MANIKPUR, Uttar Pradesh -- The sun had set by the time Sampat Pal hit the last few villages of her campaign in the Manikpur constituency of Chitrakoot district in southern Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday.
The mustard fields, brighter than a million suns just a few hours earlier, suddenly appeared dark and brooding after sunset. Except for the sound of footfalls and breathing of the campaigners, negotiating the rough, rugged terrain, there was silence. Dressed in a pink sari, the heavyset woman in her fifties soldiered on, clambering over boulders, skirting ditch-waters and navigating muddy lanes hedged with bramble.
Sampat, who is known around the world as the leader of the Gulabi Gang, hollered out to everyone who crossed her path that day pointing to the hand symbol of the Congress Party, which has given her the ticket for the second time to contest the UP assembly polls. "Panja, Panja, Panja," she said.
Pausing to catch her breath as she pointed to a rundown mud hut and two scrawny children playing with a goat, Sampat said that development would only come with education.
"Education is the only way forward," she said, emphasizing the point. "People must be made aware, especially when there are others out to loot them for votes, making promises but never turning back to look at them, once the election is over."
"But here people never learn, they vote for the wrong leaders again and again. If they don't choose properly, can they blame anyone else for their miserable condition," she said.
"Education is the only way forward.
We were walking through fields and villages in what many describe as the poorest part of Bundelkhand, a semi-arid region straddling UP and Madhya Pradesh afflicted by consecutive droughts, recurrent crop failure and drinking water crises.
Fields that were fallow for almost five years sprung to life after heavy rains lashed Bundelkhand last year, ending its drought. But in the villages of Manikpur, there live children with bellies swollen from malnutrition. Hamlets are cloaked in darkness, with the occasional glow from a solitary bulb.In the list of problems erratic electricity is second to the crippling water shortages that make every day living a struggle.
On 23rd February, UP's side of Bundelkhand will vote in the state Assembly elections. It's a chance for people to change their leaders and perhaps even their lot. But one local resident, Ram Lal, believes that nothing short of divine intervention can make things better for them.
"It does not matter. People in this land have been suffering for sixty, perhaps hundreds of years. So what will another election change, Ram said, as he walked away from a crowd which Sampat was addressing. "Only if God comes here himself will things change."
Sampat, who belongs to the Gadaria caste who rear sheep, believes she is the woman destined to usher in change. "We have waited too long. Women must rise to change this country," she said.
We have waited too long. Women must rise to change this country.
While Sampat offers up caustic comment for her many political rivals, it is Modi who she is most critical of. "They say Akhilesh doesn't listen to his father. Someone should ask Modi whether he ever listened to his wife," she said. "Modi says he is a fakir. But he has made himself into Gandhi, he appears while spinning the wheel. He is replacing Gandhi is photos. This is the first time I'm seeing a prime minister like this."
On demonetisation, Sampat asked why Modi had put the entire country in the dock. "There were women who saved money for the school fees of their children, hiding it from their husbands who would buy alcohol with it. They had to go deposit everything in the bank," she said. "Girls got married over one cup of tea, but the money was flowing when Modi's netas like Nitin Gadkari had to celebrate a wedding."
Girls got married over one cup of tea, but the money was flowing when Modi's netas like Nitin Gadkari had to celebrate a wedding.
But the Congress is a hard sell in this stronghold of the Bahujan Samaj Party, where votes are ultimately influenced by caste and community considerations. In Manikpur constituency, there is a motley crowd of Dalits, Kurmis, Brahmins, Muslims and Kols.
Not only has the Congress party been out of power in UP for 27 years, but its social welfare schemes that guaranteed food and employment have been debilitated and defeated by endemic corruption. These schemes, pitched as game changers, now invoke derision and anger among the people.
"If you think that Congress has done something, you might not know what they have done, but your ancestors know," is the best that Sampat managed at one village. Then, she fell back on the schemes and promises of the ruling Samajwadi Party, alliance partner of the Congress. In fact, moustachioed SP workers in crisp kurta-pyjamas accompanied Sampat till the very end of her campaign on Tuesday.
In a region so neglected, making a pitch for any party on the plank for development is a hard sell. Daro Lal, a 45-year-old villager, shrugged dismissively at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's most recent promise of transforming "Bundelkhand into Kutch." "It must be a joke. Here all politicians play upon is caste," he said.
It must be a joke. Here all politicians play upon is caste.
A powerful woman
Even though she has twice failed to win an election from here, Sampat is regarded as the most powerful woman in Bundelkhand, the first to take a stand against domestic abuse. Married at 12, she was 16 when she decided to teach a lesson to her neighbour who used to beat up his wife. She mobilized other women in the locality to thrash him.The rest is history.
Almost four decades have passed since Sampat founded the Gulabi Gang, a group that stands up for other women, with over 200,000 members in UP and MP. Many of them have joined her for the election campaign.
In 2006, Sampat became a nation-wide name after she appeared as a contestant on the reality TV show, Big Boss. In 2012, she was the subject of a documentary. Two years later, Madhuri Dixit played her in a Bollywood movie. As her fame grew, so did her notoriety. Many questioned the use of violence by the Gulabi Gang, and she was for a short time ousted from her own group over allegations of financial irregularities.
During our conversation today, Sampat insisted that she was the only one running a "clean campaign" free of any inducements such as money, alcohol and meat. The leader of the Gulabi Gang, in fact, said that she had deployed her "commanders" in the hundreds of villages of Manikpur to report on whether other parties were offering such bribes.
