Sowing vote seeds

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Temple politics: Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited the temple town of Ayodhya, offering prayers at Hanumangarhi temple


The Congress Party is full swing in poll mode in Uttar Pradesh, the state from which it was thrown out of power 27 years back. It is making a concerted effort to re-emerge on the political map in a big way with strategic changes in its election campaign.

Basically, the party’s traditional vote bank fell apart due to communal and caste divisions that surfaced in the aftermath of ‘Mandir-Mandal’ politics, polarising the people and bringing forces for social change
to power.

Recently, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi visited the temple town of Ayodhya, offering prayers at Hanumangarhi temple but staying away from disputed shrines. It was the first time after the 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid that any Congress leader came to this place. This gave rise to speculation that party could adopt the approach of soft Hindutva — but Rahul put it at rest by visiting all other religious places to establish his secular credentials.

The party has reposed faith in its old guard by introducing a Brahmin face, Sheila Dikshit, as its chief ministerial candidate to consolidate its core supporters who have deserted the party and found shelter in BJP and BSP. Those who joined the BJP have been feeling suffocated after being cornered since Modi supporters took the reins of the party.

Now, with an eye on the 2017 Assembly and 2019 general, Congress party leaders are coming in close contact with people in the most organised manner via three yatras (road shows) to re-establish their connect with rural folk. Rahul Gandhi is attracting unexpectedly huge crowds of farmers in his ‘kisan yatras,’ in Uttar Pradesh wherein he is promising waiver of loans given to farmers and highlighting the Modi government’s blocking of grants for the rural job guarantee programme MNREGA, launched by the Congress-led UPA government to check migration from villages to urban areas for employment. The Congress came to power in 2009 parliamentary elections on the strength of this time-tested formula devised by the then prime minister, noted economist Manmohan Singh.

Rahul Gandhi is positioning himself as the protector of farmers’ rights and lone crusader to address their woes. He gets applause from crowds when he shouts slogan on the top of his voice, raising his arms up in the air: “Karza maaf, bijli bill half, samarthan mulya ka karo hisab” (Waive loans, halve electricity dues and fix reasonably support prices for crops).

Attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Bundelkhand region, Rahul says, “The BJP government has never been sensitive to farm distress, it serves the interests of the corporate world. I have started the first phase of my ‘kisan yatra’ with the aim of sending out the message that plight of such a large section of people cannot be neglected. Economic growth under the UPA regime was achieved as we provided adequate money into the rural economy.”

He claims, “The UPA government led by Congress successfully helped rural folks through MNREGA and we took due care by focusing on agriculture and helped the farmers to get minimum prices for their produce. I will continue to put pressure on the BJP government to do justice to farmers,” Rahul assures the masses amid applause. The Deoria-to-Delhi ‘kisan yatra’ of the Gandhi scion is planned by poll strategist Prashant Kishor. The party’s campaign is being methodically implemented to leave an imprint on the minds of farmers, who have been under tremendous pressure of debts, with quite a large number of such depressed farmers committing suicide. The road show will cover around 223 Assembly segments and traverse 2,500 km, beginning from the most backward areas of eastern UP to Bundelkhand, central UP-Kanpur to Lucknow, Sitapur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Shahjahanpur, Bareilly and western parts of the state. Team PK is creating a databank of signed ‘Support Forms’ from farmers. This single-page form has photographs of Sonia, Rahul and Sheila Dikshit and mention of the three promises: “I support the Congress Party campaign on waiving off farmers loans, reducing by half the power tariff for agriculture and payment of better support price for crops.”

Interestingly, some are mentioning loan amounts they owe to banks as they have withdrawn money from ATMs through Kisan Credit Cards issued to them. The target is to have more than 2 crore support letters in order to consolidate the base support. This phenomenon has changed the dynamics of the party as support is coming on emotive issues, and across the barriers of caste and communities.

Initially, state BJP leaders ridiculed the yatra and joked about the fact that farmers took away cots from his meetings. The very next day in Gorakhpur, Rahul took a dig at them by saying while big industrialists like Vijay Mallya who fail to repay bank loans of crores of rupees are allowed to run away while farmers taking away cots are dubbed as thieves. Apart from his attacks on BJP-RSS and Modi, Rahul also cornered Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati for being “remote controlled” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said that both these political parties cannot fight the BJP, and it is the Congress alone which can defeat the BJP, both in UP and across India.

“Both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are facing charges of corruption. Whenever they stand up to say something in Parliament, they sit down after glancing at PM Modi. This is because they fear the CBI, and the keys of CBI are in Modi’s hands as both are facing charges of corruption and disproportionate assets.”

The other two yatras — 27 saal UP behaal” (27 years of UP’s destruction) are on the move, led by the Congress’ chief ministerial face Sheila Dikshit and state party president Raj Babbar to reach the common people. The aim is to showcase how the state suffered as ruling politicians indulged in non-issues, leaving it lagging behind in the race for development.

The Congress Party ruled the state even before India struggled for independence and it was the brain and heart of the national movement. Now it appears that the Congress has realised that unless it focuses on its core base, it will become impossible for it to regain power in Delhi. So Rahul Gandhi has started tracking the route the Gandhi clan followed to emerge on the national scene. His sister Priyanka Gandhi may perhaps also join active politics to garner support for him, perhaps on 19 November, Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary.