It Takes a Village to Redefine Power

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It’s quite cool for some professionals to forsake cities for grassroots politics

IN 2010, WHEN Chhavi Rajawat quit her job at Bharti Tele-Ventures to contest the election for village head of Soda in Tonk, Rajasthan, she became an overnight celebrity. A Lady Shri Ram (LSR) College graduate who also has an MBA, Rajawat was like any other educated girl chasing her corporate dreams. But after working for The Times of India, the Carlson Group of Hotels and Airtel, when she decided to enter rural politics, it was bound to draw attention. “I didn’t have to think about it much because Soda is where I come from and it needs me,” says Rajawat. “In fact, the villagers broke barriers of caste, gender and religion to ensure my victory.” In Soda, not even 1 per cent of the voters are of her caste. But caste wasn’t a factor in that election, or the one after. Rajawat is currently serving her second term after a re-election in 2015.

The story of 39-year-old Chhavi Rajawat marks a remarkable and unlikely shift in Indian polity at the grassroots level. Rural India, it seems, needs CEOs, not politicians. The reign of the grizzled village sarpanch is over; young, energetic professionals are breathing fresh air into the remotest parts of states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and others, and devising new ways of putting them on the map. “There was a very unique pattern that emerged in the last few panchayat elections,” says Sanjay Kumar, professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. “In the past, the pradhan or the sarpanch would be a person from a respected family and often an elderly man who has occupied the post for ages. Newcomers would have to be from the families of existing or former sarpanchs. But this has been changing since the late 1990s.” Now the idea of a village head is being turned on its head, says Kumar. At a time when people are looking for new and unconventional faces in village politics, youth are in search of opportunities to prove their mettle, he adds. These young men and women were born and raised in villages, but later moved to cities in search of a better life. Now, they want a better life for the people of their village.

The urban and the rural seem to be converging for the benefit of one another. “What can an MBA graduate working in a multinational company hope to achieve?” asks Vinod Chandra, a youth sociologist and a professor at Lucknow University. “The usual PowerPoint presentation and luncheon meetings offer little job satisfaction. The youth of today needs not just a variety of challenges, but also wider recognition for his or her work and a reward that matches the effort.”

When a poor man comes and thanks me for my help in getting his quota of ration, the satisfaction is much more than any job can bring

In some of these youngsters, the urge to go back to their roots and make a difference is matched by the courage to give up a good life in the city. Last year, 21-year-old Delhi University student Vasundhara Choudhary got elected from Lilawali village in Hanumangarh district in 2015 and became the second well-educated woman sarpanch in Rajasthan. Choudhary is yet to complete her Psychology (Honours) Bachelor’s degree from Gargi College and wants to pursue an MA and a doctorate thereafter. “Social work is something I was always attracted to and working at the village level will give me an opportunity to implement my ideas,” she says. Her family background makes up for her inexperience in politics. Her grandfather, Bhim Raj, was chosen village sarpanch in 1962 unanimously. He served two terms before becoming an MLA from Nohar in 1972 and a Rajya Sabha MP in 1978. Her father Anil Choudhary was a member of the Zila Parishad.

In an age of backlashes against corruption and inefficiency, educated first-time candidates have become vote magnets. In the UP Panchayat polls held in December 2015, about 100 candidates with high educational qualifications got elected as pradhans (about one in every eight of them). Of these, 38 were PhDs, 24 MBAs and 31 BTech degree holders, while others came from backgrounds like Fashion Design and Law. Priyanka Yadav, 23, who graduated from National Institute of Fashion Technology(NIFT) only last year, has been elected from Richaora village panchayat in the Badagaon block of Etawah district. “I want to serve my people and see them prosper in a clean and developed place,” says Yadav in fluent English. “I am encouraging people to start small garment units where I can help them in designing and marketing.” State Election Commissioner Satish Agarwal, says, “Besides the trend of educated people returning to their roots, another unusual feature of this election was that 45 per cent of the seats were won by women, as against their quota of 33 per cent. OBCs and SCs winning general category seats is another pleasant change.” These professionals-turned-politicians started working on their ideas soon after their election, and the people and government are now starting to recognise their efforts. Early this year, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav announced that the Rani Laxmi Bai Award would be given to 100 women pradhans every year for doing good work in their panchayats.

