Jaipur, India – An 85 year old village woman asks a development officer Rameshwar to help her activate internet on her mobile. Surprised at her enthusiasm he asks what would she do with that, and she instantly replies, I want to hear Modi. Rameshwar says with Jio mobile in reach of all, even older generation is excited about developments in the country and have strong desire to keep abreast with what their leaders are speaking. And when its election times, rural voters of all age are more inclined to exercise their democratic right and express their choices.
There remains three more phases of elections out of total seven, and in recent fourth phase 72 seats of nine Indian states have exhibited extreme enthusiasm with states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand breaking their previous poll record and only Jammu & Kashmir showing dismal nine percent and Odisha little low (60 percent) compared to previous (75 percent). Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are also up by few points, though more constituencies to go to poll here too and final round will only clear the entire picture.
So far 24 states and union territories have finished voting for 373 out of 543 Lok Sabha (lower house) seats. Election commission of India has done more robust arrangements and innovations like making google maps and all details of the booth, process of voting and cautions etc. available to voters, special arrangement for people with disabilities and ‘Sakhi’ booths for women voters, managed by women only are also highlighted for participation of all.
Aggressive campaigning and heat wave has already hit most part of India but this could not dampen the spirit of voters, although West Bengal was nearly on fire with incidences of clashes and bizarre cases like the one when an actress turned politician Moonmoon Sen says she was served bed tea late hence unaware of disruptions at the booth of her constituency. In spite, West Bengal has seen highest poll turnout of 77 percent while Maharashtra, where BJP and Shiv Sena have allied, has done better in decimals with 55.9 percent polling.
High voltage poll speeches this time are around national security, nationalism, central schemes that have benefited people and countering each other’s claim on development and employment records. BJP has Prime Minister Modi as a tall figure touching every chord of Indian voters on issues included in their manifesto and beyond, on the other side the Congress party has its President Rahul Gandhi promising universal basic income, increase in work days from 100 to 150 in Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) and scrapping of sedition law and Triple Talaq etc. His sister Priyanka Vadra is also canvassing vigorously and infusing all energy into the party to the best of her capacity.
In villages, all they want it a better life for their children with wider opportunities and affordable facilities. People feel empowered with their own bank accounts (34 crore ie 340 million new accounts opened), direct cash transfer through multiple schemes and provisions, 1.25 crore (12.5 million) rural affordable homes, PM Matri Vandana Yojana with its reach to 500 thousand mothers and child and Poshan abhiyan ensuring nutritional needs of children. Water and Electricity are also big concerns in many parts.
Dulha ji, a middle aged villager who never had electricity, television or mobile, is now using solar panel to light two bulbs and has electricity pole installed just outside his hut hoping to see his village brightening up sooner. He praises Modi government unequivocally for doing good work and clearly says that that other two members of his family will cast their vote as per their choice, I will not influence them. Such respect for democracy is heartening to hear from aging population.
Nirma, a health worker in a village of Western India shares that there are ample schemes and wherever there are interventions through grassroots networks it benefits people more. But her experience says that schemes like ‘Antara’ injectable as a measure of contraception could have more acceptability if medical staff and doctors are sensitized more. They discourage rural women by blowing little failures out of proportion and create distrust for government schemes, not realizing that family control impacts overall health of mother and child, create choices, delays early pregnancies, keep children in schools and pave way for economic well-being of the family in long run.
A principal of a rural government school for girls also expresses that village people are keen on enjoying the schemes like “Udaan” meant to reduce school drop-out rates especially of Girl child, but there is not enough work force to handle the intricacies of this all. Paper work has not reduced despite digitization of all processes of applications. Delivery gaps can only be filled with efficient, motivated machinery, adds she. Since, all government schools are election booths also, all arrangements there are in place and children enjoy holiday little before the poll day.
Just before reaching the school, I stopped by a crowd queued up around water tanker. They were all upset about political representative not caring for water crisis and have decided not to vote for any candidate this time. They don’t foresee immediate solution to their plight and spend 3-4 hours every alternate day to fetch water, some children also miss their schools to help their parents with this.
Moving on the journey, I found Kailashi, a grassroots worker in a village encouraging the village women to opt for institutional deliveries to ensure their entitlement for government schemes for nutrition, education and health support. A mother of two children, she has appeared in tenth grade exam and plans to pursue her education till graduation. Kailashi and Nirma represent awakened rural women, who step out of boundaries of homes, empower fellow women to enjoy government programs, use mobiles and are confident enough to pursue higher education for better career opportunities. They are all excited about elections and say that women are more aware about their rights.
It was interesting to observe that hundreds of villagers I met past months recognize national leaders by name and face but not necessarily the constituency candidates or their elected representatives. It is surprising still that they have information and wisdom both to decide who should lead the nation and exercise their vote quite independently. Their increasing participation in biggest festival of democracy is indicative of how they are expressing themselves, hopefully to give a clear mandate for a strong national government.