The Voice of a Real Aam Aadmi (Common Man) of India
A First-Person Interview in a Mumbai Taxi
Reported by Dr. Seshadri Kumar
13 February, 2014
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This is an account of an interview, the audio recording of most of which I have already posted on youtube, which I personally conducted with a common man, an “aam aadmi” of India - a person hailing from the Hindi heartland - a village in Uttar Pradesh.
What I learned from this interview stunned me – that the common man of rural India today is nothing like what he is imagined to be by the mainstream press and by the national parties. Instead of being an ignorant beggar who has his arms outstretched for government handouts, the aam aadmi of today in India is a confident, assertive person who simply wants the shackles on his freedom removed – a man who favors a free-market system instead of the freebie system that has been institutionalized in India.
The audio can be heard here.
The audio can be heard here.
In December 2013, I had the opportunity to take one of those A/C cab services that are ubiquitous in major cities in India today. In Mumbai there are several – Easy Cab, Mega Cabs, Meru, and the like. I usually like to chat with taxi drivers when I go on these rides, especially if it is a long journey. This time I had the bright idea of recording the conversation. When we reached my destination, I told the driver I had been recording it, and asked him if he would terribly mind if I shared it publicly. He happily gave his assent and said people should hear the voice of a common man. And so I am sharing this interview I had with a real Aam Aadmi. He happens to be a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh (UP) who works as a taxi driver in Mumbai.
I found my subject to be extremely intelligent, highly aware of the issues surrounding him, and a very competent decision-maker. I found our conversation to be very illuminating, illustrating what the Aam Aadmi of this country actually wants. He does not, as most political parties today assume, want free food, free education, etc. He just wants freedom to earn his living and earn his bread on his own merit. And he trusts no politician.
There are those who will claim that this one sample does not represent what all rural or urban Indians actually want. While I agree with such an assessment, and make no claims that this is an exhaustive, scientific study, I still think this individual will give us all an idea of what the real India wants – specifically because my interview subject is from the minority community in India – the community that is so specifically targeted by many government policies. My subject was also not rich – he made his living as a taxi driver in Mumbai and came from a fairly poor background in his village in UP.
It should be, therefore, quite educative for people interested in Indian politics to understand what this gentleman from a minority community – whom I had never met before (or after), and who had nothing to gain from me by lying (he did not even know that I was recording this interview until it was over) – had to say about the state of the country and what his aspirations and the aspirations of his fellow-men and women are.
Narendra Modi and Muslims
My interview was on the day that Narendra Modi had his mega-rally in the Bandra-Kurla complex – December 22, 2013. Since my interviewee was a taxi driver, I asked him what traffic disruptions he had witnessed. And so began our conversation.
He said that there were about 700 buses that had been pressed into service to ferry the people who wanted to attend the rally from various train stations to the venue. He also told me that the party had organized food packets for tens of thousands of people – each consisting of a samosas and other eats. He then asked me “what is the point of this massive expenditure?” He said, wouldn’t it make sense if the huge money spent on this rally was used to help poor people?
This was getting interesting, so I asked him: “What do you think of Narendra Modi?”
He said, “Sir, what is there to think about?”
I replied, “Well, the Congress government says that Modi is responsible for the 2002 riots, and that if the BJP is elected and he is made PM, he will engineer more riots against Muslims.”
He replied, “Sir, look, as far as instigating riots goes, it is never one man. There are so many people in this country who are guilty of instigating riots, who will you put in jail? Also, I don’t believe that if Modi comes to power, he will incite violence against Muslims. I believe he will make sure no such thing happens on his watch.”
I then asked him, wondering if this might be the “new Muslim voter” the BJP is looking for, “So do you believe that the BJP might improve things for the common man?”
He surprised me by saying, “No sir, I don’t believe they will. Nor do I believe that the Congress will improve our lot, nor for that matter any other party.”
“So you have no faith in any political party?” I asked him.
“No sir, I don’t.”
“What about the Aam Aadmi Party?” I pressed on.
“They too are worthless, sir. Sab bakwas hai. Sab ek jaise hain.” (transl.: They are all the same, just talk the same nonsense.)
At this point I decided this guy was very interesting and I hit upon the idea of recording the conversation on my iPod. I did ask him before I disembarked if he was okay with it, and he was fine. You can see the recorded parts of the conversation here.
I reproduce most of the conversation below as a translation from the Hindi. I have grouped our conversation into topics, but that’s not exactly how the conversation went, as you can hear from the audio. I quizzed him on various topics of contemporary interest – and recorded his answers. I have grouped them into headings for ease of navigation.
Here are the views of this Aam Aadmi on all these topics – in his own words.
