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Far from the madding crowd

It was Friday, December 14, one day before the campaign for the Gujarat state assembly polls was to end. I reached my office in Gandhinagar unusually early, at 8.00 am. As I was about to reach, I noticed some journalist colleagues from the local electronics media getting ready to go to a rally that was to be addressed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi just about 20 km away, at Kalol town. They were busy prominently pasting “Media” in front of their car, so that the security wouldn’t bother them. One of them made a polite offer: “Come along, you will enjoy. We’ll return by the afternoon”. I refused, saying my intention was to go far from the madding crowd, away to a place where there wasn’t much of political noise.
“It’s generally sheer waste of time listening to a leader. They will all tell you all what you know about, nothing new”, I told them, as they looked at me suspiciously. I moved on to my office. After phoning up a couple of persons, I decided to go with a friend to Sabarkantha district, where former MP and now All-India Congress Committee general secretary Madhusudan Mistry, was camping, taking short meetings in big villages and small towns.
I have always had some liking for Mistry, who joined politics late in 1990s. I knew him much before he was “picked up” and “inserted” into politics by then BJP rebel and now Congress leader Shankarsinh Vaghela. At that time, Mistry headed a voluntary organization, working on tribal human rights. I never liked Mistry joining politics, but he had his own reasons. He would tell me there’s nothing wrong if your aims are clear. I don’t know if Mistry succeeded in his aims (whatsoever they may be), yet he is one politician whom one can trust. He doesn’t bluff, and refuses to be propagandistic.
We drove down to a spot where Mistry was getting ready to address a small meeting – it was Titoi village. Even as he was preparing, I asked him, “How are things going?”, and he told me about the village. “It’s a service village. Do you know what’s that? It’s a village where people within seven kilometers periphery come to shop for daily needs. You can get yourself treated for ailments here. Here, different communities interact. It’s a village with mixed population, where people from different castes and creeds live”, he told me. In between, a Congressman from Rajasthan interrupted, giving him the results of a survey which predicted Congress victory in the region. “Good enough”, he said matter-of-factly, and proceeded for his address.
Mistry’s speech didn’t interest me, as I knew what he was going to speak. But what locals said from the rostrum certainly did. The humming state highway just next to the village had already changed the face of the village. It had just been converted into a four-lane road with World Bank support, and such was the silky highway that truckers from neighbouring states had begun to prefer it to the national highway, which ran parallel to this one, to go to Rajasthan and up north. Transport was a major activity which seemed to support Titoi villagers’ livelihood, relegating agriculture to the secondary position. The first demand of the locals was to remove toll tax on the highway for those living next to the state highway, giving them free movement passes. Then came irrigation.
As we moved away from the state highway, towards the hilly tract through arid plains, we found more and more people demanding irrigation, as their fields remained barren due to lack of rains. “If it rains, we can earn, otherwise we are at the mercy of the local moneylenders”, we were told. Several dams were built in the district – Mazam, Hathmati, Vatrak, Meshvo, Harnav, Khedva. But none irrigate their fields which belonged to backward class farmers, including tribals. The tribal farmers living in region, sure of land titles under the Forest Rights Act, wanted their land to be fertile. “Gone are the days when they were being evicted from the fields they cultivated”, said Lallubhai Desai, a respected figure, who runs an NGO in a tribal town Khedbrahma. Yet, irrigation seemed to be a tall order. You must create structures to lift water from the canals to a higher altitude, and it would mean extra power, adding to the cost of irrigation.
I went around several villages, but I found very little campaigning. The atmosphere seemed to replicate the dull fields through which district roads passed. People didn’t seem to talk politics. Perhaps they had decided whom to vote. In one village, Navagam, I found two small Congress flags quietly hanging on a lamp post. Beyond the village, as we moved towards the fields, I stopped at one place, finding drip irrigation network being laid down by farm workers. We inquired whose field was it, and we were told the farmer was Jagdish Patel. We contacted the farmer, who asked us to drive through a rough-and-tough road, on which only tractors move. “Don’t you worry, Maruti Alto has been on this route”, we were told by the messenger who escorted us through the fields, sitting on his motorbike.
After driving through the fields on the kutcha road with wild bushes on both sides, we were asked to park our car, from where we must walk about a kilometer. To our utter surprise, we saw nothing but drip irrigation network all around. Away from the din of politics which surrounded busy towns of Gujarat on that day, Patel was quietly busy mixing pesticides into a small tank, which would take the medicated water through the network into the fields. On his 50 acres field, he was preparing to grow a particular variety of potato, which he identified as “lady rosta”. It had “higher dry matter”. I asked Patel who takes away potatoes. “Balaji, Pepsico, ITC and Real Wafer pick them up here. Our potatoes make much better chips than those from Indore. Our 100 kg of potatoes give six kg of wafers, while Indore’s get you five-and-a-half kg.”
Ask him how he achieved this, as no surface irrigation was available, and he replies, “Thanks to drip. I began 10 years ago, much before Narendra Modi introduced 50 per cent subsidy.” Patel seemed to be a Modi supporter, though with a rider. He called drip “a Modi karishma, which 60 per cent of the farmers of our village follow”. He added, “The nearby check-dam coupled with wide-scale use of drip has led to sharp rise in water tables. The bore-well which was 140 feet deep is just 100 feet deep”.
Yet, Patel didn’t agree with Modi’s critique of foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail. “Modi seems to be saying all this because of political reasons. I don’t think he opposes FDI in retail”, Patel says, wondering, “Modi wants foreign investments, holds summits, how can he oppose FDI?” Patel further said, “With FDI, the monopoly of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees’, controlled by trader-middlemen, will end. We wouldn’t have to sell our produce to the middlemen, who give farmers a poor price, hogging huge profits by selling in retail at a very high rate.” As an example, he said, the farmers get just about Rs 20 per 40 kg of tomatoes, while the price in retail is Rs 200. “FDI is a win-win situation for the farmer and the consumer. The farmer gets a better price, while the consumer gets cheaper tomato”, he says, predicting Modi will end his opposition to FDI once back to power.
Back home, I kept guessing who will win. Unlike big cities, I didn’t find much support for Modi in rural Sabarkantha. Even rich farmers, who gave Modi credit for the success in agriculture, were skeptical. On December 20, when Modi was declared a great winner, I was busy collecting figures from the office of the Election Commission in Gandhinagar, and I got a phone call from Mistry. “I remembered you of others. You’d come to Sabarkantha. We won six out of seven seats”, he said, asking me to come down for a cup of tea. I went to him, and he added, “I can now show to the high command that at least in Sabarkantha, which has been my karmabhoomi, Congress remains strong.” In between, he was being interrupted by phone calls from TV anchors, who wanted him to appear as Congress commentator. “It’s such a waste of time”, he said smiling, as he kept refusing.



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