For The Express Tribune on 10 April 2014
Jyotsna ji has been my house help since 2006. She hails from a village East Midnapore district in West Bengal. She has lived in Delhi for about 22 years now. She separated from her husband and raised her two sons by herself.
I never asked her about politics until the day she returned from her annual trip to her village, some years ago. After 37 years of communist rule, West Bengal had a new government, led byMamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress. The communists had been popular in West Bengal because they had done some half-baked land reforms and the rural poor loved them for it. The rest they managed by violence and rigging. Now the communists had tried to copy China and industrialise in a hurry, throwing the poor out of their land, using police, rape, murder and arson. The people voted with their feet. I wanted to know what Jyotsna ji thought of this change.
“See,” she said, “The people in the village are fools. I told them as much. As you know I don’t mince words.” She sounded patronising like Indian expats used to, about the country they had left. “I asked them if they had extracted any promises out of Trinamool or just shifted to with the wind? They had no answer. I told them I’ve lived in Delhi for 20 years! And in our jhuggi(slum) we’ve always voted Congress but only after extracting specific promises out of them. Nothing can happen to people in the village. Even the communists and the Maobaadis (Maoists) fool them”.
Then her sons grew up and she moved left the slum, moving into a rented house. The sons got jobs and one of them recently got married. Some months ago I asked her whom she was voting for in the Delhi assembly elections. “Abki baar jhaadu!” she said with surprising enthusiasm as she cleaned the floor with a broom, convincing me that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) with the broom as its election symbol was going to do well. What about your sons? “They are they ones who persuaded me it was time to move on from the useless Congress”.
Arvind Kejriwal became chief minister of Delhi with support from the Congress. But he could either run Delhi or prepare for the Lok Sabha elections. He tried his best to make the Congress withdraw support but the Congress did not. So he tried to pass a law that the Delhi assembly could not have passed, complaining that the Congress didn’t let him pass the law. He resigned. The gimmick has been so obvious it has dented the AAP’s image and made people question if they are mature enough for power.
Your government fell, I pointed out to Jyotsna ji. Well, she replied, the Congress didn’t let it last. Few are better than the AAP with political communication.
Some days ago I asked her who she was planning to vote in the central elections. Nobody, she replied. They’re all useless. Which is how most people in most countries feel about most politicians anyway, but what happened to Jyotsna ji’s newfound love for the broom party? “See, Congress is useless and jhadu didn’t last long, or wasn’t allowed to last long, or whatever happened but the experiment didn’t work out.” And Modi? “Modi tou chor hai!” she said with a vehemence that surprised me. “Modi is a thief!” Labelling Modi and the BJP as being equal with Congress in corruption was the AAP’s trick, and evidently the broom party’s communication was still strong even when they were losing a voter.
Yesterday, she said she’ll go to vote. Really? But I thought you won’t vote? “I am thinking that I should. When they come to demolish the jhuggi and I plead with them not to, the politicians will say you don’t even vote.” But I though you didn’t live in the jhuggi anymore? “I don’t, but I gave out my rooms there on rent”.
Renting out rooms you don’t own – her village folk are clearly never going to be this smart.
So who will you vote for? I haven’t decided, she insisted. How’s that possible, you must have some thoughts? “All my life I have voted Congress so my son was saying this time,” she hesitated to complete the sentence, “why not try the lotus?” Lotus is the election symbol of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Who are others in the jhuggi voting for? What is your jhuggi leader saying? “I don’t know,” she said. “I go there rarely.”
She admits that her monthly ration has become cheaper under a new food security law enacted by the Congress but that’s not good enough for her. She is no longer bound to the blackmail that is the Congress’ patronage system of capturing long-term vote blocks. Even if the slum is demolished she won’t be on the road. She is free now, free like you and me, a free woman happy to make wrong choices at the polling booth and learn from them the next election.