Turbaned, surrounded by trumpets and flowers on a stage in Ajmer, Sachin is serious and unsmiling. In his ministry office in Delhi, too, he keeps a straight face
IT’S 6.15 AM, on a Saturday in April 2011. Sachin Pilot sits in the arrivals lounge at Jaipur’s Sanganer Airport. The young politician is clean-shaven, fit and long-legged, well turned out in a white kurta, white linen pants and fine, brown moccasins. Two officials from the postal department and some Congress associates are here to receive Pilot. GR Thakana and Mr Purushottam — old associates of Sachin’s father, the late Rajesh Pilot — join him for tea in the lounge, both in kurtas so white and crisp that they rustle like fresh A4 paper. The three chat about the goings-on in the state. The Gadia Lohars, a traditionally nomadic tribe of iron-welders, want land to settle down on. The Saperahs, a community of snake-charmers, want water and electricity connections. And Gulabo, a folk dancer, has been in all the local papers for raising demands on behalf of her community of folk artistes.
A convoy of station wagons and jeeps is waiting outside. The day’s itinerary involves a Sain community event in Ajmer, a Jain community meet before lunch, the launch of a new computer and internet classroom in a local school and a function at another school just outside Sachin’s constituency. Then, there’s the long drive to Jaipur where he will catch a flight back to Delhi. Sachin was elected from Ajmer, Rajasthan, in 2009. He fought and won from Dausa before that, his father’s old constituency, where the senior Pilot’s reputation still loomed large.
Rajesh Pilot rose in the political scene of the 1980s — when Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi helmed the country. Pilot’s story is incredible. A farmer, he first came to Delhi to work as a milk-man in his uncle’s dairy (Pilot loved telling everyone how he would deliver milk to 10 Akbar Road, the house he’d later live in himself ). But Rajesh Pilot was ambitious. He put himself through flying school and became a pilot in the Indian Air Force; he fought as a squadron leader in the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Years later, in 1979, Pilot wrangled an appointment with then Congress president Indira Gandhi and told her that he wanted to fight elections. On a whim, Mrs Gandhi gave Rajesh Pilot a ticket. Pilot quit the Air Force and contested elections, winning first from Bharatpur and then from Dausa. It was before the Bharatpur election that he heard the buzz in the villages that ‘a Pilot is coming’ and, on an impulse, changed his name from Rajesh Yadav to Rajesh Pilot. Pilot also served, at various points, as Minister for Telecommunications, Internal Security and Environment. He was an energetic member of the Congress Party, at the centre of every happening. Pilot planned to contest elections for the post of Congress President, but died in an accident just months before the election. In June 2000, he was driving his jeep in a great hurry from his constituency to the airport in Jaipur when he collided with a truck on a sharp turn.
GR Thakana, Rajesh Pilot’s erstwhile additional private secretary and confidante, introduces himself unceremoniously, “Main Thakana hoon (I am Thakana).” Thakana was waiting with Pilot’s flight tickets at the Jaipur airport on the day of the accident. Like Thakana, many of Rajesh Pilot’s aides and staff now surround Sachin. They are full of stories about the older Pilot. Thakana tells the tale of how Rajesh Pilot, as internal security minister, got a complaint from Som Chai, a Thai national, against the powerful ‘god-man’ Chandraswamy. “We said don’t do anything against this man; he’s connected to the PM.” Everybody knew Chandraswamy was close to then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. “Chahe mainu jail jana padey, khel khatam hoga (Even if I have to go to jail, this game will end),” Pilot declared heatedly. He was a man of ‘strong convictions,’ Thakana recollects, his eyes clouding over, “He insisted on fighting Chandraswamy.” As a punishment for taking down Chandraswamy, it’s widely believed that Narasimha Rao moved Pilot from the Ministry of Internal Security to the then powerless Ministry of Environment.
Later, Pilot fought Congress stalwart Sitaram Kesri for Congress party president, but lost. Most famously, he announced he’d next fight Sonia Gandhi for the same post. Everyone around him was sceptical, but Pilot refused to back down, believing he had grassroots support and would be able to work fast to win over the party. Apart from his fighting spirit and charisma, Pilot was also known for his strong empathy with farmers and rural India.
Purshottam, who was at the last meeting Pilot attended before his accident, speaks of his initiatives with pride. He argued for credit cards for farmers and built roads to facilitate rural commerce. At the height of conflict in J&K, Pilot visited the state as home minister.
