The MLA smiled. She picked up a little child in her arms and faced the photographer who took several shots of her with the child and the villagers. Then she addressed the gathered villagers.
“You are special. For centuries you have been oppressed, not allowed to study, not allowed to work. My party is the only party that cares for you all.” She signaled and her party people distributed gift packs. The faces of the villagers brightened as they received them.
“We know what you need,” she continued. “Water, electricity… We have brought it all to your village.”
“Yes, yes,” the villagers cried out in their eagerness to see what they had got this time, caring least over which party had done it for them.
Seeing their attention diverted, she called out to one young girl looking at her eagerly and asked, “Do you go to school?”
The girl blushed and looked at the people around her. “Step forward, come here,” the MLA urged the girl. “What’s your name?” she asked when the girl came closer.
“Mani,” she said shyly.
“Mani, how old are you?”
“Do you go to school, Mani? Do you send her to school – where are the parents?” A couple stood up, equally shy, and nodded.
“You must not lie to me. See, we don’t allow girls to study thinking it is a waste of time and money. You must educate her, let her fly…” She turned to the girl, “You must not drop out, okay?”
The girl shook her head. An elder from the village said proudly, “She stood 1st in the 10th board exam. She is the topper in her class.”
“Oh, congratulations! You must do higher studies and go to work. Only then you can fight poverty. All the children present here must go to school. It is your birthright. My party has made sure that you get seats in college and secure government jobs too. You must not let go of your right, okay? When you complete your 12th, come to my husband’s college near the bus depot. I will make sure that you get admission, okay? What do you want to study?” the MLA asked.
“Computer science,” the girl replied boldly.
“Very good. Score well and you will get scholarship also, okay?”
The people applauded loudly and she left beaming.
Inspired, Mani studied even harder and got very good marks in the 12th as well. “Go to the college the MLA told you about. After all we have voted her to power,” her village folks encouraged her. They were proud that she was the first one from the village to come so far. She was an inspiration to the other children. When they struggled with their lessons, she tutored them. When they played truant, she admonished them. When they became dejected, she encouraged them.
When she went up to the college to apply, an entourage – though smaller than that of the MLA’s when she visited them, still impressive – accompanied her. But, her bad luck, the minister or her husband were not there. “Leave the application with us. ST? We will take care of it,” she was assured.
That was good enough. The villagers’ happiness knew no bounds when Mani received the notice to join on a particular date in the college. Again the entourage accompanied her and that evening, they celebrated her first day in college in style.
A week later, Mani was called to the office room. “We have sent a request to the ministry to reimburse your fees, but till we get it, we need you to pay a token sum.” They gave her a bill.
The amount made her head reel. She looked at the lady in the office sadly, but the lady too appeared helpless. “The ministry has to approve,” she said firmly.
“Meet the MLA,” the villagers advised the family. But their local representative was busy in the state capital or travelling. By the second term, when the government approval did not come through, Mani and her family realized that taking a loan was the only option, and it was as good as no option. She gave up her dreams to study further, seeing how her father struggled to meet the ends.
Two years later, the MLA visited again to campaign. Mani stood in the fringes with a child in her arms. The MLA beckoned to her. “Weren’t you the promising student? Are you married already!”
The girl hung her head. “Yes, ma’am. My father couldn’t afford the education.”
“What! You should have come to me! You are eligible for scholarship. Did you apply in any college?”
“I got through, but the ministry delayed paying the fees and I had to pay from my pocket. Which was not possible.”
“The cheats!” the MLA exclaimed. “Did you pay anything?” Mani nodded. The lady grimaced. “The college would have pocketed your fees, got the scholarship money and pocketed that too. And then sold the seat to another candidate and pocketed that money too!” Mani stared at the MLA keenly. The MLA demanded, “I told you to come to my husband’s college, didn’t I! Why didn’t you?”
Mani’s expression hardened. “That is where I got admission and paid the fees.”
The MLA’s face lost colour. She hurriedly took leave. “Remember to vote for my party,” she said half-heartedly as her assistants distributed the gifts. The other villagers took it happily. Mani walked away, anger seething in her heart at having been so gullible.