Friday, April 20, 2007

Rasgullas in Amethi

Rahul Gandhi has been in the news lately following a loud misadventure campaign in Uttar Pradesh. I have been following his trail on the news, and reading names like Amethi, Rae-Barelli, and Sultanpur again and again has evoked some warm (sweaty and torpid, actually) memories from the past.

The year is 2000, I am barely out of my graduation gown, but have already begun to feel like an old hand at the environmental think-tank in Delhi where I work. It is summer, a drought is looming, and I am buried till my eyelids trying to work the drought to our benefit (everybody loves a good drought, remember?). The last thing I want to do right now is travel, and the last place I would go to is sultry Uttar Pradesh. Alas, if only Sonia Gandhi would sympathize.

My boss, who is politically close to the state and national Congress establishment, has been personally requested by Soniaji to assess the water resource/agricultural situation in her constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and script a plan for her to work on. To his credit, my boss is an environmentalist second and a pragmatist first, who knows that any talk about policy change is just fart unless it is addressed to politicians. Some colleagues whisper his political savviness comes from him being a diehard Congressy; I believe the hobnobing is but a tool for a brilliant environmental lobbyist.

Whatever his motivation may be, I find myself on the Shatabdi (?) to Lucknow, accompanying two gurus of this sector who work as consultants for us - one a geophysist and the other a rural developer - with whom I am about to make a "whirlwind tour of Amethi constituency" (to borrow the phrase from TOI). Make no mistake, my role is simply as a scribe and facilitator, a lackey to the gurus (I explain to my friends that I am a groupie). Within the first two hours on the train, the scientist wins my admiration and starts a friendship that lasts ever since, but I fail to be impressed by the social worker (two years later, the latter wins a Magsaysay award which helps to solidify my poor opinion about the credibility of the award).

Word must have gotten out that we are out on "Madam's" personal errand, because we are received in Lucknow by a flock of middling Congress leaders with bowed namastayz. They are all pot-bellied, in white kurtas, and sporting gold chains and rings; it takes me a few minutes to realize that they arent fancy dressing as filmy politicians, it is the other way round. After treating us to what is described as a customary Lucknowi breakfast of jalebis and dahi (yes it is delicious!), they go back to their exciting lives while delegating us to a bunch of local ICAR scientists who are going to lead us around the villages, rivers, and irrigation ditches of the constituency.

We spend the next few days zipping across Sultanpur and Rae Bareilly districts in a couple of white Ambassadors (with miniature Congress party tricolours flying on the hoods), visiting scores of villages, farms, irrigation projects, and talking to farmers and village-level Congress workers. Most people, taking us to be harbingers of goodies from Delhi, are only too eager to talk. Village after village, we were amazed to see the shamelessness with which our respondents overstate their problems and the arrogance with which they demand solutions without volunteering any efforts on their part. I have worked with farmers in Gujarat and Rajasthan before but I've never seen anything like this. In one village, a reflective party worker senses our feelings and privately englightens us, "fiNys ipkl lky esa xkaaa/kh ifjokjus ges cgqr dqN fn;k gSA ge yksxks dks jlxqYys [kkus fd vknr gks xbZ gS] de ls dke ugh pysxkA (We have been well-provided for by the Gandhi family over the past 50 years. We are used to eating rasgullas, nothing else will do now.)", reminding us that Amethi is one of the most pampered and previleged constituencies in the country. My scientist friend is so stuck by this little political insight that he makes me quote it verbatim when I report our findings!

We end up making quite a few observations about the mechanics of water resource challenges in the constituency, not least the problem of usar (salt-laden) agricultural soils that plagues the area, but our most memorable moments on the tour come from the very significance of the ground we tread on (for instance, the night we spend at the guest house of the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Amethi where the housekeeper informs me with ill-concealed pride how Madam had once rested in the room across the hall from mine). A few weeks after getting back to Delhi, I end up going back by myself to follow up on our work, when I spend three psychedelic days and nights at the KVK (Krishi Vigyan Kendra) in Sultanpur. But I will stop here; that trip (pun not intended) deserves a dedicated post for itself.

Thank you Rahulbaba, for taking me down memory lane. But go easy on the sops, bro, I dont want to hear about rasgullas the next time I am there.

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