At one of Sachin’s stops, the Jain community meeting, we meet another Congressman who knew Rajesh Pilot. Eyes wide, he describes Pilot’s feats, his instant connect. He narrates how, when Pilot entered a village that had elected him, he’d announce with panache, “Baiman log jo hai, hat jao. Rajesh Pilot aa gaya. (All the cheaters, trouble-makers, back off now. Rajesh Pilot is here!)” He would sit with people in any small village in his constituency and say, grandly, “Bicholiye nahi aaney chahiyey. (No middle-men should come between us!)” The senior Pilot was ‘the kind of man who wouldn’t bend before anyone.’ He’d drive his Gypsy at 100-120 km per hour, the Congressman recalls with awe and affection. He’d get stuck in a river, and he’d say, “Marney sey dartey ho kya? (Are you afraid of death, or what?)” Comparing Sachin to his father, “Unsey zyada suljha hua bolte hai,” the Congress worker says, thoughtfully, “bahut, bahut meetha.” (Sachin speaks more moderately than his father, much more sweetly.) Sachin, he reasons, is part of the ‘new generation.’ Where his father hailed from a strong rural background, Thakana mulls, comparing the two, Sachin has had a very urban upbringing.
People remember Rajesh Pilot like someone out of a Western, like a cowboy who walks into the wild country and blows out all the miscreants. Everyone holds him in awe. Sachin could not be more different. Sachin is quiet and private; he speaks in serious, measured tones, and avoids controversy.
WE’RE NOW on the road back to the Sanganer Airport in Jaipur in a single file convoy of six station wagons. The long day that started at 4 am has ended, and we’re driving fast, late to catch our 7.30 pm flight back to Delhi. The police escort vehicle in front of Sachin’s slows, suddenly, at a speed-breaker. Sachin’s car, unable to brake enough, crashes into the escort car. The car I’m in brakes at the last instant, then crashes into Sachin’s station wagon. The car behind crashes into mine and so on, till the entire file of cars comes to a standstill in a misshapen line on the Jaipur highway. Each vehicle is bent out of shape on the front and the rear, the windows cracked. Everybody gets out gingerly, dazed. Sachin walks along the line, checking if everyone’s okay. A Congress Committee block president has sprained his arm and sits on the road. Thankfully, no one’s seriously hurt. A jeep that’s been following further behind pulls up and everyone on the flight back to Delhi piles into it. As the jeep moves towards the airport, Sachin calls his wife Sara to tell her he’s had a small accident and had to switch cars. Within seconds, his mother, Rama Pilot, calls Sachin’s personal assistant demanding details. Sachin smiles and takes the phone, reassuring her. Car accidents aren’t taken lightly in this family.
Quite unlike his father, Sachin Pilot is quiet, private; speaks in measured tones, and avoids controversy
I first met Sachin at his office in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, but didn’t get much. Sachin is shy, instinctively private. He shared the bare facts: He attended the Air Force School in New Delhi, then went on to St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University. He was in the middle of an MBA at Wharton in the United States when his father died. Sachin didn’t talk about his personal life at all, his relationship with Sara, former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s daughter, or their 2004 marriage, despite heavy opposition from Sara’s family. He promised her when they married he wouldn’t involve her in his political life, Sachin said, closing the subject.
Driving back to Jaipur airport, the last hour, after the accident, I get another chance to ask Sachin a few questions. His personal secretary and I are in the backseat; Sachin is in the front seat of the car, staring out of the window. It’s here, surrounded by close associates, after a long day touring and narrowly avoiding a mishap, that Sachin opens up.
About Rajesh Pilot, he says, “I don’t mind being compared to him at all, it doesn’t bother me. It’s natural for people to draw comparisons. I get so much benefit from being his son… it makes me work harder.”
“He started from scratch and made his own space in public,” Sachin says, recollecting his father’s bravado. “Out of nowhere, just like that, he walked into Indira Gandhi’s house.”
As the road whizzes past us in the darkening evening light, Sachin adds, “My father lived his life without getting mud on his shoes, which is a lot in politics.” Rajesh Pilot was never tainted by the corruption scandals of the 1980s. “He was always smiling. I don’t think I ever saw him not smile,” Sachin recalls affectionately. “And me, I hardly smile at all,” he says, grinning slightly out the window at this irony. “I had a wonderful 21 years with my father,” Sachin says, a lump forming in his voice, “and then, suddenly, he passed away.” From the backseat, I sense there’s nothing more to ask, right then.
EARLIER IN the day, Sachin speaks at the Sain Samaj meeting. The event is to honour young Sain students who’ve graduated from high schools with distinction, or from nursing and other higher vocational courses. There are dhols (drums) on one side, women withthalis full of petals, much fanfare before the meeting begins. There are rows of medals, flowers, and certificates waiting to be handed out.
