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Amethi's new slogan: ‘Chowkidar sore hai’

17 watchmen lost their jobs in 2016, when Amethi’s Tikarmafi IIIT was moved to Allahabad. They have approached the court seeking reinstatement as chowkidars on the BBAU campus

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“Look, the chowkidars are here,” exclaims Narendra Mishra, a Congress leader in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, as he sees four men walk in through his bungalow’s gate. “We are chowkidars and we are jobless,” they intone as one, then pausing to let the implication of the word chowkidar sink in.

Meet the chowkidars (watchmen) of Amethi, who have front-row seats to the electoral contest in this VVIP Lok Sabha constituency. “They are real chowkidars,” Mishra says triumphantly, “not of the prime ministerial kind.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has framed its election campaign around the motif of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as chowkidar, or ultimate protector, of the country. Yet, in dusty Amethi, these four men have taken the chowkidar symbol literally. Rather unfairly, they blame the chowkidar’s handpicked candidate, Textiles Minister Smriti Irani, for their joblessness.

The back story of these four men explains their ire at the BJP’s poll theme. Seventeen watchmen lost their jobs after the Centre shut down an the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in Amethi in 2016 and transferred it to Allahabad. Subsequently, the campus was turned into a satellite campus of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University (BBAU), Lucknow. The IIIT was built in Tikarmafi village in 2005, part of the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, during Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s first term as MP from this seat.

Of the 17 chowkidars, four—Rakesh Mishra, Chailbihari Tiwari, Rakesh Kumar and Suresh Tripathi—are at Narendra Mishra’s residence now, clutching a copy of their writ petition like a weapon of last resort. They have approached the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court seeking reinstatement as chowkidars on the BBAU campus. Pursuing their case has meant borrowing Rs 50,000 from friends. As chowkidars at the IIIT, they made Rs 17,000 every month. In the year after it turned into BBAU, the four men lost their jobs.

They have no money to crop their meagre landholdings or educate their children. What they have is time, bequeathed by joblessness, and a rare opportunity to contemplate the nationalistic significance of their rather humble profession. “The prime minister calls himself a chowkidar but he should first understand the responsibilities of the job,” says Tripathi. Ask him what they are, and Tripathi reels off his answer with a weary flourish: hard work, taking responsibility, being physically capable to stand and stay alert for long hours. The BJP’s message of safety and security is powered by the pride that Modi and his ministers take in calling themselves chowkidars. But to the four men, Modi doesn’t make the cut for their calling. “It is hard work. Nobody becomes a chowkidar just by saying he is one,” Tiwari says.

In July 2016, Prakash Javadekar became Human Resource Development minister, taking over from Irani, who got the textiles portfolio. This was two years after she contested in Amethi on BJP ticket. In August 2016, the IIIT campus was transferred. The government clarified in Parliament that IIIT Tikarmafi was closed because it was illegal, as the rules don’t allow an IIIT to be an extension of a university, as was done here.

Try explaining this to Tikarmafi residents. Barring a few, all are angry over the fate of its chowkidars. “Modi-ji IIIT gayab kar diye. (Modi made the IIIT disappear),” is the refrain. “BBAU told us that we chowkidars are no longer needed,” says Kumar. “They removed us one by one, saying we were hired by a contractor and that we are Congress supporters,” says Mishra. BBAU still employs staffers from its IIIT days, but they complain of unpaid dues and worry about losing their jobs too. A BBAU, Lucknow, team visited them recently, and noted their concerns. The 17 chowkidars were not part of this exercise.

For whatever it’s worth, Tikarmafi knows the prime minister is not to blame. It’s all because of the wrangling over the Amethi seat between the Congress and the BJP, most say. Irani is the BJP’s Amethi candidate again; so, their ire turns on her. She is the most visible national BJP leader in Amethi and people consider her the national chowkidar’s representative. They complain that while Rahul brought the IIIT, she took it away.

Irani has even proposed a way out of unemployment. “Irani-ji says we should plant Neem trees, squeeze oil from their fruit and sell it for a living,” says Anup Srivastava, a Tikarmafi resident. “And what shall we do while these trees mature over in 15 years?” Not that the plan has no takers. Many shops display posters of the Neem-ki-phali, or Neem fruit oil, proposal in Tikarmafi.

Considering the IIIT was replaced by a new campus, it seems mysterious that Tikarmafians are complaining. Harishchand Kanaujia, a washerman, finds BBAU students unimpressive. “They’re like us,” he says, disdainfully, meaning that the ‘triple I-T’ drew city-slickers and engineers who got their clothes ironed by him whereas “these BBAU fellows do everything themselves.” His income has halved. ‘Triple I-T’ students gave local shopkeeper Raghuviri Vaish’s daughter Shivani English tuitions and tips to local youngsters. The tea shops they frequented have run out of business. “Irani lost the Amethi election but she should not have lost hope,” say Vaish, who voted for her. “She would have won had she not taken our triple I-T,” she says. “If you cannot do good, don’t do harm.”

Tikarmafi is almost uniformly paranoid about the BJP’s attitude towards this Congress-controlled constituency. They fear that another BJP loss in Amethi will drive more institutions out. Most people here work in factories or offices set up during former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s time. They say BJP reduced the capacity of a proposed new AIIMS in Rae Bareli, which is next door. A proposed paper mill was shelved. A mega food park fizzled out over unavailability of land. (Rahul had called it “aalu ki factory” in 2014, inviting ridicule). A proposed school is “going here and there”, that is, the site where it will come up is repeatedly changing. “Amethi’s name will get wiped off the map,” says resident Ramkuber Kahar, summing up all fears.

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