March, 2019. Mainstream media, social media, office canteens, daily passenger groups in trains and buses – high decibel discussions about the impending general election centered only around one issue – Modi, the prime minister. For the first time in her life the middle-aged academic, let’s call her M, was annoyed with her privileged urban existence. She wanted to know how people really felt (media would never tell her the truth). M asked her domestic help. Unlike the educated upper strata of the society, without hemming and hawing, without going into a diatribe about secret ballot, pat came the reply – मोदीबाबा ने गाओं मे सबके लिये टयलेट बनवाया.
Modi has done something that no politician, spanning the entire spectrum of political colours, have done or even thought about. The urban elite, the creme-de-la-cream of our society constructed convoluted arguments so that nobody even contemplated doing so. It would be a mistake to think that it’s the hatred for Modi that such arguments are cropping up now. No. Actually, Modi is standing in for all of us, the entire lower strata of the society, the subalterns. He is taking the beatings, facing the disdain of the upper strata, because now they have found an embodiment of the lower classes, whom they can directly turn their ire to. It would do us good to remember that we, the lower strata of the society, have never mattered. We were needed to provide service, and to provide entertainment at the expense of being ridiculed.
M understood the equation. Though, now that she has ‘climbed up’, not everyone around her did so. Her little daughter brought home a form, from her school, full of ‘peculiar’ questions. “Does your home have a toilet? Do everyone in your family make use of the toilet? Does anyone go outside, in the open, for their needs?” Peculiar they indeed were, for a child brought up in an urban middle class home. Also for an old friend, who came from a family of barristers and upper echelon academics, and lived abroad surrounded by the trappings of wealth. On a trip back home, she meets up with her old friend and asks – “What is the big deal about the toilets? Surely, issues like the GDP, the international relations and so on are far more important? Whoever has heard of a prime minister talking about toilets in international forums? What about India’s image?”
Of course, the friend was as clueless as her daughter. But M has not forgotten. It was the late ’80s. She had not heard about Modi, back then hardly anybody had. In the canteen of one of the topmost academic institutes a dynamic young professor was holding forth, talking about his experiences as a member of a fact-finding-mission organised by a well-known NGO. He described, in some graphic detail, what the village women had told him about their morning ‘field-trip’s – how they coveted that time, how it was their time for ‘female bonding’, how that is when they discussed important issues… “It would be ridiculous to build toilets and take this ‘precious’ time away from women.” Declared the self-styled feminists.
Standing in the queue to get her cup of tea, M froze. Her hands were shaking when she finally reached the counter, the person serving tea asked her to be careful. Her entire body was shaking – shaking in disbelief, in indignation, in anger. She wanted to scream, wanted to go and shake those people up. People who were laughing merrily, people who had zero idea about and even less empathy for the uncountable village women who must live with this daily indignity, this daily humiliation, this terrible hardship.. of the ‘field-trips’ that must be made whether it was pouring or it was freezing cold, whether the woman was ill or if she was infirm.. M raged inside but she was a young student, a nobody. They were mighty professors. She could only wish for a miracle. [She didn’t know someday her prayers would be answered.]
Instead, she kept reliving her recent trip to her grandparents’ place in a remote village. Her ‘mama’, recently married, wanted to take his favourite niece to his ‘sasural’ to meet his new bride. Their destination was even more remote, requiring three change of buses, followed by a couple of miles on foot. The family home, befitting rural middle class, comprised of a number of well-built earthen houses. They were welcomed in a traditional fashion, someone pouring water as they washed their hands and feet. But M couldn’t find anyone whom she could request for a toilet trip, after the long journey. She knew, of course, it would not be a regular toilet, just a sheltered ‘pond-side’ place. She managed to catch a little girl and asked her to show the place. The girl was astonished, seeing that a grown-up woman didn’t know that one simply didn’t ‘go’ before sundown.
So the fate of women in this village were even worse than those in her ‘nanihal’. There, at least, the pond-side arrangement existed for ‘small’ needs. Her father had been disapproving of them visiting her ‘nanihal’ since she and her sisters grew out of babyhood. Despite her mother’s protests, he only agreed to day-trips that involved arduous journey through bad (mostly non-existent) roads at considerable expense (for the car hire). And they never visited during the rainy seasons. She could see his point. She remembered, even as a very small child, how she used to hold herself if she needed to ‘go’ at night, as it would have meant waking someone up to accompany her to the pond-side place. Little children mostly did not need to go far, only beyond the bamboo thicket at the edge of the compound. For older women it needed to be much further, beyond the limits of the village.
So, early in the morning women gathered for their daily ‘field trip’s. Without fail, the young women would be asked to be careful, not to stray far from the group. She realised the import of this much later, when newspapers began to report too many cases of abduction of young women in the twilight hours. She remembered her urban peers sneering and saying – “Why would young girls ‘wander around’ outside the village at such time? They themselves are to be blamed for their predicament.” Her peers, coming from affluent, urban families would not know why women needed to ‘wander around’ outside the village, in the wee hours of the day.
This narrative has been very long in the making. It was created to keep the women bereft of basic human dignity. No society ever progressed when women suffered. How do the children strive for a better life if their mothers were too busy simply trying to survive? So the lower strata stay where they have always been. They keep their heads down, they remain beholden to the ‘babu-log’, to the ‘sarkar-mai-bap’.
Then one man decided to change the equation. His actions proved his intent and his empathy. Oh yes, he is a career politician. And his actions must be, after all, driven by shrewd calculations of vote-bank politics. There have been many politicians before him, and they have all indulged in vote-bank politics. Same would be done by those who would come after. That is in the nature of things. But how many wanted (or would want) to fold in woman’s right to basic decency and dignity in their vote-bank politics? He gets all the flak for ‘abandoning’ his wife. He has been single all his life. Yet, it took a single man, a semi-monastic, to understand the plight of women – their needs, their vulnerability, and their everyday hardships. So the toilets, so the cooking gas, so the affordable menstrual hygiene products. Who has talked about such ‘taboo’ issues before? Who has dared to tackle these taboo issues before?
So people, for whom these made a difference, depend upon him. For exactly the same reason, the ‘others’ hate him. Does he do everything right? Of course not. Is he infallible? Of course not. Is his politics without blemish? Of course not. He is human, he is not perfect. He belongs to a political party that has all too many problems. But he is that man who has earned our trust. Has the handling of the current pandemic by Modi Government been without problems? No way. But haven’t we, a nation of teeming billions, a nation of inadequate medical infrastructures, a nation full of apathetic and selfish people, fought hard to keep it under control? Haven’t we done better than most of the advanced nations, who thought we’d be annihilated by this? For all its problems and faults, the central government has moved heaven and earth to save people, despite and in the face of petty political oppositions. [I shudder to think what would have happened had there been a different type of government today.]
We are going through a very difficult time, likely in for a very long haul. The only thing, that insignificant people like us are banking upon is that we have a government that cares. We have Modibaba at the helm. He would take all the flak, he would get all the bad names, but he would work for us. Perhaps that is something we can hold onto and get going, keep doing what we are supposed to do in the face of insurmountable obstacles. If Modibaba can stand up for all of us we can, at least, try to stand up for our own selves.
We can make ourselves count. We can make this nation great. Let us remember that.