Sunday, 19 February 2012

UP ELECTIONS Straws In The Mustard Field With UP as test case, Rahul Gandhi sets out to discover whether he’s worthy of the party’s and nation’s mantle SABA NAQVI , ANURADHA RAMAN , PRARTHNA GAHILOTE , SHARAT PRADHAN

Man about town Rahul enters an election rally in Soraon near Allahabad
Straws In The Mustard Field
With UP as test case, Rahul Gandhi sets out to discover whether he's worthy of the party's and nation's mantle

If This, Then That
What the UP verdict portends for the 'Ra' one
  • 60-70 If Congress gets around 60-70 seats in UP—and also wins in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur—it could be status quo at the Centre with the expectation that Rahul will take over at a later date. Manmohan Singh will continue as prime minister as the party will argue that it can manage despite his image slipping.
  • 100 If Congress crosses the threshold of 100 seats, then the clamour for Rahul to take over and lead the party into the 2014 polls will attain its own momentum. The crown prince would become king, eclipsing other power centres, with his team gaining control over old-timers in the party.
  • 30-40 If the Congress flops in UP, getting just 30-40 seats (up from the existing 22), the state Congress outfit and some party leaders will take the rap. There won't be direct attacks on Rahul, but the clamour for his sister Priyanka to take over will rise. He'll be seen as someone who can't deliver in 2014.
  • 3/5 A drubbing in UP along with defeats in two of the other four states can also trigger a process where the Manmohan Singh government can come under pressure in the Budget session of Parliament. This process will be accelerated particularly if the BJP does better than the Congress in UP, holds on in Uttarakhand and Punjab and wins Goa.
Birgha has experienced the thrill of becoming a photo opportunity in the Uttar Pradesh trail of Rahul Gandhi. Three years ago, the young Congress scion had come to the Harijan basti of Ghisauli in Bundelkhand, stopped at the hutment of the 70-year-old, and asked him, as leaders often do, what his problems were. "The roof of my hut has fallen and I don't have a BPL card," Birgha told him. Pictures were clicked, live TV captured the moment. Three years down the line, the roof of Birgha's house is still unrepaired and there is no BPL card in sight. The Congress party structure is so poor that there has been no one to follow up on Rahul's promises. Birgha is not voting for the Congress.
Bundelkhand was meant to be the springboard of Rahul Gandhi's efforts to reclaim Uttar Pradesh, but the reports from the ground suggest a certain indifference to all his exertions. The dust has been rising steadily from landing helicopters and roadshows in UP, but in the haze, there is one destiny that is critical beyond the borders of the state. Rahul Gandhi has given it his all. He has been campaigning fier­cely to recover a territory that many have said is lost to the party. The central government has chipped in: three years ago, UPA-II announced a Bundelkhand package of Rs 3,706 crore (the Congress says Mayawati has spent just 10 per cent of it); three months ago, the Centre announced a Rs 6,000-crore package intended to help two lakh weavers in UP; and just before the elections were notified, a 4.5 per cent subquota for minorities within the OBC quota was cleared.

Congress colour Priyanka campaigns in Sultanpur. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
Will it all work? If the Congress succeeds in crossing the 100-seat threshold in the 403-member house, it would be perceived as a genuine breakthrough given that the party won just 22 seats in the last assembly. Rahul would then be seen not just as a prince searching for a lost kingdom, but a new-age neta who can deliver. There will then be a greater certainty to the political script in New Delhi. The Congress will have the luxury of deciding whether he can actually replace Manmohan Singh or continue as the star campaigner engaged in rebuilding the party till 2014, when the general election will be fought under him. Perceptions of victory or defeat will also be shaped by the party's performance in the state assemblies of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. If the party does well elsewhere, then even 60 seats in UP will be seen as an overall good result.
"When I heard Rahul was eating at Dalit homes, I called my cook and asked him his caste. I realised I had been eating food cooked by a Dalit for 8 yrs!" Akhilesh Yadav the face of SP "Rahul identifies problems accurately but his solutions don't always work. He has spent so much time revamping the youth wing. Where are they?" Rashid Kidwai author, 24, Akbar Road

