Editor's note: This column presents the travel notes of a student of Indian politics and serves as a journal marking the run-up to General Election 2019. Sandip Ghose's day job as a marketing executive takes him deep into the country's interiors, which affords him the chance to listen to, and make sense of, India's concerns. These pieces will run in tandem to the frequency of his travels. Views expressed here do not reflect those of Ghose's employer.
I first heard of "Bangali Doctors" in a film on primary healthcare in South Rajasthan. It was a documentary was based on the work of a well-known Udaipur-based NGO, Seva Mandir, and produced by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, a renowned economist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Little did I expect to encounter this term again several years later in a tribal village of Madhya Pradesh.
These "Bangali Doctors" are like German silver " neither Bengali nor doctors. They are quacks. I recall from Banerjee's film that the original "Bangali Doctors" were half-trained paramedics. They came to came to Rajasthan from Eastern Bihar, then part of larger Bengal. Successive generations adopted the title and also brought along people from their villages over the years.
These quacks form a vital link in the healthcare chain. They are the next port of call after the village "ojha" (voodoo practitioner). Only after them comes the state primary health centre.
We were at the tiny tribal hamlet of Pandutalab in Dewas district, 70 kilometers from Indore. The Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti ran a Communitarian Natural Resource Conservation in the village. It was a field centre of an NGO formed by social activist Rahul Banerjee and his wife Subhadra Khaperde.
Rahul, better known as Rahul Indori, is a civil engineer from IIT-Khargapur. He also holds a PhD in environmental planning and management. Subhadra comes from a Dalit marginal farmers' family in Chhattisgarh's Kanker district. She is also a grassroots social worker and activist. The couple has worked among the tribals of Madhya Pradesh on a range of subjects and thus know the lay of the land as well as the back of their hands.
Lunch was free-range desi chicken curry and a unique tribal-style okra cooked in butter milk. While devouring the food, I asked Rahul about the central government's Ayushman Bharat scheme. I wanted to know whether he thought it would be a game-changer. He was sceptical. He thought it was likely to miss the proverbial wood for the trees.
The foundation of a successful public health programme is its primary health outreach. Most illnesses start as primary health problems. They need immediate attention, otherwise they escalate into emergencies or chronic health problems. The government-fun primary health infrastructure in rural areas is inadequate and dysfunctional. Therein lies the menace of quacks and "Bangali Doctors".
After three terms of Shivaraj Singh Chauhan as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, this was appalling. Will this lack of development work against him? The community members working in the farm are not so sure. First, a few of them understand the difference between good and poor healthcare. Caught in a time warp and lacking exposure, they accept it as their lot. What matters to them is money, and "mamaji" has showered them in cash in the recent months. Among them, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna was a big hit. It is another matter that the village headman took Rs 20,000 in cash for every application cleared. Still, a roof over their head makes a world of difference.
But is this enough to secure their votes? Much depends on the selection of candidates and ground mobilisation. The Congress does have presence in the region. But like most places, it is faction ridden. While the BJP seems ahead right now, a "wave" could change this fact.
Back in Indore, given a choice between poha and sabudana khichdi, I am partial towards the latter. The best was to please an Indori, I discovered, is by saying that their sabudana is better than what they make in Pune. That puts their guard down for all tricky questions.
There are a few BJP karyakartas among my old business contacts, whom I meet on most trips to get a pulse of place. Six months ago, any question about the BJP's chances would invite a derisive laugh. "Are you serious?" they would ask in a Vadra-esque style. Now, they are more restrained.
At first, they deflect the question towards the Lok Sabha polls, saying, "No one can stop Modi-ji." But when pinned down to the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, they say, "Malwa mein toh koi problem nahin hain (there's no problem in Malwa)." The earlier bravado is missing. "East mein fight rahega; Malwa nikal ayega (there will be a fight in the east, but Malwa will breeeze through)."
The stress on the east and central regions are real. If they are correct, BJP president Amit Shah's rallies in the east are on hold. The party is waiting for the "mahaul" to change. Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath is giving his all to these elections and will make a difference in Chindhwara and its adjoining regions.
To counter the Congress strategy, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has stepped up its booth-level work. They have now assigned two workers at every booth to cater to 50 voters as against one booth worker earlier. While technology and digital outreach will be a force multiplier for the RSS, the Congress is not sparing any money or efforts either.
The BJP's confidence seems to stem from two counts. First, the huge sums Chouhan has doled out under the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana on minimum support price (MSP). Farmers have had a good soya bean yield and reaped a double bonanza with the MSP scheme. Other minor sops, such as capping electricity bills for farmers at Rs 200, have been good draws, as well.
But not everyone is happy with "mamaji's" generosity. The trading community that had to bear the brunt of the Goods and Services Tax believe it is their money that is funding these doles " a case of robbing "Pappu" to pay "Pidi" that they don't like.
It is here that Congress leader Digvijaya Singh comes to the rescue of BJP loyalists. They are confident that as long as Singh is around, Congress unity is going to remain a mirage.
The highway from Indore to Ratlam is not in the best condition at the moment. Although not better than the US beltways " as Chouhan had claimed " it is still one of the best roads in the country. Having sized me up by now, the driver was quick to recall the condition of the roads during Singh's tenure. Only for that, people should not vote for the Congress, he remonstrated. He must have suffered in those times, and the memory was still raw, I thought.
An eternal point of difference between the folks of Indore and Ratlam is the quality of the sev. Residents of Ratlam claim that their products are superior beause of the quality of the local water. I am not a sev connoisseur to be able to pass judgement, but on this trip, I found that there was divergence in their political views, as well.
On the day of my trip, a central minister was visiting the nearby towns of Alote and Taal for rallies. At both places, the towns traders called for shutters to be downed as a mark of protest, unhappy with amendment to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The anger is swelling. If allowed to gather momentum, it will make a heavy dent in the BJP's upper-caste vote bank.
Contrary to popular perception, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party contesting the Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls solo may benefit the Congress. It will split any gains the BJP was hoping to make with SC/ST votes. So it is a potential double whammy for the BJP that has left its most die-hard supporters flummoxed.
A couple of my old associates from Mandsaur were down. I asked them whether there was any residual strains of the riots last year. They smiled and said everyone knew the real story. Last year, there was a bumper crop of opium. According to my associates, the opium mafia had engineered the riots, which provided them cover to smuggle out the excess (undeclared) yield. The state erred in its assessment, and the situation went out of hand. "Ab sab shant hain (everything is peaceful now). With a bountiful of soya crop and MSP, there is real "bhavantar" now, they said, punning on the word to imply a change of mood.
On the way back to Indore, I stopped for a tea break at the small town of Badnawar. The shop owner we called upon was very clear about his choice " the memories of Congress misrule were still raw in his mind. He said with a lot of emotion, "Mukhiya se naraaz hain, iska matlab toh yeh nahin ki chor ke haath ghar ka chabi saup dega (We're angry with the chief minister, but that doesn't mean we'll hand over the keys to our house to a thief)."
Finally, it is this sentiment that can see Modi and Chouhan through once again, but it is far from a done deal for the BJP.