Debating India


The Fearful Asymmetry

Saba Naqvi BHAUMIK

Monday 19 April 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi

The BJP makes a quiet advance as Congress ebullience is limited to the Gandhi fief

There was an air of old-world enchantment about the entire affair. The Rahul-Priyanka show in Amethi-Rae Bareli could not but evoke memories of similar rapturous welcomes for Indira Gandhi and Rajiv. Uttar Pradesh Congress workers still blast old Hindi film songs from their loudspeakers. Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle and Ab tumhare hawale watan sathiyon were the two hot favourites for the Gandhi siblings’ visit to the family pocketborough last week. And in another quaint touch reminiscent of a fading breed of Congressmen, after filing her nomination from Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi ended her public speech by exhorting the crowd to repeat: Jai Hind, Jai Hind, Jai Hind.

Sonia was her usual stilted self, but the two Nehru-Gandhi offspring, fair and handsome, positively sparkled and dazzled the crowds and media alike. Rahul’s entry into the political fray as the Congress candidate from Amethi and Priyanka’s

promise to campaign for the party have undoubtedly breathed a draught of fresh air into an otherwise jaded election campaign in Uttar Pradesh.

Rahul and Priyanka evoked a spontaneous response in an election that is being largely managed on the basis of caste combinations and organisational resilience. In Rae Bareli, for instance, people waited for hours to get a glimpse of Sonia and the two novice netas who many believe are born to rule. And when they finally did appear the crowds went berserk. Holi colours and rose petals were showered on them. The rat-a-tat of the dholaks reached a crescendo and crowd enthusiasm a fever pitch. The entire show was a huge shot in the arm for a demoralised Congress in the state.

That very day when the crowds were going berserk in Amethi, there was a bored gathering of BJP supporters at the massive Ambedkar maidan in Lucknow. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was welcoming deputy prime minister L.K. Advani’s Bharat uday yatra into his constituency in what had been billed as a massive show of strength. But even the cadre-based BJP, known for its smoothly organised "mineral water" rallies, could persuade only 10,000 supporters to fill a ground that has the capacity to accommodate a lakh. Besides the BJP’s two national icons, the entire galaxy of state leaders was present. Yet the crowd was dull and unenthusiastic, possibly sapped of all energy by the midday sun. Many of the speakers also seemed bored by their own speeches.

The same midday sun had not, however, deterred the crowds at Amethi. Do these two contrasting images therefore indicate that the Congress is on an upswing in Uttar Pradesh and the BJP on the decline? Not quite. When the Outlook team followed Sonia and Rahul-Priyanka’s convoy from Rae Bareli to Lucknow, the enthusiastic crowds lining the roadside disappeared once the cavalcade had moved outside the borders of the traditional family fief.

Yet, even in other parts of Uttar Pradesh, there is a growing groundswell of support and goodwill for the Congress. But the party simply does not have the organisational machinery to take advantage of this mood and translate it into Lok Sabha seats. It is only in its few remaining strongholds that the party has a semblance of a political structure. In large swathes of the state the Congress simply does not exist.

Accompanying L.K. Advani’s Bharat uday rath from Lucknow to Ayodhya reveals an entirely different state of affairs for the BJP.After Lucknow we enter Barabanki, a seat currently held by the Samajwadi Party. Yet it’s clear that the BJP’s formidable sangathan structure is very much in place. In every mofussil town there are crowds lined up to hear the BJP leader. Every 15 minutes, the rath has to stop as the deputy prime minister makes a brief speech. By about 4 pm, as the sun starts dipping in the west, the numbers at the roadside meetings increase.These are not wildly enthusiastic but politely disciplined crowds.

After Barabanki the rath enters Faizabad constituency which includes Ayodhya. The seat is currently held by the BJP’s Vinay Katiyar. But the hero of the Ram temple movement has actually abandoned this prestigious seat this time around as the bsp’s Mitrasen Yadav, once a CPI heavyweight who had won the seat many times before the BJP’s post-mandir ascendancy, is once again tipped to win. So when Kalyan Singh, who accompanied Advani through Uttar Pradesh, tries to evoke enthusiasm for the construction of a Ram mandir, he only ends up sounding plain hackneyed and unconvincing. The crowd listens calmly but the days of hysterical mobs shrieking Jai Shri Ram are clearly over.

In the absence of help from Ram, the BJP has been claiming that there is an Atal wave in the making. It soon becomes clear that this is an exaggeration. There is no wave in favour of any party in Uttar Pradesh. The election here is all about management at the constituency level. And the BJP has the organisational wherewithal to make a fight of it. By and large, it’s a three-cornered contest in Uttar Pradesh between the SP, BSP and the BJP. The Congress is a factor in only about a dozen of the state’s 80 seats. In the 1999 election, the Congress had won 10 seats. And because of the growing undercurrent of support for the party it should be able to retain that figure.

It’s more difficult to predict whether the BJP will retain or improve on its current haul of 29 seats. For, in a tight contest, a lot will depend on whether the state’s Muslims still go out in large numbers to tactically vote against the party. There is a growing apathy and disillusionment among the Muslims who constitute nearly 19 per cent of the population. This is partly due to the perception that one-time Muslim icon Mulayam Singh Yadav is currently the chief minister because of a "deal" with the BJP. Shabihul Hassan, a Lucknow lawyer, says: "There is suspicion that both the BSP and SP will support an NDA government after the polls in order to get or retain power in UP."

That is why there is a longing in the Muslim community to vote for the Congress. But in the absence of the Congress as a serious contender, they will eventually divide their votes between the SP and the BSP depending on the constituency and the candidate. Apart from the Muslims, a strong section of the state’s Brahmins and Kayasthas also express a longing for the good old days of Congress raj.

Amethi and Rae Bareli are repeatedly described as Nehru-Gandhi family "pocketboroughs" by the media. Though both the Lok Sabha seats are held by the Congress, the party’s precarious situation in UP can be driven home by two simple facts: not a single assembly segment of Rae Bareli was won by the Congress in the 2002 state election; in Amethi the party won only one assembly segment.

The images of delirious crowds welcoming Rahul and Priyanka do not, therefore, tell the whole story. Besides whipping up a wave, the Congress will need to revive its party structure to even make it a contest against entrenched parties like the BJP, SP and BSP in the state. But now, with Rahul in the electoral fray, the Congress can at least begin to hope for a brighter future.


in Outlook India, Monday, April 19, 2004.

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