"(Robert Vadra's utterances on joining politics) are of no significance. The possibility of Priyanka joining politics is real; he is motivated by other concerns." A Congress insider "I don't think Rahul has as big expectations from UP as the media makes out. A poor result might impact the Centre but it won't end his career." Sudha Pai Pol, science prof, JNU

"Soniaji is an MP from Rae Bareli, yet we get only four hours of electricity in a day. The Gandhi charm works in Lok Sabha, not Vidhan Sabha, elections." Madho Prasad Dwivedi, Tea shop owner "We have only seen Rahulji come and go in a helicopter. How long will he hide behind the excuse that the Congress is not in power here?"Mohammad Wasif, Sultanpur

"Is this the way to ask for our votes? Rahul showed his face for five minutes. We will give our vote to the leader who has time for us."Arvind Giri, First-time voter "I always give my vote where I think I will get some benefit. But I don't think I will get anything from any politician now." Birgha, Farmer photographed with Rahul
Akhilesh Yadav, the other heir on the block and the face of the successful Samajwadi Party campaign, is sarcastic about Rahul: "He has power at the Centre and is working hard. We have power nowhere and are working hard. He is a big leader from a big party with big resources. We are small people with no resources. I wish him the best." Certainly, Rahul is the national leader who has put himself out there in a state election. If there is only a slight improvement in UP, perhaps just 40 seats, it will be seen as a personal defeat for him.
In that case, there will be many short- and long-term implications for his personal fortune, and those of the party and the Manmohan Singh government. First up, the Congress will trot out excuses and leaders at the state level will be blamed. Digvijay Singh will get the rap from his rivals in the party, but he is a wily survivor with many levels of influence. More vulnerable will be Beni Prasad Verma who will be accused of having no clout among the OBCs, and Salman Khurshid, who will yet again be called a Muslim leader without a flock. General secretary Mohan Prakash, who oversaw the ticket distribution in UP, could find his powers diminished. He's also in charge of Gujarat where another battle awaits the Congress at the end of the year, against Narendra Modi. A debacle in UP will also look that much worse if the BJP gets more seats than the Congress. Rahul would then simply not look like a leader capable of taking on Modi on the latter's home turf.
In fact, the irony is that while the Congress could make some gains in the later rounds of elections, it is doing badly on the Gandhi family homeground in Awadh. It's evident in Kadipur, Sultanpur, where Rahul shared a stage with sister Priyanka for the first time. The duo look quite charming but are not able to create any magic for the crowd. Their outfits appear to be coordinated in the Congress colours—Priyanka in an orange blouse and green saree with an orange border, Rahul in a white kurta pyjama. They look great, but 23-year-old Arvind Giri, a first-time voter, is not impressed. "Is this the way to ask for our votes? Rahul showed his face for five minutes. We will give our vote to the leader who has time for us," he says. There is a genuine disconnect between the aspirations in an assembly election and a national poll, and Rahul faces that disadvantage.
Having thus dismissed the Rahul show, the energetic Giri walks across to the adjoining ground where former BJP chief minister Rajnath Singh is simultaneously addressing another rally. The young man will possibly vote for neither party, but is giving them all a good hard look. Short on development and job opportunities, people in the state have a lot of time for politics and grassroot psephology. The wisdom on the streets in this belt is that the Congress is not winning any seats in Sultanpur and losing some in Amethi and Rae Bar­eli, including Rae Bareli Sadar, which the party has held continuously for the last 14 years. In Bundelkhand, even the candidates are uncertain. Birendra Singh Bundela, the Congress hopeful from Lalitpur, says that "we are here to fulfil Rahul Gandhi's vision". In the last round, the party had won three of the 42 seats in the region.
At one level, politics in this belt seems like a sad parody given the acute poverty and the skewed development projects. For instance, Bundelkhand has seven dams, but there is an acute water crisis. And Rahul has certainly shown the impulse to reach out and articulate the need to change the way things happen. Although only of symbolic value, his sharing of meals with Dalits did irritate chief minister Mayawati. Even the Rs 60,000-crore farm loan waiver by UPA is believed to have happened at the prodding of Rahul and Sonia Gan­dhi. In ano­ther part of UP, in Bhatta Parsaul, Greater Noida, Rahul touched on an issue affecting bigger farmers—the acquisition of their land. For all the flaws in his technique, it did compel Mayawati to revise her land acquisition policy.

