The divide in UP is clear: Rahul is seen as honest and sincere but the party doesn’t come up to par, finds Brijesh Pandey
ROUND 1 of the Land War in Uttar Pradesh went to Rahul Gandhi in what was thought to be a perfect prelude to Assembly Poll 2012. The whole dynamics of the farmers’ struggle changed when Rahul reached Bhatta- Parsaul one May morning, riding pillion on a motorcycle, giving the slip to the administration. He launched a dharna with the villagers, demanding higher compensation for farmers. This move, seen as a political masterstroke, stunned the already beleaguered Mayawati government. Team Rahul was perfectly in place. Digvijaya Singh, in charge of UP, must have smiled.
But then the script went awry. Rahul took eight farmers from the region to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, claiming that 74 mounds of ash had been found, later called a misquote, gave Round 2 to Mayawati (Where’s the Body of Evidence? TEHELKA, 28 May).
Undaunted, while addressing a two-day party convention in Varanasi, Rahul mentioned Bhatta-Parsaul, saying the Congress will go to every village in UP and the Mayawati government would be ousted.
Team Rahul looks every inch determined to make a serious bid for power in Uttar Pradesh. But observers say that while Rahul has indeed enthused people, the party structure still lies in shambles. As for projecting a chief ministerial candidate, that would only encourage factionalism as there is no leader with pan-UP appeal.
Indeed, rarely will you find anywhere in India such divergent views on the leader and the party he belongs to. People in UP don’t see the Congress in a flattering light. Incompetent, corrupt, inefficient and fit only for five-star hotels are the common adjectives that are bandied about till you talk of Rahul Gandhi. Now there is hardly a word of criticism — instead, the words used are honest, sincere, hard-working, the future benefactor of UP.
Even the Bhatta-Parsaul faux pas, big enough to derail a lesser mortal, was swiftly blamed on the advisers. The divide in UP is clear: the leader is seen as honest and sincere but the party doesn’t come up to par. And herein lies the real reason why there has been no steady revival of the party despite the Rahul charisma.
Team Rahul is guided by old warhorse Digvijaya Singh, architect of several stratagems, including Bhatta-Parsaul. Young MPs Bhanwar Pratap Singh (representing Alwar, Rajasthan) and Meenakshi Natarajan (Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh) form the core of Team Rahul. Rajeev Satav, president of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), is overseeing the membership drive of the party in western UP. Virendra Rathod, general secretary of IYC, is pitching in.
Party watchers say that one of the positive steps that the team has undertaken is the membership drive. The task is stupendous, as in 2006-07, the number of members stood at around 30 lakh, with 75 percent assumed to be bogus. To clean up this mess, a committee headed by old Congress hand Ram Krishna Dwivedi was formed. Its insistence on photographs and phone numbers of aspiring members led to 55 lakh enrolments (by end-2010) in which 75-80 percent are deemed genuine.
Rahul and Sonia have not visited the Lucknow party office in years. Even a brief visit counts
What is perplexing, though, is the fact that while the odds seem to favour the Rahul Gandhi factor in UP, New Delhi is reluctant to go for the kill. Congress Legislature Party leader Pramod Tiwari, for one, points out that UP right now is clearly lagging behind in development, whereas when the Congress was in power, UP was at fifth or sixth position in various industrial indices. “Our biggest point is that if the government of both state and Centre is one then the speed of development will be faster,” says Tiwari.
One of the biggest worries for party observers is the inability of the state leadership to respect the numerical advantage of Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Castes. While the membership drive saw Conmany from these castes joining the party, their participation in the organisational structure is token.
This, when Rahul in the past two-three years has made several stopovers at Dalit households and tried to integrate them with the party. The masterstroke is rendered useless by the inability of the state unit to follow up on it. Those SCs and OBCs, especially youth, who are disillusioned with the Mayawati government, do not find the Congress very receptive.
During the Varanasi national conclave when Tiwari, Rajeshpati Tripathi and Rajesh Mishra, handed over a copy of the Bhagwad Gita to Sonia Gandhi, a backward leader sitting close to the dais quipped to his friend, “Is this a Congress mahasabha or a Brahmin mahasabha?”
Badrinarayan, history professor with Govind Vallabh Pant Institute and an eminent writer on Dalit subjects, agrees. He has his own story to add. “I was invited by the Congress to speak at a seminar. I was surprised to see that all the speakers were some Pandey, Tiwari, Chaubey or other forward castes. All the banners were for them. There was not a single Dalit speaker or any poster of theirs in sight. The Congress is unable to change its ways,” he says.
Experts also wonder why the Congress did not accommodate PL Punia, chairperson of the SC/ST Commission and bete noire of Mayawati, in the Cabinet expansion. According to Sharad Pradhan, a senior journalist, “Despite Mayawati moving heaven and earth to ensure Punia’s defeat, he won. They should have rubbed salt into the wound by making him a minister. SC/ST Commission is at best a complaint-receiving office. In a feudal state like UP, only a minister commands respect.”
