On campaign trail with Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi is an angry man. At Phulpur on 14th Nov 2011, his anger embarrassed the Congress Party when a few central ministers kicked those for whom ironically, Rahul was angry! I think anger makes people talk - and repeat themselves. And that is exactly what RG did. In all his meetings across Central and Eastern UP, during his five-day Jan Sampark Abhiyan, Rahul repeated himself so much that we knew exactly what he was going to say when he spoke at the last meeting at Kushinagar. Nothing had changed since he started the rally at Barabanki.
Easy rhetoric landed the Congress General Secretary all over the local newspapers and periodicals - banner headlines, cover stories, anchor pieces. The stories also included that of Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma being booed and he being shown black flags by disgruntled ticket seekers. Sample a couple - "sheesha utaar ke dekhiye, bheek mangne wale dikhenge', 'Bheed dekh kar khush hue Rahul'. His oft-repeated use of the imagery of people from the region begging on the streets of Delhi and Mumbai definitely agitated the janta. But there were many who also took exception to such glib conjectures. Samajwadi Party workers showing up in "We are not Beggars" T-shirts at his Padrauna rally on last day was perhaps one such assertion.
In 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Cong had put up a good show in the region winning seven seats (Barabanki, Bahraich, Gonda, Balrampur, Domariyaganj, Maharajganj and Padrauna). Two years before that in the 2007 Assembly elections, his party had managed just two seats. Rahul knows well that his road to Delhi passes through the tough political terrains of Uttar Pradesh. So, riding high on populism - from padyatra for Bhatta Parsaul farmers over land acquisition to Rs 6234 crore package for 13 lakh handloom weavers - Rahul is picking up all the tricks in the book to get it right.
In a brief 45-minute informal interaction with journalists at the dak bungalow in Balrampur we did get a sense of his anxiety but he came across as sincere thinker and planner. RG also appeared politically correct, and reiterated his government, as and when it would be formed in the state, will not be of a particular caste, it would be all inclusive. Almost in the same breath, he added, that UP would be transformed and that he could vouch for it in writing. His model for effective governance hinges on the Unique Identification project and he presented it as a universal panacea to every problem the region suffers from. But will the UID be able to connect to the people on the ground? I am not sure about it.
I spoke to a number of people who were in the audience at Shravasti, Domariyaganj and other places. If their reaction is anything to go by, it reflects a worrying pattern for Rahul and his party. Here are some of their questions for Mr Gandhi: Why is he not addressing issues of price rise and corruption of the Cong-led UPA govt? Why is he silent on the proposed division of Uttar Pradesh into four states? Why didn't the Congress which was in power 22 years ago set the state on development path? Who are they voting for? They can't put a face to their leader like SP and BSP.
For 17-year-old Asif from Bahraich, Rahul's language is different from most politicians he has known so far. Asif says he doesn't address him as a Muslim but as a youth of the state. He is convinced that Rahul can be an agent of change for his generation. But Asif, who is not yet 18, can't vote. It's a pity that most of the young and the restless in Rahul's rallies across the region were ineligible voters like Asif.
RG's high points at the rally were the usual. At Matera in Bahraich where his father Rajiv Gandhi initiated the Universal Adult Franchise, he called upon the youth to write a new chapter. He peppered his speech with the legacy of the Gandhi family and did not fail to mention his numerous night outs at Dalit villages. He took a dig at the SP Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav who had called him a child and attacked Mayawati with the usual 'lack-of-development-in-UP' argument and corruption in the MNREGA programme. RG talked about his visit to a hospital in UP, which was being painted from outside despite having no beds, doctors or patients inside. When he asked the men on duty why they were painting it, he was told the Chief Minister was to cross that area and so the building was being done up! He cited this as the inside-outside dichotomy in UP that was being chalked out.
At another rally, Sushma Singh, a widow, screamed her lungs out while Rahul was speaking on the dais. He sent his guards to get her. She broke down before Rahul. Sushma had been running around since 2005 for a compensatory job after her husband - a customs officer - died on duty. She later said she was satisfied with Rahul's assurance. Six years and nothing moved for her. Sushma feels the Gandhi scion may just do it. Whether such posturing will get him numbers or prove terribly wrong is something only the time will tell. But with an overwhelming majority of the crowd referring to him as Rahul 'bhaiyya' it was easy to see that he has at least made a good start.
Rahul might have come across as an angry man during his UP tour but to topple Mayawati, he would need more than just anger.