The block president from Pushkar, Ajmer district, introduces Sachin, “Yeh ganney key ras mein miley meethay sharbat hai. (He’s the sweetness in sugarcane juice.) In the middle of thunder, when you see a diya (lamp) lit,” she says, effusively, “ask that diya, and you’ll know Sachin saab was there.” Sachin sits on the stage looking straight ahead, unmoved. Around him are community and political leaders, on sofas, leaning over each other and chatting. The young MP comes on stage and delivers a short, serious speech about how proud he is to see young people from the community graduate, and about the importance of education.
The Sains, traditionally a community of barbers, are now part of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) list and get OBC reservations in the civil service and in government colleges. One percent of the population in Ajmer is Sain. In the car with me, as we drive away from the Sain meeting, Seni and Narain from the postal department explain that while many Sains continue to be barbers, others have joined the civil services or other professions.
As we zip across Ajmer to another meeting, Seni and Narain talk about how most communities in Rajasthan are now either classified Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribe (SC & ST) or Other Backward Classes (OBC). Only the traditional upper castes, Rajputs, Brahmins and Baniyas, are not included in the OBC list. Now, it’s almost easier to get a government job if you apply in the regular category, Seni says, grinning. While reservations in the civil service and in colleges for SC & ST have existed since Independence, the OBC category was created in 1990 by the Janata Dal Prime Minister VP Singh. Since then, Gujjars, Meenas, Yadavs, and Rawats have been included in the OBC list in Rajasthan — even the Jats (who are considered a well-to-do community and not classified OBC in states like Haryana) have been added to this mix, as also the Ravana Rajputs, a sub-set of the Rajput clan. The OBC list has become so crowded now, that in 2009, the Gujjar community vied to move from the OBC list to the SC list, which is slimmer and offers more benefits.
Seni, from the Seni, or mali (gardener’s) community, also belongs to the OBC category. His father was an illiterate farmer, Seni tells me, and his own sons are today qualified engineers. One of his sons applied in the Civil Engineering Service with an OBC certificate. But, he got job offers in other states, in West Bengal and Punjab. Perhaps, if he’d applied in the general category, he would’ve got Rajasthan, Seni ponders. His son decided to forego the offer and is now working at Dell, he says, sounding quite proud of the outcome. Narain, in a well-stitched safari suit and jootis, tells me he’s a Rajput. His father was also illiterate, but Narain finished school and joined the Civil Service. Today, his son and daughter are enrolled in MBA programmes in Jaipur. “There are enough opportunities for well-educated, hardworking young people,” he ruminates, as we trundle down the road to Sachin’s next meeting.
“I’m a Gujjar, you know that?” Sachin says, suddenly turning from the front seat of his jeep. We’re driving away from his last meeting and the Pushkar Block President and her husband are also in the car. In Ajmer, he estimates, breaking up his constituency, there are 1 to 2 lakh Jats, 1.5 lakh Muslims, 3.5 lakh SCS, 1 lakh Rajputs, 1 lakh Baniyas, 1 lakh Jain Samajis, and about 1.5 lakh Gujjars. So Pilot needs to win votes from other communities apart from his own to win. This election, for instance, the Jats didn’t vote for him, bringing down his margin. They were upset because some Jat candidates hadn’t won Congress nominations for the MLA elections, Sachin explains. Sachin is more comfortable talking about the math of caste than most Congress MPs, who skirt the issue. “In Delhi, all the Bengalis live together in one area, Muslims live together; it happens everywhere in different degrees,” he says. He talks about caste upfront as a political reality, a matter of fact. Rajasthan, like many Indian states in recent years, has become minutely stratified by caste. People tend to vote as communities (of caste), in blocks. They tend to clamour for benefits as communities, by way of reservations. Every community wants some kind of special status from the state. Political parties play up these various demands to get votes.
In the 1990s, the BJP government in Rajasthan included the upper caste Jats in the OBC category. In 2003, just before the next election, the BJP began to promise Gujjars, who were already OBCS, other special reservations. In 2008, the Gujjars, aware of their power to turn election results in many districts in Rajasthan, began to actively agitate for SC status and special reservations. The demonstrations took place in Sachin’s family constituency, Dausa. State police and Gujjar mobs faced each other on the rail tracks; the demonstrations turned violent. The Rajasthan state government, under Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, announced 5 per cent new ‘special’ reservations for Gujjars, Banjaras, and Rabaris. It also announced 14 per cent reservations for the economically backward upper-castes — Baniyas, Rajputs, Kayasthas. That brought the total tally of reservations to 68 per cent in Rajasthan, above the constitutional limit of 50 per cent for any state. The Rajasthan High Court stayed Raje’s reservations. Since then, the government in Rajasthan has changed from the BJP to the Congress. ‘The Congress is dealing with it now,’ Sachin says, wearily.
