Karl Marx predicted that the Indian Railways would be the "forerunner of modern industry" in the country. He made the comment in an essay in 1853, the year the first train made its journey in India. Marx's understanding was based on the premise that "you cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately concerned with the railways".
The railways, the prime vehicle of modernity, indeed introduced profound changes in the Indian society in 19th and 20th centuries. But the age of the railways is over; now we are in the age of the internet. Information technology, aided by the modern highways, is radically transforming Indian society. Interconnectedness thanks to IT and highways, and homogeneity thanks to the market economy are redefining socioeconomic relations.
Only a decade ago, a Delhi-Lucknow trip via National Highway-24 used to be quite an adventure. Now there are three excellent highways connecting the National Capital and the Uttar Pradesh capital, each promising a smooth drive. Apart from NH-24, one can drive on NH-2, reach Kanpur and take the state highway to Lucknow. For the best driving experience, take the Yamuna Expressway (Noida-Agra), and continue the journey onward on the Lucknow highway built by the Akhilesh Yadav government with much fanfare. The drive is often so smooth that at times it can lull the driver to sleep, leading to fatal accidents.
As for homogeneity, driving from Delhi to Lucknow, one can easily forget the age-old adage taught over generations about cultural, linguistic and geographical variations of India: "Kos kos par badle paani, chaar kos par vaani (at every two kilometres, you will find a change in water and at every eight kilometres, the language will change)". For kilometre after kilometre, it is the same ambience, with little variation. All traffic signs conform to international norms and are either in Hindi or English. Old-fashioned dhabas are replaced by swanky food plazas on either side of the road, offering a slew of international brands. There are coffee shops of upscale brands, offering the same experience as in the business district of any metropolis. Even the rural landscape looks the same over the nearly eight-hour-long of the drive.
The impact that highways have brought about in society is all the more noticeable if one takes a slip road to approach shopping malls situated a few metres away from the main road. At Saifai in Etawah, the birthplace of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, those who run the franchises of the global brands are farmers who sold off their land at fabulous prices and became immensely rich overnight.
Santosh Yadav, one of the local shop owners, says that most of the locals were unaware of their ownership of the land till developmental projects came up. "Suddenly, we realised the value of our land and most of us became crorepatis in no time," he says. From the windfall, he set up a shop selling sweets and lassi in an upmarket shopping plaza. He also owns three more shops inside the market. "The Akhilesh government made people of the area prosperous," he adds.
Ask his political preference, and the young man hesitates a bit before saying, "For the country, Narendra Modi is alright but at the state level, Akhilesh and the Samajwadi Party is my preference." He seems a bit confused when asked if the 2019 polls are all about the prime minister. After a studied pause, he says, "We will vote for the Samajwadi Party anyway." The electorate's feelings for Akhilesh and the Samajwadi Party are strengthened more by the construction of the Agra-Lucknow highway and the resulting development, rather than the usual caste preferences. The caste affinity appears substantially diluted as he endorses Modi for prime ministership.
This is a story heard all over Uttar Pradesh, where national and state highways have facilitated the movement of people and spawned a new generation of entrepreneurs and professionals who are not apologetic about materialistic aspirations. This generation consciously shuns nostalgia and looks forward to building a 'utopia of utilitarianism'. The interconnectedness heightened by the use of IT has radically altered the conventional social codes and generated new opportunities that have given birth to a new entrepreneur class even in rural areas. Along the highways have come up training institutes, medical colleges, universities and institutes for vocational training that have changed the rural landscape and blurred the urban-rural divide.
Just as the railways had fuelled industrialisation and created a class of businessmen who supplanted the traditional social elites and aristocrats, highways and information technology have totally changed the equation that a tribe of power-brokers have with the State. Their role stands cut down to size. The people who were eligible for allocation of a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana got it, by the simple fact that their name figured in the below poverty line (BPL) list " they did not have to plead for help from any local power-broker. They did not have to go to the gram pradhan or mukhiya with folded hands to expedite the payments. They got the money directly in their bank accounts. Similarly, they received Rs 12,000 straight away in their account for building toilets. The rural rentiers profiting from their political connections on the basis of identity politics are rendered ineffective as information technology has built new channels between the State and citizens.
Across the Hindi heartland, be it in Etawah or Lucknow, Raebareli or Amethi, Allahabad or Varanasi, a substantial section of rural power-brokers thriving on patronage seems to be fighting for survival and is desperately trying to cling to identity politics. The Samajwadi Party-BSP coalition offers a ray of hope as both the parties are known for promoting and patronising elites on the basis of caste identity. The BJP's advocacy for Hindutva covers such a large spectrum of the society that it has a severe handicap in patronising such a group of power-brokers. As for the Congress, it is hardly a force to reckon with in Uttar Pradesh where it has lost its clout.
In this election, there is no doubt that this radical disruption of old social equations has ranged well-entrenched caste elites against the forces of transformation. Interestingly, the BJP despite its pro-Hindu proclivity, is seen as a harbinger of this transformation.
Perhaps Marx was quite correct in presaging India's unique capacity to adapt and adopt the rapid changes, as he quotes Sir Collin Campbell, the commander-in-chief of British forces in 1857, "The great mass of the Indian people possesses a great industrial energy, is well fitted to accumulate capital, and remarkable for a mathematical clearness of head and talent for figures and exact sciences."
"Their intellects," he says, "are excellent."
This excellent intellect, witnessing the effects of a profound transformation society has undergone, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, in the past two decades is bound to throw up significant surprises in this election.