As we entered Ahari Purva village, a frantic SP worker came running to Sampat and informed her that a convoy of a rival party was spotted in the area, and that "daroo, murga and bakra" (liquor, chicken and mutton) had been offered as enticements.
While Sampat and the SP workers stood in a circle shaking their heads over the news, Sonia, a resident of Ahari Purva, stared at them from a distance. To whether she knew Sampat, Sonia, 45, said, "I have heard of her, but I don't know who she is." A man next to her pointed out that she was the leader of Gulabi Gang. "How can you not know that," he chided.
Sonia visibly bristled. "Do you know what my life is like? I stay in the field from dawn to dusk, and then take care of the animals. It is all soil and dung. How will I know of anything else, you tell me?"
To whether she had heard of her namesake, Sonia Gandhi, the woman laughed. "Yes, but I'm just Sonia, not Gandhi," she said.
Do you know what my life is like? I stay in the field from dawn to dusk, and then take care of the animals.
Observers says that a victory for Sampat cannot be ruled out, but there is no denying that she faces stiff competition in Manikpur.
The Gulabi Gang leader is up against Chandrabhan Singh Patel, the sitting lawmaker from the BSP, R.K. Singh Patel contesting from the Bharatiya Janata Party and thrice elected Daddu Prasad who joined the Bahujan Mukti Party after he was expelled from the BSP.
The present BJP candidate, R.K. Singh Patel, used to be an influential Kurmi leader for the BSP. He had also represented the SP in the Lok Sabha. He used to have the backing of Bundelkhand's most famous dacoit, Shiv Singh Patel aka Dadua. This was until Dadua was killed in a police encounter when Mayawati was in power in 2007.
Dadua's firmans have been reported as follows: "Mohar lagegi haathi par, nahi toh goli chalegi chhaati par." (mark your stamp on the elephant or get a bullet in the chest)
Dadua, who first backed the BSP and then the SP, was a political kingmaker. Locals say both Daddu Prasad and RK Singh Patel owe their political careers to the dacoit, who held sway over this region as a Robin Hood figure for three decades. Despite the hundreds of cases of murders and kidnappings, people here still remember him as a "God."
RK Singh Patel denies any link to Dadua, describing him as a "petty criminal" to HuffPost. "Forget him, just forget him," he said. The BJP leader is what locals describe as a case of "dal badloo" (turncoat ), but still a powerful Kurmi leader who stands to benefit from popular sentiment that appears to be swinging towards the BJP in these parts.
What goes in Sampat's favour is that the Kurmi vote will be divided between RK Singh Patel and Chandrabhan Patel, also a Kurmi. The Dalit votes are likely to split between the BSP, BJP and Daddu Prasad's BMP.
Riling against the caste politics which defines the region, Sampat said, "Development stops because of caste and party."
The Congress Party leader, however, would brook no criticism of Dadua. "Dadua was also not a dakoo. What happens is that when the poor face injustice and they do not get justice from the courts, they become desperate," she said.
What happens is that when the poor face injustice and they do not get justice from the courts, they become desperate.
No place to urinate
While Sampat has her heart set on winning the election, one of her more immediate concerns during the campaign trail was finding a place to urinate. In village after village, there were no toilets.
As darkness fell, women emerged from their houses with small pots and headed towards the jungles alongside their villages. They looked like wraiths moving quickly and quietly to avoid any attention. Some, who were startled by the headlights of our car, immediately turned away their faces pressing themselves into the shrubbery.
Eventually, Sampat too had to go into the fields. "The situation is very bad," she said after returning as silence filled the car for several minutes.
That did appear to be the case when we reached Sehri Pura, a village with no electricity."A transformer has been installed but the electrical line does not come here," one youth informed us. "In the night, we have to use kerosene lamps."
Earlier in the day, the villagers of Ram Puria said that the lack of water, not electricity was their immediate concern. People have to walk two kilometres to get water that comes from a crack in the rocks.
This is a village of Kols, tribals who collect wood and leaves from the forest to sell in the village for a living. Poverty here is stark.
Sampat walked up to one woman and asked her whether she received a pension under the SP scheme. The woman with scraggly hair and sunken eyes did not respond. "Well if you are getting ₹500 right now then you will get ₹1,000 if you vote for the panja (hand)," the Congress candidate persisted.
In the crowd that gathers around Sampat, the campaigning continues through musical exchanges. Two commanders of the Gulabo Gang belt out a song.
"Gandhi ji, ko yaad karke, jo chale gaye Bharat ko azaad karke.... Dil rota hai Indira Gandhi ko yaad karke, woh chaleen gayeen jeevan ko kurbaan karke....is baar vidhyaak banao Sampat Pal ko...." (Remembering Gandhi ji who left after bringing us Independence,.. the heart cries for Indira Gandhi who sacrificed her life, ... this time make Sampat Pal the lawmaker...)
Gandhi ji, ko yaad karke, jo chale gaye Bharat ko azaad karke.... Dil rota hai Indira Gandhi ko yaad karke, woh chaleen gayeen jeevan ko kurbaan karke....
Sampat urges people to give a good beating to those who try to entice them with alcohol. "You will make history. Don't drink for one day."
She then bursts into a song,"Arre in Kol-on ki suno kahani, in Kol-on ki vaani mein, thagon se hum thage ja rahe, shoshan bhari kahani mein." (Listen to the story of the Kols, in the words of the Kols. Fraudsters are defrauding us in our story of exploitation).