Debating India

Does one Rae Bareli make all of U.P.?

Friday 31 March 2006, by SUBRAHMANIAM*Vidya

There is little to suggest that Sonia Gandhi’s party is on a comeback trail in the one State that figures big in its calculations.

IT SAYS something for the state of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh that on its supposedly big day - with all of India seemingly soaking in the symbolism of Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli visit - the party’s only nominee from the State missed his chance to get into the Rajya Sabha. The Congress’ Azad Kumar Kardam was eliminated in the first round of polling for the upper house.

Mr. Kardam’s rout was unavoidable. With 25 Assembly seats in a house of 403, the Congress would have been foolish to expect better. Tragically for the party - not to mention a boisterous cadre pinning its hopes on Ms. Gandhi’s second renunciation - it could well be a repeat of the story in the Assembly election due next year. If the script changes, it will not be on the Congress’ account. In all the time that the focus was on other parties - on the Samajwadi Party and the Congress for their loud and gimmicky sparring and on the Bharatiya Janata Party for one or another of its rallies - the Bahujan Samaj Party quietly laboured away, metamorphosing from a victim party vulnerable to poaching to a confident, mainstream player attractive to every community and looking to emerge on top of the pile.

In the same Rajya Sabha election where the Congress bit the dust, Mayawati’s party polled more votes than its strength commanded, signalling cross-voting in its favour. In the simultaneous election to the Legislative Council, the BSP again attracted more than its share of votes. The big fight in U.P. is then poised to take place between the SP and the BSP, with the latter currently the favourite to overtake the former. Where does it leave the Congress?

One week after Ms. Gandhi gave up her Lok Sabha seat and the Chairmanship of the National Advisory Council, there is little to suggest that her party is on a comeback trail in the one State that figures big in its calculations. The Congress strategy for U.P. has centred on the family. But the family has shown itself unable and unwilling to move beyond Rae Bareli and Amethi - a Nehru-Gandhi sanctuary surrounded by hostile territory.

In April 2004, Rahul Gandhi filed his nomination for the Amethi Lok Sabha seat to rapturous welcome across the State. To say that the debut fired up the cadre would be to understate what Amethi witnessed in those tumultuous days. Yet the young Gandhi was thought to have pulled off a bigger coup. The wisdom of the day was that he had rekindled the spark among the Grand Old Party’s traditional voters. The timing was perfect. The forward castes were disenchanted with the BJP, and Muslims seemed to have grown weary of Mulayam Singh, once worshipped as a messiah but now increasingly perceived to be cold and calculating. The Congress needed an imaginative strategy to convert this goodwill to votes.

The Gandhi heir was goaded to do the needful and he did make the occasional foray outside the family fiefdom - picturesquely perched atop his van. But there was little in the speeches beyond the recalling of family sacrifices, the hounding of generations of Nehru-Gandhis by the Opposition. By the time the campaign wound up, the references to the vilified Gandhis had begun to sound rehearsed; the image of vulnerability so captivating at first was no longer so fresh. The results belied the hype. The Congress did worse than in the 1999 Lok Sabha election, finishing with nine of 80 seats for a vote share of 12.04 per cent. In 1999, the score was 10 seats for a vote share of 14.72 per cent.

Two years on, the family’s pulsating presence has once again revved up Rae Bareli and Amethi. Ms. Gandhi’s combative speech centred on the witch-hunt of the Gandhis by the Opposition; today it was her turn to face the wrath, she said. Nobody will deny the truth in the charge. The Congress chief has been obsessively targeted by the SP and the BJP. However, in giving up both her Lok Sabha seat and the chairmanship of the NAC, she has played into their hands. Resigning from the Lok Sabha seat was an astute, political move, not so her refusal to chair the NAC, which has performed phenomenally well in the social sector. But for Ms. Gandhi’s stewardship of the Council, there would been no guessing the fate of legislation such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill and the Right to Information Bill - both of which escaped the bureaucratic axe because of the intervention of the NAC, which fought long and hard to retain the original clauses.

Ms. Gandhi’s USP is her sensitivity. That sets her apart from the crowd of ordinary politicians. But to get trapped in this image is to give in to her opponents who will exploit this trait to extract one concession after another.

The Congress chief has vacated the NAC post at a time it was beginning to make an impact. The Opposition must be countered politically with achievements that can be felt on the ground. In the months before the May 2004 general election, Ms. Gandhi quietly moved among the people, connecting with them through her Jan Sampark Abhiyan. That was an emotional journey. But emotion must be combined with substantive work, else the crowds will applaud but not vote.

See online : The Hindu

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