Family portrait Priyanka's children Rihaan and Miraya in Amethi
With 140 public rallies covering 267 of UP's 403 assembly constituencies, Rahul has already created a record of sorts halfway through the campaign. This is the first time in 22 years that a Congress leader has single-handedly led any election campaign in the state, ever since it was voted out of power in 1989, marking the end of a four-decade rule. However, as Rashid Kidwai, author of 24, Akbar Road, says, the thing with Rahul is that he identifies the problem very accurately, but the solution he seeks and the route he takes do not always work. "Rahul has spent so much time revamping the youth Congress. Where are they? Are they visible?" asks Kidwai. "In Sanjay Gandhi's time, the youth forces were there for all to see and the impact was both positive and negative. But with Rahul we still don't know the impact although he has put in a lot of effort and correctly decided that the route to Delhi goes through Uttar Pradesh."
So, what happens if Rahul fails? In Lucknow, heads will be engaged in putting together a government, but the tremors will be felt in New Delhi. A poor result in this round of assembly elections, particularly UP, would be seen as a mini-referendum against UPA-II. It will also certainly revive the Anna Hazare movement which added to the mood of disenchantment with UPA-II. A process of meltdown of the Manmohan Singh regime would begin and the big parties and the little ones will begin talking. The Centre can cave in. Sudha Pai, professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, says the impact of the UP results on the central government will be more decisive than the impact on Rahul's personal destiny. "I don't think even Rahul has such big expectations as some media people have projected from UP. Even a small improvement in UP will be significant given the party's position there. A poor result could impact the Centre more and it will certainly not end his career," she says.
True, but as a veteran Congressman points out, if the confidence in Rahul gets badly shaken, the clamour for Priyanka to come forward "to save the party" will increase. Besides, there is now a buzz in the Congress that Priyanka's personal circumstances could change and she may be ready for a more active role in politics. Many also see a certain significance in the fact that she allowed her two children to be quite visible in this campaign. And they were not always with their mother.

Empty mascot Birgha is just a photo-op from three years back. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
For instance, at Rahul's rally in Amethi, Priyanka was not around but 11-year-old Rihaan and 9-year-old Miraya were seen hanging around the stage waiting for their uncle to arrive. During the 90-minute wait, the kids, accompanied by a nanny and Priyanka's aide Preeti Sahay, ate chocolate, played hopscotch and collected pebbles from the ground, in full view of the press and the public. It was a snapshot of private family moments on display for the people in the 15-assembly seat-strong Rae Bar­eli-Amethi-Sultanpur belt. Priyanka provided another such moment the very next day when she playfully pinched her mother's cheeks, a moment duly captured on camera and splashed across the pages of newspapers subsequently.
No one really knows what goes on within the family, but that does not stop Congress leaders from speculating endlessly, and often accurately. A source says that the family has been annoyed with Robert Vadra's utterances about the possibility of joining politics. "It is of no significance," says a party insider. "Priyanka has distanced herself from his statements. Actually we believe that the possibility of her joining politics is real; his statements are motivated by other concerns." However, when it comes to the Nehru-Gandhi fam­ily, every scenario has to be created with some powers of imagination and deduction. Sudha Pai says, "I find it puzzling that they bring Priyanka out from time to time."
Perhaps that is how political dynasties work. They press the right buttons, send out those signals. The subliminal message is, if not Rahul, there's Priyanka. All this when mother Sonia Gandhi is around, although her schedules are no longer as hectic. As the family has scripted it, this should be the age of Rahul. The rest comes later. Pending the voter's appraisal.

By Saba Naqvi with Anuradha Raman in Bundelkhand, Prarthna Gahilote in Amethi, Rae Bareli-Sultanpur and Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow
Issues of development and governance would decide the fate of an unpromising BSP, renascent SP, hopeful Congress and a dispirited BJP in a changed Uttar Pradesh
An anti-incumbency wave in Amethi?
Farmer suicides are endemic, who knew?