The demand for, and disbursal of, more and more benefits by more and more communities is an unending political circus. Castes and Scheduled Tribes were first given reservations in India’s Constitution for 10 years. But as Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) points out in his recent essay on welfare schemes, reservations once started are rarely stopped. In a society with great inequality, communities, ironically, want to one-up other communities to make themselves feel briefly superior; they vie for special statuses rather than real transformation in governance or society. The comic end will, perhaps, come when, as Seni and Narain from the Postal Department joke, with every community getting itself included in reservations, the reserved categories will really become more crowded and harder to get into than the general! Over the years, many academics have raised questions about reservations. What sense do they make when the rich among the castes eat up the benefits? Shouldn’t reservations be based on economic criteria, or given only to the poor in the reserved castes? “Even if you wanted to give benefits to the poor, in India, what criteria do you use?” Sachin responds. “You can’t use land as criteria. Because of the land ceiling laws, no one, on paper, has that much land.” Land is usually distributed under various names. He adds, “Also, because agricultural income is non-taxable, you can’t measure income on the basis of taxes.” (Below Poverty Line [BPL] lists in India identify the extremely poor based on local surveys, but these lists tend to be inaccurate, cooked up, in most states.) Without reliable criteria, how does one go about identifying the poor? “I feel, if someone of a family has in the past availed the opportunity (reservation), they shouldn’t get it again,” Pilot says slowly, untangling the problem on our drive back. “I’m just thinking aloud… but there’s no system to record that either.”
LATER, AT the Jain community meeting, Jain monks sit on a podium in white robes; they have white hospital masks on their mouths so they don’t kill flies or germs by mistake and a jhadu (broom) at their feet. Rich Jain merchants, some in kurtas, others in shirts and pants, sit in rows on a platform to one side. Others sit on carpets in between. The Jain monks on the stage press Sachin to erect a temple against female foeticide in the area. Sachin assures them he’s against the practice, but, getting slightly irritated, postpones any promise of the temple. At the next stop, a high school in Kishangarh, Sachin inaugurates a computer and internet classroom. As Minister of State for Communications, his initiative in Ajmer means almost 250 schools in this region will be equipped with computer classrooms, a project that will cost Rs 25 crore. Software services giant Wipro has been contracted to provide the computers, annual maintenance, and teacher training, Sachin explains.
In Kishangarh, we walk through the first classroom, newly tiled and equipped with four PCs, a printer and scanner, and also an LCD screen for teaching. On the open-air stage, in the school grounds, somebody ties a colourful turban on Sachin’s head. He sits on the centre stage with it, looking ahead intently. The school ground, with rows of red plastic chairs, is full. Sachin stands up to the mike for his speech. “I can give you these amenities through this scheme, but you’ll have to demand that your children get to use these services,” he says, in his speech. “Keep a watch on this.” His stage voice is tempered and soft and he speaks without any paper to refer to. “Now, even getting good marks is not enough. You can get good marks, but when it comes to getting a job, you need to know how to use a computer,” Sachin presses on, his voice straining. “The kids in cities have laptops in their homes. They know how to use computers. Their parents have the money. I have put these computers here, so that our kids from the villages don’t get left behind.”
Later, in the car, he shares, “For me, even if these kids just play with the keyboard and mouse, and fool around on the net, it’ll be enough, because at least they’ll know what a computer is.”
