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Updated: July 4, 2010 10:31 IST

Congress replaying historical legacy to take on Mayawati

Smita Gupta
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Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati

The Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are two years away but the battle of the ballot has already begun. If Chief Minister Mayawati is working to restate her Dalit agenda, lest her emphasis on other communities be misunderstood by her core constituency, the Congress is trying to use its 125th anniversary celebrations to rebuild its Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim base.

Earlier this week, in an administrative act, replete with symbolism, Ms. Mayawati carved a new district out of Sultanpur and Rae Bareli, and named it after a Dalit icon, Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj. Significantly, the borders of the new district are virtually the same as those of Amethi, parliamentary constituency held by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi.

The creation of the district comes in the wake of Mr. Gandhi's concerted attempts to woo the Dalits — staying overnight in their homes, visiting victims of upper caste atrocities and launching 10 chetna yatras on April 14, Babasaheb Ambedkar's anniversary, from Ambedkarnagar. Clearly, Ms. Mayawati wants to make a political point.

Indeed, a spokesperson for the Chief Minister told The Hindu that naming new districts after Dalit heroes had always paid the Bahujan Samaj Party electoral dividends, whether it was Gautambudhnagar, Ambedkarnagar or Jyotibphulenagar.

He pointed out that the new administrative unit would be a boon to its residents as they would no longer have to go all the way either to the district headquarters in Rae Bareli or Sultanpur. They would go only to Gauriganj, headquarters of Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharajnagar. Clearly, Ms. Mayawati also wants to counter Mr. Gandhi's criticism of her government as not being interested in development of the State.

The Congress is upset that she has taken the battle right inside what it sees as the Gandhi-Nehru bastion (along with the neighbouring Rae Bareli represented by Congress president Sonia Gandhi). However, party sources said, “We, too, had wanted a district here, but wanted it named after Rajiv Gandhi. But we have decided to ignore it, as she [Ms. Mayawati] wants us to oppose the name change, and then try and capitalise on it among her Dalit voters, by painting us anti-Dalit.”

The creation of the new district comes in the midst of the Congress attempts to revive in Uttar Pradesh the magic of the first four decades after Independence, when the party's Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit support base ensured its political dominance in the most populous State. In the run-up to the Assembly elections, the party is now dipping into the pages of its glorious, “composite” past in the hope that it might provide the inspiration to recreate the umbrella party it once was in the State. The ongoing 125{+t}{+h} anniversary celebrations are being employed to send out a message of inclusiveness which, the Congress desperately hopes, will bring the votes rolling in 2012.

For instance, on June 30, under the banner of the Sajhi Virasat, Sajhi Shahadat Abhiyan (Composite Legacy, United Martyrdom Programme), four events related to India's first war of Independence were commemorated in Chinhat on the outskirts of Lucknow. These were the uprising in Lucknow (May 30, 1857); the battle of Chinhat (June 30, 1857), when Indian sepoys decisively defeated a British force, an event that made possible the coronation of an adolescent Birjis Qadar, son of the legendary Begum Hazrat Mahal, in Lucknow (July 5, 1857); and the rout of the British (November 25, 1857) in what is known as the Battle of the Lucknow Residency, all of which wiped out the humiliation of the annexation of Awadh in 1856.

Those whose memories were honoured were carefully picked to emphasise the composite legacy theme: Begum Hazrat Mahal, who was known for her administrative and military acumen; Raja Jai Lal Singh (an OBC from the Kurmi community); Mohammad Baquir Nasirabadi (a Shia Muslim); Barkat Ahmed, Veera Pasi (a Dalit military and civilian administrator, fluent in Persian and Urdu); Rajamund Tiwari (a Brahmin), and Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah (a Sunni Muslim). All of them contributed to the victory against the British. And the celebrations at Chinhat are just one of 55 similar events planned across the State, which began on May 31 and will conclude on May 10, 2011.

The question is: by acknowledging that people of all castes and creeds joined forces to win freedom for the country, will the Congress' voters return to its fold, given the pointed sectarian appeal of the BSP and the Samajwadi Party? Or will it just help to mobilise party workers because replaying the party's historical legacy can play only a limited role?

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