Rahul’s Rope Trick
Rahul Gandhi's charisma might fail to be hypnotic in UP, especially after the Bihar debacle
Pradeep Kapoor Lucknow
When it comes to Congress, a party with few leaders of great national charisma and charm, and a lacklustre prime minister obsessed with a pro-rich market economy, there are great expectations from Rahul Gandhi, all over the country. Especially on his home turf, and that of Sonia Gandhi: inside the rural and small town interiors of the still-in-backwaters state of Uttar Pradesh. No wonder, his and his mother's pet constituencies are Rahul Gandhi's status symbols and political milestones to showcase for the rest of UP, how the winds of change can blow if Congress comes to the helm in Lucknow. That is, how an economically backward state, in the abyss of administrative lethargy and ritualistic anarchy, and entrenched stagnation, can actually change and bloom.
Rahul Gandhi's visits to remote Dalit hamlets, simple dinner and night stay with poor families, his reaching out to ordinary people and party cadre, his sudden hopping onto a local train in Mumbai, his marked anti-communal stance, might signal a shift in what has become a top-heavy Congress, which once celebrated great national leaders rooted at the grassroots. The query is, will the promise of development or this symbolism work, when the real equations of stark poverty, exploitation and oppression on the margins remain entrenched and unchanged?
Often, the politics of development does not always sell, or gel, with the highly politicised ground scenario of UP politics, in the far-flung, dusty, arid Hindi heartland. There are multiple coalitions, fragmentations and alliances, favours, prizes, perks and privileges, flexible, shifting principles of social engineering, caste compromises, tacit electoral tie-ups, money and muscle power, and back-stabbing. These combinations often mark the electoral process and the shaky and shady ladder up the power corridor in Lucknow.
In the last phase of the last assembly elections, Mayawati seemed to have captured this magical, marginal-mainstream imagination of the masses with her canny 'sarvajan hitaye' coalition of Dalits, Muslims, and sections of backward and upper castes. Like other parties, she cared little for a clean track record, or a non-criminal background. Some of her candidates, like that of most parties (barring the communists), were multi-millionaires.
However, despite the decimation of the Congress in the post-Mandal era, and in successive assembly elections in UP, the last 2009 Lok Sabha results in which the Congress got 21 seats marked a rupture. This was a surprising high when the party graph had abysmally sunk and it was almost ruled out from the victory charts beyond Amethi and Rai Bareilly regions. That is one solid reason why despite the Bihar debacle, and despite Mayawati's rather astute social engineering at the grassroots, empowerment of Dalits, and a loyalist Dalit vote bank, the 'Rahul charisma' is still something like a straw which the Congress cadre is desperately holding onto.
Indeed, they want him to become hyperactive, aggressive, politically more combative, and lead agitations in the state stalked by price rise, stark poverty, cold wave deaths, abysmal infrastructure, kidnapping, rape and murder of young girls, mass joblessness and a general state of criminal anarchy - not something out of place in the eternal stasis of UP.
In his recent interactions in Lucknow, Rahul reportedly said that the people of UP were fed up with the Samajwadi Pary and BSP and were genuinely looking towards Congress for a positive alternative. He asked Congress workers to raise the issue of non-implementation of central schemes, corruption under the state government, and sharp deterioration in law and order situation. He also said that party tickets for the assembly polls should be finalised at the earliest and district-level committees should be involved in the process. There is a feeling that at the grassroots, RTI, MGNREGS and the loan waiver schemes for the farmers might help the party. But, these are all gains of UPA I.
Ironically, Rahul gave his 'mantra' to Congress leaders and workers in Lucknow on January 18, 2010. He yet again repeated that they must work with a commitment to shift the ground situation before the assembly polls. He had also told a high-powered coordination committee in a two-day meet that the state leadership has to go on the offensive as people were expecting change in UP. He said that Congress workers should not be defensive on inflation. Most workers found this to be a big dilemma because the current UPA regime is being held responsible for non-stop inflation all over the country.
Uncannily, Rahul also asked them be on the offensive on corruption (and inflation) since rural people were not really aware about 2G spectrum which is seen as a massive scam in urban areas. Many workers were apparently not impressed with this logic. Cynics among them also questioned the fact that Rahul seems to hang around only in the vicinity of Amethi, or interact with closed-door, selected, university students, and is reluctant to spread his wings in the hard terrain of local politics and caste equations in the rest of UP. "Is he afraid?" asked a combative young Congress worker. Indeed, the vociferous protests against Rahul by the students' wings of some political parties in Lucknow, Varanasi and Allahabad has rattled the state unit.
"Rahul should come out on the streets, he should be seen leading the fight in UP, he should be catalysing the people and the cadre against the authoritarian, corrupt and criminalised Maywati regime," said a Congress worker from Barabanki. "He should set up a concrete, plausible agenda and a tangible alternative. People are sick of all the parties which have ruled UP, and their goonda raj and corrupt inefficiency. People want decency, development, clean drinking water, education and health at all levels, a clean, efficient government which is not corrupt, where girls and women are safe; a government which can put the criminals behind bars."
However, it will not be easy. For instance, observes Dr Ramesh Dixit of Lucknow University, that Rahul Gandhi's interaction with urban students might not yield tangible long-term results because these "students tend to be apolitical, career-oriented, looking for jobs after their professional degrees. They are not interested in politics at all". Indeed, other intellectuals argue that there is a massive scarcity of value-based politics, or idealism, among the young in UP, especially in the youth wings of political parties, and more so in the Congress party. "Most of these so-called student leaders and Congress activists are seeking power, privilege and pelf, and are not driven by a political vision of radical grassroots transformation, social justice or social conscience," said an academic at Allahabad University, himself a former student leader. "They will tag along with Rahul because they perceive him to be a possible power centre in a party driven by the logic of dynasty. This changes nothing."
Instead, says Dr Dixit, "Rahul should have consistent programme-oriented interactions and long-term commitment with students and youth in rural areas, especially the poor. They have their own specific social aspirations, they are rooted in the alienations and struggles of their village life and are more socially tuned towards their fundamental rights, or lack of it."
Congress watchers believe they can be electoral assets too, and vehicles of social change, especially if they are allowed to transcend the oppressive structures of caste and class hierarchy. "But that is a tall call, don't you think," asked an academic, "in a party with a low-calibre leadership eternally celebrating the status quo?"