Of course, the programme may suffer the perils of teacher neglect, ill-use, limited access; Pilot is optimistic, but he isn’t a micro-manager. “Someone from the office will follow up,” he says, as our car hurtles down the expressway, “If I kept thinking about everything that could go wrong or everything that people will do to pull this down, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
SACHIN’S FINAL stop for the day is a private school, just outside of Ajmer district in neighbouring Nagaur. Nagaur is the constituency of Jyoti Mirdha, another young Congress MP whose grandfather, Ram Niwas Mirdha, was a local Jat politician. Sachin has been invited to celebrate the first year anniversary of the Shri Shiv and Ram School. A banner behind the stage announces the school is ‘Future Ready’ with a digital classroom. There’s a big shamiana (tent) up in the school grounds and a vast stage with big box speakers on either side. An overzealous, natty presenter in a black waistcoast and jeans strides up and down in front of the audience. The speakers burst out Vengaboys’ Brazil at some point. As everyone settles down, the presenter fills every quiet moment with a string of filmi dialogues and silly couplets. “Who knows when we’ll come and when we’ll go,” he says, in a fast style, “that’s why we must live and love. Pyar lo, pyar do,” he sing-songs, striding up and down. “Even the biggest Chanakyas are no more. Your life will pass in a flash!” I’m standing right at the back of the big shamiana. Old men, women, young people look on at the stage, bored. “I now call upon Sachin Pilot to bless the audience with his amrit varsha (holy shower),” the presenter now yells flamboyantly. In the back, a young man chuckles, ‘amrit varsha!’ Sachin, who’s been sitting on the stage with a meditative air, removed from all the drama around him, gets up to speak. His voice is low, his demeanour composed. At some point, Sachin begins to describe what kind of person the people of Nagaur should elect. “When you think about what kind of person you want to pick as your leader, choose the right person, the right party. Choose someone who knows what crops grow in the fields here, when the rains come in, when the seed is sown, what prices prevail in the markets here, someone who knows what problems you face,” he counsels, his voice rising ever so slightly. “Choose someone who knows this area well, who knows you and your needs, not someone who talks about community and caste to win votes and divide you.”
I watch the otherwise restless crowd become attentive as he speaks. “You should watch over your politicians — watch what they’re doing,” he adds. “Politicians can’t take people for granted. They’ve been elected for a short period. It’s their job to bring schemes, to do things.” Without vulgarly touting the Congress party and all its jargon of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, without even naming the Congress or selling himself, Sachin Pilot makes a simple, commonsensical speech. The applause filters all the way to the back where I’m standing. Old men, sitting in the middle, who’ve been looking on wearily this whole while, clap. Even the young boys standing at the back stop snickering and look on for a few moments.
LATER, I ask Sachin about his speeches. How come he never speaks in the local dialect, in the local language, like many politicians do? “That’s that whole thing of being earthy,” Sachin muses, his elbow on the window, looking at the road ahead. “People can see through that. It doesn’t come from the stomach. Nobody talks like that anymore,” he adds. “You’ll only hear that kind of talk in political rallies now, but you won’t hear people talking to each other like that.” Most MPs, young and old, sound different in Delhi and in their constituencies. In Delhi, they talk like technocrats, but in the rural constituencies, their speeches are emotional, peppered with local flavour. Sachin, even in his constituency, doesn’t affect an accent, doesn’t throw in bursts of local dialect, or talk about all the people as his brothers and sisters.
He doesn’t make familiar jokes, or, for that matter, any jokes at all. He is always self-conscious of appearing patronising. He gives the same speech in Ajmer or Nagaur that he would’ve given in Delhi. It’s this quality that stands out most about Sachin Pilot as I follow him through the day: his reserve, rather than coming across as aloofness, signifies a need to be authentic. Sachin lost his father all of a sudden at 21. He went on to fight and win his first election five years later, at 26. With all the pressure to live up to Rajesh Pilot’s lovable, boisterous image, it says a lot about Sachin that he chose not to be a caricature of his father. The older Pilot loved playing to the gallery. Journalist Vir Sanghvi remembers how, in every interview, Pilot never failed to mention he’d started life as a milkman. When Sanghvi asked if Pilot had ever mixed water in his milk, the politician laughed and immediately said ‘Yes!’ Another time, when Sanghvi wrote an article about how bad phone services were, Pilot, who was Telecom Minister at the time, promptly rang up Sanghvi and put him on the Delhi Mahanagar Telephone Committee.
Sachin still maintains some of his father’s traditions. He holds the morning ‘Open House’ that Rajesh Pilot started; people from Sachin’s constituency can drop by his house every morning, have tea and rest, before meeting him. The young Pilot also hosts a ‘farmer’s lunch’ of sarson ka saag and buttermilk every winter, another of Rajesh Pilot’s traditions. But, Sachin won’t play to the gallery, act up or pretend to be his father in any other way. Though Pilot’s persona doesn’t lend him ‘earthiness,’ that much sought-after quality among politicians, it does lend him credibility. Whether he’s speaking in his constituency, or awkwardly answering questions in his office, prickly when you ask him about his personal life, or at ease among a small group in his car, he gives you the feeling he’s ‘speaking from his stomach’. In politics, where most leaders, national and local, are smug showmen and gloss-over artists, Sachin Pilot’s seriousness, his self-conscious evenness, is reassuring. It is, perhaps, his biggest strength as a politician.