MNREGA (Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme)
“The MNREGA scheme is full of corruption. It happens this way: People work in this program for a few months – 4 months, 6 months. But how seriously the work is done is not examined. A little mud is removed, and walls are built on the sides with mud, and they proclaim that a lake has been constructed. And then when the rains come, the mud walls will dissolve, and no one will know there ever was a lake there. It is completely worthless.”
“Very few people in the villages enrol in MNREGA. Why? Because you get Rs. 120 a day for participating in it. If you work elsewhere, you will get Rs. 250. If you can get Rs. 250, why would you go for Rs. 120? Why would you join MNREGA?”
BPL Cards for Food
“You know what happens in UP in these government schemes? There are educated people who earn Rs. 1 lakh or Rs. 1.5 lakh salary and possess below poverty line (BPL) cards, and do you know what they do with the food they get from these cards? They feed the food to their animals!”
“There is this government scheme to provide the poor with housing ... they supposedly give a poor family Rs. 20,000 or Rs. 25,000 to help him build a small hutment. The person who needs it doesn’t get it, and the person who lives in a palace grabs it and uses the money to build a stable for his animals.”
Government and Private Schools
“There are plenty of private schools in my village. I myself have studied in private schools. Nobody goes to the government schools in our village if they can help it; except the hopelessly poor, all those who can afford it prefer the private schools. That’s because villagers want good education for their kids.”
“Why don’t we go to government schools? Well, the government schools give you everything – they give you food (midday meals), uniforms, books, all for free – they even pay you to attend them – but they don’t provide the most important thing that a school should provide – knowledge! They don’t teach in government schools. And that’s why village folk don’t go to the government schools. In fact, for 5 teachers in a government school, you won’t find 50 students in all for them to teach.”
“And this is in spite of the fact that government school teachers earn so much more than private school teachers. A government school teacher may make Rs. 45,000 to Rs. 50,000 per month, whereas a private school teacher makes only Rs. 3000 to Rs. 5000 per month. So why do they teach in these private schools at that salary while the govt. school teachers do not teach?”
“I’ll tell you – because there’s no need for them to teach! There is no accountability! They government pays them anyway, right? They come in the morning, sign the register, hang around for a little while, and then go home. The ones who teach primary classes don’t know anything at all. Many do not even teach English. If you do the same in a private school, then in a couple of months, the parents will pull their kids out of your school, saying your teachers do not know anything.”
“They should get rid of all these government schools – privatize all of them.”
“You ask me if inspectors check these things – tell me, who will check? The inspectors are related to the teachers or are their friends. There is nepotism everywhere. And if there is the odd person out who wants to be honest, he will be transferred either to another place or out of this world.”
“Earlier people were chosen on merit for jobs. Nowadays you sit at home, someone else writes the exam for you and you pass it by paying money – and you get the job.”
“We only send our kids to English private schools. Nowadays, even in villages, good schools like Dolphin schools are present. They are good schools, but they do not ask much in fees --- it’s not much, but still it’s significant for a villager: Rs. 300 or 400 a month, but we don’t mind paying that.”
Government Hospitals and Private Hospitals
“Now look at doctors. Any doctor needs a BMC certificate to practise (so technically they are all qualified doctors.)”
“But look at doctors in government hospitals. Aren’t they doctors? If you go to a government hospital, you’d think they don’t know anything – their service is so poor. But you see them in their own clinics, and then they are quite willing to practice medicine after taking Rs. 200 or Rs. 250!”
“The only people who go to government hospitals are those who have no option. Those who can afford it, go to private hospitals because the care is better.”
Political Parties in UP and the Political Process
“All the political parties in my state are thieves. Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party – all of them. I’ll tell you about the BSP. That is a completely worthless party. She (Mayawati) has no child, what’s she going to do with that much money? Why the hell does she have to spend so much on her birthday? Do something that will benefit some people, even after you are gone, so people remember you for something good.”
“You ask about caste. Yes, unfortunately a lot of people still do vote on caste lines, though they should use their brain, think carefully, and not do such things. They just sell themselves.”
“You ask me if Kumar Vishwas of the AAP can defeat Rahul Gandhi. I say: why not? People will treat politicians like they treat old clothes. Maybe it is time to wear a new shirt? What have they (the Gandhis) done for UP? If they were to provide electricity, then some factories could propser.”
“Now think about this: if you set up a factory – will that not provide employment to 5000 or 10000 people? And it isn’t just the people who work in those factories – someone will sell tea, someone will do some other service, and that’s how it works.”
“Elections are very expensive. Think of this: if there is an election in 5 years, the country goes backward one year, because of the expenditure involved. That’s where all the money in politics is.”
“Now think of this man, Narendra Modi. He used to sell tea. Where did he get all this money from for today’s rally to burn? It is the public’s money, right?”
