Perhaps classism is nowhere more prominent than between the AC coach, Sleeper Class and the general coach of a train in the Indian Railways. Shifting between the three is a type of political dialogue with unexpected nuance. Netas beware!
The railways is a fascinating universe. It is credited with being the catalyst of the national movement, a harbinger of progress and perhaps the earliest cosmopolitan structure in South Asia.
Train journeys and impromptu addas on railway platforms have been the single largest source of unsolicited advice and unique insights for me. Everybody on the Indian rail network has an opinion and the quality of their logic often transcends the pigeon holes of educational qualifications and social status. It’s no surprise that flavour-of-the-season Gujarat CM Narendra Modi has found his way into most of the gossip I’ve gathered on recent railway encounters.
I first found Modi during a groundnut munching session on a train from Gwalior. Returning from a BJP conclave, without a reserved ticket, I spent half the journey sitting on my haunches with an armed police jawan near a Sleeper Class toilet. But as soon as the train crossed Lalitpur, Bundelkhandi egalitarianism overcame the segregation of the Unreserved and Sleeper classes.
I joined a group of rail workers in “adjusting” seating arrangements with the Sleeper Class petty bourgeois. Once seated, the groundnut munchies set in. So did the urge to give gyan.
After learning about why I was in Gwalior, a railwayman blamed journalists like me for creating the hype around Modi. He and his colleagues owed their allegiance to the BSP although they were members of a socialist Hind Mazdoor Sabha union. His colleagues agreed with him and were soon rebutted by one of the valid ticket holders.
“Modi ji is the only hope to end corruption and terrorism. Rahul (Gandhi) and your Mayawati can’t,” he said. The leader of the railway group pointed out that there was corruption in Gujarat too and he accused Modi of terrorising Muslims in 2002. Arguments went back and forth until the Modi supporter agreed that without Mayawati, Dalits didn’t stand a chance. The BSP men agreed the Modi was the best bet to beat the Congress. In the course of the discussion, both sides cursed corrupt and communal party bosses.
A trinket seller and the armed constable silently listened to them till the end. The vendor left after saying that he would continue to vote for the Congress because one of it’s local leaders had got the Datia railway police to release his goods which they had seized. The Modi man then jokingly asked the cop, “Thanedaar (Inspector) sahib, who will you vote for?”
“I will be on poll duty. We never get to vote,” he replied. I must add that the Election Commission has asked the Madhya Pradesh Police to ensure its personnel get to vote in assembly polls this year.
Weeks later, in an Air Conditioned chair car from Delhi to Bhopal, a passenger got into a fight with the catering staff. Most AC class passengers I’ve met have little tolerance for the shortcomings of caterers, security, conservancy staff and almost anybody who’s not well heeled. A train ticket examiner (TTE) and a Railway Police sub-inspector came in to cool tempers. Kanpur folk have a way with words and soon, the passenger, the TTE, the cop and I — who had restrained the passenger from throwing punches — were having soup with the caterer. Modi came up again.
The caterer had unique insights into the politicking “new BJP faces” were doing in his district of Muzaffarnagar. He wouldn’t vote for them, he said, but was impressed with their work. The TTE and cop, who turned out to be distantly related, said they would stick with the Samajwadi Party — of which one of their country cousins was a legislator. My friend, the righteous passenger, expressed shock at their “ignorance” and said that Modi was the only option for “sensible people”. When asked, he said he had never voted before but intended to do so next year.
The caterer and the railway employees listed reasons ranging from the working of the land records office to the varchasv (clout) of candidates. The passenger’s reasons were corruption and dislike for dynastic politics. Both sides agreed that rising prices were killing them.
My friend Avinash from Singrauli is a stereotypical jholawalla — a term used for anyone left of centre. He usually slips into unreserved coaches even when the NGO he works for books his seat in an AC coach. “I feel uncomfortable there. Besides, the gossip is livelier in the general coach,” he says.
For the last few months, Avinash, a frequent railroader, has been travelling intermittently in all classes of the railways. “The support for Modi,” he says, “increases with the ticket price. Most passengers in all classes, except Muslims, have a good opinion about him. But his proclaimed voters are concentrated in the AC coaches.”
Avinash, who notes his observations in a diary, says, “In the AC classes, there’s no debate. If you talk politics, they will only talk about scams and the Gujarat model. Over there, passengers lose their temper when I criticise Modi. Surprisingly, many of them are not sure of which constituency they live in.”
In the Sleeper Class too, he says, goodwill for Modi is almost universal. “But it’s easy to provoke a debate. Eveybody joins in. Whether they will vote for the BJP or not, they are impressed with his charisma.”
In Avinash’s favourite general coach, however, the debate is more nuanced. “Here everybody can be criticised, even abused. People wear the political colours on their sleeves, but are open to opposing arguments. Most of them have heard good things about Modi. But the support for him here is comparatively the least.”
The reasons for their political choices, he says, are local bread and butter issues. Issues like access to food and education. Issues key to survival like caste, the behaviour of politicians and the local political economy.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi often publicises his interactions with passengers in a general coach from Gorakhpur to Mumbai. Perhaps all politicians need to focus on this group that knows exactly which ward and polling booth they fall under. But netas be warned,they are for more articulate than the AC coach lot and once you are in, you can’t get out till the next station.