According to a senior party functionary in UP Congress, “The momentum that was gathered since 2008 till the end of 2010, has somewhat been lost. In the executive committee, a major chunk of posts has been given to Thakurs, Brahmins and Muslims with no regard to backward/SC status. Worse, most of these people who have been given posts have no grassroots connection.”
However Rita Bahuguna Joshi, president of UPCC, counters this by saying, “Congress is a party that thinks of people as human beings and not as Brahmin, Thakur, Dalit. We come out with programmes to help the poor irrespective of caste.”
While Rahul’s surprise visits to Dalit enclaves generates a buzz, what baffles many observers and senior UP Congress functionaries is that not much effort is being made to revitalise the party.
“There is a Rahul phenomenon and the whole effort of Team Rahul is on maintaining that only. No sincere effort is being made to revitalise the party,” says Farzand Ahmed, a senior journalist in Lucknow. “I don’t remember Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi visiting the party office in Lucknow in the past few years. There is no interaction with party workers. If they came even for an hour, it would have an impact. You might keep on travelling from Varanasi to Noida, eating food with the Dalits, but the place from where you can activate the cadre, which is the party headquarters, you don’t come there. Unless you create the state machinery, you can’t perform well in the long run.”
Party leaders in Lucknow admit that the condition of the party is such that if Rahul or senior leaders launch a four-day agitation, the party won’t be able to sustain it. In Bhatta-Parsaul, 24 hours after Rahul Gandhi was arrested and evicted, the tempo of protests just petered out. It was a god-sent opportunity to set the state on fire politically, but they failed — this, when the state is tired of Mayawati’s misrule.
What is really driving the UP Congress down the hill is factionalism of the worst kind
On his own steam, however, Rahul is certainly rattling Mayawati. In Bundelkhand region, the state government had to enter into a war of words with Rahul, whereas a couple of years ago, it would not have bothered.
“Ever since Rahul Gandhi has started taking interest in UP, the party has become more sensitive and enthused,” says Badrinarayan. “What I think is that Congress should get out of theujla (clean) kurta politics to dhool–dhakkad (heat and dust) politics but the workers are not used to it. So Rahul Gandhi, despite his honesty, his exhortations to leaders to go to villages and dine with Dalits, I have serious doubt about how many of his workers will be able to do that. They have to ensure that a majority of their leaders are stationed in these villages to mobilise people. But I don’t get to see this kind of cadre. The cadre of Congress is a very elite one.”
Digvijaya Singh must be aware of the problem, for he told TEHELKA, “Our strategy is to build Congress brick by brick and prepare for the 2012 Assembly election like we did for 2009. We have tried to once again connect with the people whom we had lost for some time.”
One thing that observers and Congress leaders in UP find very surprising, is the reluctance of the Gandhi scion to move bag and baggage to Lucknow and start viewing UP beyond Amethi and Rae Bareli. “Rahul clearly knows that after him, there is not a single leader in UP who has a panstate presence and it is he who has to carry the battle forward single-handedly but despite this, with election just 10 months away, he is content to make parachute visits. Right now, the situation in UP is such that if both Rahul and Priyanka start campaigning in UP full-time, who knows, the Congress could well be party No. 2 in the state. Otherwise, in which part of UP will you get votes in the name of Digivijaya Singh or Pramod Tiwari or Rita Bahuguna or Beni babu?” says an observer.
Perhaps strategists in Delhi are playing it safe to prevent Rahul being blamed for future debacles. But there are those who think that, like the mighty Indira Gandhi who suffered electoral losses, it will not detract from his towering stature. Winning UP back could be the ultimate prize for Rahul Gandhi.
But Digvijaya Singh, in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, does not see it this way. “It is unfair to confine Rahulji to Amethi and Rae Bareli. He has a pan-Indian responsibility but of course he has to spend more time in his constituency as his voters certainly have more expectations from him.”
IF LACK of leadership were not bad enough for the UP Congress, what is really driving it down the hill is party factionalism of the worst kind. There is no love lost between Pramod Tiwari and the current UPCC chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi and both of them, as one party worker put it astutely, are “fighting the battle of Allahabad in Lucknow”.
Digvijaya Singh underplays this problem. “In any organisation, there is bound to be a clash of personalities but both Pramod Tiwariji and Ritaji are mature political leaders and have worked together without any problem. But then in politics, one has to manage contradictions.”
Rita Bahuguna also denies factionalism in the Congress and calls it “divergent views” and a symbol of inner-party democracy. However, in the same breath, she cannot help but concede that “competition should be healthy and not retrogressive. We have a problem when certain elements do not compete, but they try to pull you back, use diplomacy against you which is not good”.
Though Bahuguna has been able to project the image of a hard-working state president for herself, it somehow is not enough to project her as the face of the Congress in the state. As a Congress functionary put it in a rustic way, “A horse might run the whole day but still not plough the field.”
While the situation in UP is favourable to the Rahul factor, how many seats it will convert will depend on how swiftly the party changes. The reality of UP as of now is akin to what a senior partyman describes: “Never before have people been so willing to hand over the state on a platter and never before has a party been so hesitant to take the plunge.”
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.