Social work is something I was always attracted to, and working at the village level will give me an opportunity to implement my ideas

Before the 1980s, gram panchayats were not powerful; their role was limited to dispute-settling and being the signing authorities to get benefits from the Government. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi pushed the idea of Panchayati Raj and on April 24th, 1993, the 73th Amendment to the Indian Constitutional Act 1992 came into force, providing for the devolution of powers giving constitutional status to panchayats. With the power to suggest development works and initiate welfare schemes, the village sarpanch became powerful. He or she became the facilitator at the village level for the various government schemes. This led to a change in village politics. “Whenever there is talk of welfare, money will come in and this will attract people,” says Chandra, “Earlier, politics used to be a mission, as we were dealing with the problems of an emerging country. Today, politics has become more of a profession.” Sanjay Kumar of CSDS, who did a study on youth interest in politics, says, “Around 37 per cent of youth today are willing to join politics and this includes youth from urban and rural India.” These young politicians don’t hitch their wagon to any political party. “The moment you join a political party, people judge you by what the party is doing,” says 37-year-old Sachin Kumar, who quit Citibank to become village pradhan of Uravar in Shikohabad, Uttar Pradesh. “I want to be judged by what I am doing.” Kumar wants a political career and sees this village role as his first step.

I spend most of my time in Rathera now. We have now constructed 200 toilets and are planning to construct 200 more to make the village open-defecation free

Thirty-two-year-old Poonam Yadav is an accidental politician. From Etmadpur, Agra, she completed her MBA and was working as HR Manager in a manufacturing company in Gwalior. After marrying Kaushal Yadav, a practising lawyer in the Supreme Court, she quit her job to be with her husband in Delhi. “I didn’t find the job opportunities in Delhi very challenging,” she says. When her father-in-law KC Yadav, a local politician in Mainpuri district, first suggested she contest the Panchayat polls, she wasn’t convinced. “We talked about how she could bring real change to the village and do something she could be proud of,” says her husband. After initial hesitation, she decided to contest the poll from Rathera panchayat in Mainpuri, her husband’s ancestral village. The English-speaking bahu became the talk of the village and won easily. “I spend most of my time in Rathera now,” she says. She wants every girl child in the village to go to school. She has formed a committee that goes to every house and convinces the family to send their children to school day after day. Come evening, the committee pores over the attendance register of the village primary school and approaches the families of absentee kids to understand why they could not make it to school that day. Poonam has zeroed in on another focus area: the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat initiative. “We received government funds to build 100 toilets in the village. But I met the local officers and wrote to the Chief Minister to get more,” she says. “We have now constructed 200 toilets and are planning to construct 200 more to make the village open defecation free.”

Nowadays all government services are offered online, whether it is getting your Aadhaar card or opening a bank account. Being an IT guy really helps me

Like Poonam, 33-year-old Prabal Pratap Singh has an MBA and was happily employed at a college in Agra. His three brothers and their children are all in government service. “Whenever the family gathers at our village—Ishaqpur in Firozabad—the discussion is mostly about government policies and implementation,” says Singh. “One such discussion led to the idea that someone from the family should take part in village politics to effect real change.” Singh was the first to volunteer. “We voted for him because we thought he would be honest and do what others couldn’t do for the village,” says Ram Nagina Singh, a retired Army man from Ishaqpur. Singh’s family has a house in Shikohabad town, 10 km from his village. But he prefers to stay in the village. The first thing he did as pradhan was to bring all the services under one roof. The ration distribution centre, the common service centre and the panchayat office are all run from one place to avoid inconveniencing villagers. The people of Ishaqpur make a living growing sugarcane and potato. The village has good irrigation facilities, but Pratap Singh wants to renovate the village pond that is in bad shape. “I have got clearance from the local administration,” he says. He knows he has to work hard if he is to succeed in his next target: the zila panchayat election. “There is no going back from here,” he says.

