Shekhar Gupta: Writings On The UP Wall-I

The stand-out Writings On the Wall in this election-bound Uttar Pradesh tells us a substantively different story from what we’ve been reading and reporting in the past decade. We read aspiration on these walls then, as in Bihar and increasingly in other parts of our country. There was optimism, ambition and confidence, especially among the young.  Families had some surpluses and the markets boomed, from private school education in the heartland, to branded chicken in the south, immigration in Punjab, and that tell-tale sign that even hopeless Bihar had grown under Nitish’s first reign to start buying branded underwear.


If Uttar Pradesh is an indication, this has started to change. That aspirational surge that brought UPA back in 2009 with greater numbers, trusted young Akhilesh Yadav with a majority not possible with just his old MY (Muslim-Yadav) political bequest, gifted Narendra Modi a landslide in 2014, and re-elected several “performing” chief ministers — some of them thrice — is flagging. Some of that optimism is yielding to desperation. It's taking us back to identity politics in a manner that harks back to old times of Hindu Rate of Growth. Which is how we may describe the last four years of relative stalling of the economy in the desultory 6 per cent zone. Optimism that gave many the energy and audacity to walk out of the identity (caste or faith) fortresses, is fading. This campaign, therefore is back to being old trench warfare.


After searching for sharper clues to this changed mood for four days on the road, from Delhi through western, Jat-dominated region of the state through Bundelkhand, Yadav dugout of Etawah, Kanpur and Lucknow, I spot it halfway into the never-ending east, in village (and constituency)  Zaidpur, near Barabanki. It is, in fact, a colourful, glossy business card that 20-year-old Ataur Rahman Ansari hands out to me, telling me more than what his signboards on the wall, or his shelf-less, merchandise-free shop do.


His Star Online Centre and Jan Sewa Kendra (Public Service Centre) is just a month old. The card describes his business, which is everything you need but won't get at a grocery store: air and rail tickets, PAN card, Aadhaar Card, e-payments, birth and death certificates, copies of revenue (land ownership) records and mutations, life insurance, passports, university examination and employment forms, phone recharge, installing of mobile e-wallet apps and so on. Everything, as long as it can be done on Internet.


Ata is a Second Year B.Sc. student. Ansaris are weavers and the family business of a clutch of looms weaving cotton, viscose and sometimes silk stoles for exports to the Middle-East broke down as demonetisation devastated the supply chains, if temporarily. There are also no jobs so weaver families saw an opportunity in adversity. Why not build a business from the crisis demonetisation had created and its push towards digitisation. Hence Star Online Centre. He has two work stations riding Jio lines and the walls are plastered with posters of e-wallets. Power supply was the other challenge, so he has parked a solar unit right in front of the shop, providing him 300 watts of steady power during the day, enough to power his work-stations, LED bulbs and a fan.


That portable solar power unit is the power-starved state's new motif and looks out from phone-charging, motor-repair, even barber shops as you drive by. People find their way around the most debilitating man-made disadvantages. Star Online Centre, though, tells us the story of so much that is wrong with the heartland: lousy governance, lack of economic growth, joblessness, a desperation to break out and a loss of recent optimism. And  also what's good, like an educated young man, unlike tens of millions of others, trying to find an opportunity in adversity. With some jugaad, for sure.


The heartland stereotype of illiteracy, destitution and below Sub-Saharan social indicators is now obsolete. People saw a possibility of breaking out with education. They borrowed, sold parcels of land to educate their children at expensive (for them) private colleges as the government system failed to keep pace. Today, the same children carry heavy degrees but can't find jobs, or are unemployable given the quality of their education. Their parents still have debts, and they're all furious.


Some, in fact, can be found in the fields doing exactly what their parents did, like harvesting potato, and they hate it. Meet Ram Saran, a strapping Pasi Dalit with a B.Sc., (with Botany, Zoology and Chemistry), but is digging out potatoes near village Shahzadpur in the same constituency. He’s the one in the NDTV video that went viral, talking enthusiastically of why he loves Narendra Modi and his style. The only job he thinks he can find is probably that of a school-teacher. But he can’t find it with reservations, and has no patience to go and get a B. Ed. degree as well particularly as the “future will still be this useless life”.  Seven teenaged girls working as daily-wage labourers on his plot, mopping up with bare hands the potatoes still left in the soil, have all taken time off from school. They are also Pasi Dalits, do not have votes yet. Who would they have voted for? They all speak with a sparkle in their eyes: Modi. So wait for 2019.

The young are disillusioned, bored, angry and revolting. In the Thakur (Rajput) quarter of another village there is Janak Singh, with an MPEd (Master of Physical Education), jobless and minding his fields and a tiny family-owned ration shop. Three appearances in the Army’s recruitment parades were unsuccessful. Why is someone holding a master’s degree trying for an enlisted man’s life, you don’t ask in a state where more than 2 million apply for a few hundred peons’ or security guards’ jobs, mostly graduate and many with master’s degrees and some Ph.Ds. A combination of the return of the Hindu Rate of Growth (as 6 per cent by today’s standards is) and poor quality education is pushing us to a demographic disaster. You have doubts, travel in Uttar Pradesh, read the writings on the wall.


The story plays out everywhere. In Lucknow, at a call centre run by Akhilesh Yadav’s backroom team, the shift is run by Beauty Singh, from a middling Rajput family in Amethi. She’s confident, in control, and careful not to let me get away with the oldest cheap trick in a reporter’s toolkit, reading papers or screens from the other side of the table. She is paid Rs 11,000 a month for this very short-tenure job, never mind her master’s degree. This is the big change—or lack of change in so many regrettable ways—in the heartland. Education, but no employment, degrees that bring hope, but no employability and therefore frustration. No new enterprise, local cottage industry  (many districts of UP have traditional manufacturing, from brass to bangles, leather to locks, silk to zari, weaving to pottery) is now ruined by demonetisation shock, no new hope in fact. That the angry, bored young aren’t setting cities on fire, becoming armed Naxals, or joining mobs and smashing through our gated colonies, or taking to drugs as in Punjab is partly because resignation comes easier in this hopeless state which pulls down all of India’s socio-economic indicators. And partly because there is catharsis, and residual faith in democracy, in elections.


There are three salient features of this election. One, that nobody has much hope from anybody. Second, that voters do not have a motivation strong enough to change their traditional (mostly caste-based) voting patterns, so Uttar Pradesh is back to its old normal, identity-based politics. And third, that the some who are exploring “outside” are looking at Modi rather than any of his younger challengers, like Akhilesh, Rahul, even Mayawati. What we don’t know yet is, will their numbers be large enough to tilt this election this time. If not, or maybe because too many of them are too young to have votes yet, as the seven school-going potato-pickers in Shahzadpur, this stalemate will be broken when they are old enough, in 2019.

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