“Think of Kripashankar, also from our state. He used to sell milk. His sister’s home is 3 kms from our home. Where did he get all this money?”
“There is too much unemployment in UP. In UP, there are 8000 vacancies for watchmen, 80,000 police officer jobs are vacant. Why doesn’t the state government do anything about it?”
Food Security Bill
“Sir, they won’t give you any free food. You saw what they did with the LPG cylinders. First they say we will give you only 6 subsidized cylinders; then, under pressure from the public, they raised it to 9. Where will they give it from?”
“Sir, 90% of Indians are poor. No one cares about the really poor.”
“They will give a pittance here and there and say they are giving us free this and free that...but you know what? I say, don’t give us anything free! We have hands and feet, we can earn our own bread. Give us that (jobs) by which we can earn our own money!”
“Now you know they say that today everything is cheap and made in China? I say it is not good, it is bad for us.”
“You remember, in the old days, in the rain, everyone used to wear Bata shoes. Now everyone wears Chinese shoes because it is cheap. Yes, it is cheap, but your jobs are going away!”
“People buy and throw things these days. In the old days, you wore a watch all your life. Nowadays you buy a thing for a couple thousand rupees, and there are no guarantees – they even post it on the shop, much as you would post a sign, “beware of dogs.”
“Am I unique in the way I think? No, I don’t think so. I think many people think like me.”
“But you see, it’s like this. If you ask them, 'is this wrong?' most will agree and say this is wrong. But if you put them in the position of power, they too will do the same thing. They are not Gandhiji. If things are going waste, they will say let it, it’s not ours, it is government money.”
“Times have changed a lot.”
My Concluding Thoughts
Our interview ended when we reached my home, but I was stunned and elated on what I had learned that day. Let me summarize my observations on the interview.
1. The Aam Aadmi is not someone who can be fooled or bought by freebies, the way the Congress, the BJP, and the AAP are trying to do. I was absolutely stunned by what the driver told me: “I say, don’t give us anything free – we have hands and feet – we can earn our own bread!” I think parties in our country had better wake up and smell the coffee.
2. If this driver is representative of the people in our country, then hopefully the evil effects of the socialist system that were imposed on India by misguided intellectuals like Nehru since 1947 will finally end. That this person is no fan of state socialist policies was clear from his reaction to government schools, government hospitals, the food security bill, MNREGA, food and housing subsidies. In every instance he thought the subsidy schemes were worthless, not based on some textbook argument of why capitalism is better than socialism, but on raw experience. He had seen firsthand that socialism did not work for him and was rejecting it.
3. The first (and obvious) conclusion from this is that if the Congress Party has been (as it clearly has been) counting on the various subsidy schemes that it has rolled out, including the Right to Education Bill (Government Schools), Food Security Bill (Free Food), MNREGA (Rural Employment Guarantee) to win over the rural poor, they have massively miscalculated. The poor in the villages are not impressed. The driver’s comments on the condition of government schools is a scathing indictment of the UPA government’s flagship scheme, the Right to Education (RTE) act.
4. Even more significant than the fact that the villagers are unimpressed is the reason why they are unimpressed: the realization that these ideas SIMPLY DO NOT WORK.
5. Why that realization is so stunning is that in debate after debate on TV channels like Times Now, NDTV, CNN-IBN, and the like, you have so many commentators who defend these freebie schemes as what the poor really need. These commentators like to attack those who criticize the government socialist schemes as elitist and paint themselves as advocates of the poor. Not only are the politicians totally out of touch with what works and what poor people need, even the so-called social and economic experts, people like the well-known Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and his followers, who make a living out of acting like champions for the poor (who never asked for a champion), HAVE BEEN DEAD WRONG. Mr. Sen may write a big book with Mr. Jean Dreze, and get many people to praise it for his “humanity,” but clearly he understands NOTHING of the way things REALLY WORK in India’s villages.
6. This should also be a wake-up call to the BJP, most of whose leaders still seem to believe (with the notable exception of Narendra Modi, who has been the only BJP politician to chant the capitalist ideal) in the idea of the Mai-baap government, and many of whose leaders have publicly said that they will continue the UPA’s disastrous subsidy schemes. One can only hope that these pronouncements are cynical and that the BJP is saying them only to win the elections – but the ground reality in BJP-run states like Chattisgarh, where 90% of the population is covered by a food subsidy, suggests otherwise.
7. What I heard this Aam Aadmi, this Common Man of India, say to me is: “We’ve had enough of socialism. Free our shackles so that we can have a free-market system.” And in cases where they have been able to do it themselves (like having private schools in villages), they have done so without waiting for someone to do it for them.
8. Politicians in our country have been underestimating Indian voters for decades. It is about time they stopped doing so and started developing a mature relationship with them.