The Heartland Express

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Rahul Gandhi walked through western UP to learn from farmers. Rohini Mohan tracks one farmer in the crowd who had a lot to say

[wzslider autoplay=”true” transition=”‘slide'” info=”true” lightbox=”true”]SKINNY AND brown as the neem bark he perched on, Chaudhry Rajinder Singh was almost invisible, a creature of the tree. His oversized white kurta was patchy with the liquid blue his wife had used in a valiant attempt at resurrecting the 15-year-old garment, and it billowed in the wind. He was watching a man five feet below him, almost the same age as he, but different in every other way. To Rajinder, Rahul Gandhi, pink-faced and sweaty, was the shape of everything a perfect life could create. He looked healthy, well-to-do, well-read, kind and curious. Rajinder couldn’t help his jaw dropping.

Photos: Naveesh and Shailendra Pandey (unless mentioned otherwise)

Like Rajinder, a hundred villagers crowded into the frontyard of a temple around Rahul Gandhi, waiting for him to say something. But ever since he’d walked into Jigarpur village in Uttar Pradesh, with reporters, Congressmen, children and farmers trying to keep pace and spilling on to the wet fields and dung piles on either side, Rahul has been mostly silent. This annoyed Rajinder. “Was he getting confused? He wasn’t nodding at the correct places. I don’t think he was listening fully,” he said later. “But I hope he was.”

A wheat and arhar dal farmer from Jigarpur and father of three, Rajinder had decided to place his trust on the 42-yearold Congress scion about a year ago. This was when Rahul had visited the expressway in Tappal where four farmers protesting unlawful land acquisition by the UP government for a township had died in a police shootout. Rajinder went to jail with other farmers that day. “I’m here to understand what farmers want,” Rahul had said then. Nearly two months ago, when Rahul hopped on a motorbike to reach Bhatta-Parsaul on the expressway, Rajinder was there too, to hear him express solidarity with families of farmers killed there.

Starting 5 July, Rahul undertook a padyatra through both these regions, collapsing the two events and every village in between into a perfectly proportioned political confrontation with the state’s ruling Bahujan Samajwadi Party. Over 75 km, 31 villages and four days, the padyatra would mourn, complain, challenge and mobilise. It would journey through the most fertile belt of western UP, hearing tales of land grabbed and livelihoods lost. It would take a bunch of young Congress ticket aspirants through their constituencies, led by an empathetic man with a powerful surname last hailed in these parts in the pre-nineties. It would harness farmers’ rage at the gated colonies and golf courses replacing their fertile land, at Delhi’s educated middle-class replacing them.

There can be no substitute in politics for the value of hitting the ground for firsthand understanding. Rahul is part of a diminishing minority that still understands this. But no matter how earnest the intention, listening can be difficult on journeys like this. Especially when the inevitable high theatre kicks in, both among those who talk and those who listen.

Gradually, Rahul dropped his meditative silence and began to make promises with frightening ease

Before Rahul set off for Jigarpur, Rajinder had been twiddling his thumbs in Kansera village. A huge crowd waited impatiently around the closed door of the biggest brick-house in the 600-strong village. It was one of the few with running water, a toilet and an inverter for electricity. Inside, Rahul was taking a nap. “He ate the roti-dal we made him and then just slept for five hours straight,” said the beaming house-owner Kalyan Singh. At 5 pm, the time at which the ennui broke every day, Rahul emerged bathed and refreshed.

Dodging the army of waiting mikes, Rahul jogged ahead to Jigarpur. Some 200 people and about 40 cars, most of them media and Congress SUvs, followed. Rajinder suggested we hop onto his Bullet and take a shortcut to Jigarpur.

On the way, he watched, amazed, cameramen and reporters climb trees, scale poles, blaze through wheat fields to capture every head bob and handshake of the AICC general secretary. Look at him roll up his sleeves. Quick, turn the camera at him patting the brown malnourished hair of a little girl. Pick apart every sentence he spoke, didn’t speak, should have spoken. Beam live images of him hopping gingerly over a sewer. (Rahul told a students’ group later that he was dismayed by the shallowness of television media coverage. “They are more interested in shooting me playing with buffaloes than understanding the issues involved.”)

