the hand — the symbols of the BSP and the Congress). Ranjan Kumar Nishad, who remembers me from my last visit, echoes the general opinion that the Congress will do much better in the state in 2009 than it did in 2004. The Samajwadi Party (SP) will fare badly this time and the BJP will be in fourth place in UP with only a handful of seats. Ranjan Kumar’s colleagues suggest that nationally the Congress may emerge again as the single largest party with significantly more than the 145 seats it got in 2004. They are unwilling to guess the precise number of seats.

In 2004, the boatmen had accurately forecast that the SP would get the highest number of Lok Sabha seats from UP followed by the BSP. This time the SP is being dismissed as a mafia group and the BJP as a party that makes tall promises to Hindus, creates tensions and then fails to carry out its pledges. Anirudh Kumar Nishad, organiser of the boatmen’s committee, claims that unlike in the 2004 election, caste and community are not relevant this time. Even Muslims are now going to vote as part of the downtrodden majority and not as a religious minority.

Shyamji Nishad rows me out to the exact spot where the Ganga meets the Yamuna and where dozens of boats are bobbing about, heavily loaded with pilgrims preparing to take a dip. Shyamji joins me in carrying out an instant, rough poll. Each boat carries an extended family of about 20 people from a particular area. We approach a boatload from Jalaun in UP. Their spokesman, Chander Pal Singh, a kisan farming 65 bighas, says that they will vote for the SP, like they did the last time. We move to a boatload from Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh. Jeevan Lal Sahu, a village sarpanch, confidently predicts, “Chhattisgarh may Raman raj raheyga”. (BJP’s Raman Singh will rule Chhattisgarh.) We intercept a boatload of peasants, all wearing starched white caps, from Beed in Maharashtra. They firmly decline to discuss elections at this holy site.

On another boat, we spot a solitary figure carefully tying his dhoti after a dip. He is Uma Shankar Dikshit, founder-priest of the Siddhi Vinayaka Temple in Sacramento, California. He has been living in the US for 20 years but visits India every couple of months. His home town is Bangalore where he will be casting his vote for the BJP because the Congress plays ‘casteist’ and ‘Muslim-oriented politics’. My notepad gets splashed with Ganga water from a passing boat and inky blue streaks smudge my scribbles. We head back to shore and meet Mohan Prasad, a judicial stenographer from Karimnagar district in Andhra Pradesh, who has come all the way in a tourist bus with 40 other pilgrims. His considered assessment is that the Telugu Desam-led Third Front and the Congress will each win about half the seats in his state in both the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, which are being held simultaneously in Andhra Pradesh. Actor Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party will play the spoiler in several constituencies but will get very few seats. The BJP may also win a few seats. According to Mohan Prasad, “Unbearable prices of food items and unimaginable corruption” have turned many voters away from the state’s incumbent Congress government.

I bid farewell to my nishad friends and next morning head for the predominantly Brahmin village of Barwah, near Bamrauli, some 20 kilometres from Allahabad, to see Prem Narayan Tewari, the cheerful retired food inspector whom I had met five years ago. Last time, the entire village had voted BJP. This time there is some confusion as Mayawati has chosen Kapil Muni Karwaria, a Brahmin, as the BSP candidate from the recently delimited Phulpur constituency which now includes Barwah. Tewari, surrounded by his young nephews, says that the village always votes collectively for a particular party. This time they will vote for the BSP, even though they do not expect the BSP or any other party and government to benefit them in any way.

The same cynicism about politicians is apparent in the neighbouring village of Bhagwatpur where I visit Mewalal the dhobi, his wife Raj Rani and daughter Amrawati, who is now 22, and has just completed her BA final exam. When I had visited them in 2004, Amrawati was struggling to continue her studies in a private school as she was finding it difficult to pay the monthly fee of Rs 50. I am relieved to find that the smiling Amrawati, with the help of a generous teacher, has got through school and college. She will be voting for the first time. She will vote for the Congress as will her parents. In 2004, her parents had voted for the BSP. Amrawati ruefully says that nothing has changed for the better in five years. No government has improved their condition. There is no electricity or clean water in their tiny mud hut and she and her parents earn a pittance by ironing clothes all day. Amrawati is sceptical about getting a better job with just a BA degree but she continues to smile.

Jawid Laiq is a Delhi-based political analyst