FOR SOME ASPIRING leaders, disapproving parents are the first hurdle they must overcome before they can take a plunge into village politics. Sachin Kumar, 37, was raised in Faridabad before moving to Delhi for an MBA, which then led to a career at Citibank in 1998. After becoming senior manager, however, he often found himself thinking of going back to his village—Uravar in Shikohabad—but his father, Samar Singh, who had been village pradhan in the 80s, discouraged him. “I had ideas and working for a private bank had made me responsive to people,” he says. “But the scope to implement new ideas was limited at my position. I didn’t want to be a service manager throughout my life.” It took years for Sachin to finally resign and go back to his village. His family was aghast, but Sachin had made up his mind. “With the amount of money that the Government is spending on villages, it needs to be better managed and utilised,” he says. Once he filed his nomination in 2015, his family slowly came around. “I thought village life would be hard for him and that is why I initially disapproved,” says his 75-year-old father. Sachin won the election by an astounding margin of 2,500 votes. Now, apart from utilising government funds, he is also trying to tap business funds under corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes. “I want to build a good hospital and a girls’ intercollege. I have made three presentations to different companies and I am waiting for their response. They can partner us and spend their CSR money effectively,” he says. After getting elected, he worked to get his village included in the Smart Village Scheme and is awaiting project clearances from the Government. Sachin has no regrets. “When a poor man comes and thanks me for my help in getting his quota of ration, the satisfaction is much more than any job can bring,” he says.

Whenever the family gathers at our village, the discussion is mostly about government policies. One such discussion led to the idea that someone from the family should take part in village politics

Then there are those who see politics as an interesting career choice. Thirty-year-old Amrit Anand, a research scholar in German Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, decided to contest panchayat polls at his village Pasai in Kaimur district of Bihar in June this year.“When I visited my village, I would often wonder how much change a mukhiya can bring about in the system right at grassroots,” he said. Amit says he has taken a well- thought-out decision. “There is no question of returning to Delhi, though I would like to complete my PhD some day.”

Satya Pal, 29, wears a kurta-pyjama and looks like a conventional, if unusually young, politician. Since his election as pradhan of Jarauli Kalan in Firozabad district last December, he has also been sporting a worried frown. “We are just 20 km from Agra and our village is situated on a National Highway. But there are no basic amenities here,” he says. Satya Pal is supervising the construction of roads at break-neck speed, after which his aim is to build toilets. “We are far behind other panchayats in our district. I will bring it on a par with the others.” Until recently, Satya Pal ran a shoe factory after completing his BTech and did not aspire for a job as it would require him to leave his village. So when villagers suggested he contest the panchayat election, he liked the idea. “I am here to stay, and this is my full-time job,” he says.

Twenty-three-year-old Gulshan Yadav, who has a BTech degree in Computer Science, started working with an infotech company in Noida in 2014. His initial salary was below Rs 20,000 per month. “My seniors would say that everyone started at this level,” he says. “But staring at the laptop for 10 hours a day was killing me.” The only son of a police SHO in Uttar Pradesh, Gulshan quit his job without telling his family and filed his nomination for the panchayat election at his village—Dolcha in Baghpat. And he won.

Gulshan is now overseeing the construction of a library with computers and wi-fi connectivity. “Nowadays, all government services are offered online, whether it is getting your Aadhaar card or opening a bank account. Being an IT guy really helps me.” He is also working on building a shooting range in the village for boys who want to join the armed forces. Gulshan has created a WhatsApp group of all the pradhans of Baghpat district and shares updates on development work and information received from the district magistrate’s office. Anyone in his village can send him a WhatsApp message and he says he tries to resolve the problem without delay.

The residents of Dolcha sound happy. “Earlier we did not get the entire quota of sugar and wheat that we were supposed to receive,” says 62-year-old Nahar Yadav. “Now, Gulshan supervises the distribution and keeps a check on who got what.” Meanwhile, the pradhan is pursuing an MBA in Marketing from Meerut as a hedge against a future electoral upset.