FOR FOUR days, Rajinder Singh rode his noisy Bullet behind Rahul Gandhi. Everywhere Rahul went, the impassioned pleas were the same, as if he alone possessed a magic spell that has evaded economists, lawmakers and chief ministers. Wrinkled old men grabbed his arm and veiled old women cupped his cheeks with their rough farm hands. They urged him to make promises, and he too, over the four days, gradually dropped his early meditative silence and began to offer deals with frightening ease. A perfect law for you. No more tears for you. Lots of money and roads and an equal world for you.

Rajinder is a Jat farmer who had sold (he uses the word “lost”) land in two places near Tappal in Aligarh district — 5 acres for the expressway and 6.5 acres for the Jaypee Greens township. He’s left with about 35 acres. He employs 12 people, owns a pucca house, and all his children go to school. He is not poor – as far as the usual markers of poverty go. But rendered irrelevant in the two biggest upheavals in UP— caste and real estate—Rajinder feels impoverished. He blames mayawati for robbing him of what he prides most: his land, and his place in society. “I’m a Jat, an upper caste man, which means I have no place in this state anymore,” says Rajinder. “On top of it, I won’t belong in those big bungalows and malls that will come up on my farm either.”

Rahul walked in late, unaware of the disillusionment among farmers in the rally on the last day

Rajinder expected Rahul to fix both, as did the hundreds that thronged to see him. But if there is one thing Rahul would have learnt from this trip, it is that there are no magic formulas. Some land acquisition issues have already acquired a critical mass of understanding, a result of all the people’s battles that have flared up: the price must be fair; there should be no forcible acquisition; there must be consultation; “public purpose” must be better defined.

But there are other vexed questions. What should be done for Dalit share-croppers, landless labourers, or livestock tenders who are driven off the land without even the smokescreen of compensation? How should public infrastructure or industrial projects proceed?

For Rahul and his band of young workers, the sheer scale and extent of the injustices farmers reported must have come as a sobering lesson: how could all of this have been going on so close to Delhi and so little have been known about it? The media may have been napping on it, but where was their party cadre? And how is he going to convert all the emotional capital ordinary people are investing in him?

But as the padyatra proceeds, the opposing imperatives of the aggrieved and the leader they hope will bring them succour become evident. In an election year, despite himself, Rahul cannot restrict himself merely to his stated purpose: “samajhna”, understanding. His speeches begin to take on a visibly electoral tone. The issue of compensation is a state subject. Last month, mayawati had introduced a new rehabilitation policy that offered more compensation through annuity and an option of returning 16 percent of the total developed land to the farmers. Despite being a progressive policy, unsurprisingly, it faced some easy mudslinging. “There’s a new policy, but has the UP government implemented it?!” rants Rahul. “This is a government run by dalals,” he says elsewhere. Rambabu Kateliya, a farmer-activist who led the first agitation in Tappal, winces. “Such statements get applause and make newspaper headlines, but they mar the padyatra with controversy, and worse, they taint Rahul with the kind of netagiri he wants to avoid.” vm Singh, another farmers’ leader who accompanied Rahul through the padyatra, says it’s time for politics on the land acquisition law to stop.

BY THE time Rajinder rode his bullet into Aligarh on 9 July for the mega culmination, the farmer’s mahapanchayat, he was already questioning the intention of the padyatra. “I really believe Rahul baba wants to be a messiah of farmers,” he said. “But I’ll see today if he has the ability to be what he wants to be.”

The mahapanchayat was to start at 10 am, but there was no sign of Rahul Gandhi. Fourteen Congress politicians had taken the stage. The speeches had unreservedly shifted to the oldest barter in Indian democracy: give us your votes and we will give you your law, land, freedom. Congress-flag bearers, banner holders and the women’s wing were given lunch, and anything between Rs 300 and Rs 1,000 to wave and cheer near the stage and next to the media. Few farmers had come independently. It was confounding why Rahul would let party workers and local mLCs resort to old tropes while securing for himself only the educative purity of the yatra.

As he walked in six hours late, Rahul was perhaps unaware of Rajinder’s great expectations. Or the disillusionment that had crept in over the four days he had devotedly followed him. When Rahul took the stage, delivering earnestly the same words he had in the first gathering in Bhatta- Parsaul, Rajinder said, “But this is not about farmers at all, is it?” In this lost faith too, Rahul might find larger lessons on the farmer he seeks to understand.

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka
rohini@tehelka.com

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