It is difficult being Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. It cannot be easy being Rahul Gandhi in all of U.P a minefield of castes and religions and the land of the emerging empress, Mayawati.
IN MAY 2004, Rahul Gandhi made his political debut from Amethi to dazzling effect. Two years and much coaxing and cajoling later, the news is that Gandhi junior is willing. In reply to a specific question, he told television channels that if the Congress gave him charge of Uttar Pradesh, he would accept it. Later, he told Indian Express that he had made no offer to lead the party. What he said instead was that, "if the party leadership decides to put me in charge I will take up the work."
The green signal from the all-important son, even if subject to confirmation by the "high command," has expectedly spread sunshine and cheer in the Congress, currently condemned to fourth place in India's prized political State. Naturally, the question arises: If given charge, can Rahul, new to power politics and still finding his feet in Amethi, revive the ailing Congress? And do so in Uttar Pradesh, always complex and problematic but now more so with power-sharing an increasing chorus among its diverse communities?
In the two decades of Congress oblivion in Uttar Pradesh, tectonic shifts have unrecognisably transformed the State's political landscape. Whole parties have been formed out of castes and sub-castes, Muslims have grown disdainful of tokenism, and lately, upper castes are kowtowing to Mayawati, the emerging empress of the heartland. Even all those years ago, when the Congress' stars shone big and bright in the State, it was not so easy to plot and plan, as the charismatic yet politically immature Rajiv Gandhi, attempting unwisely to play off Muslims against Hindus and vice versa, discovered to his dismay.
But it is not just Rahul who has to adjust to the new reality. If the Gandhi heir is preparing to step into an Uttar Pradesh that is literally and metaphorically a Maya jaal, Congress workers, in turn, have to learn to deal with a young master whose methods they cannot fully comprehend, and who is evidently eons away from their idea of a neta (leader). Rahul is a Gandhi who is not quite a Gandhi at least not in the sense the Congress has known and loved the family. Nothing symbolises this change as much as Amethi, Rahul's chosen karmabhoomi (work area).
The story emerging out of Amethi is that while Rahul is still the toast of his constituency, he is nowhere near as popular as his mother and sister. In the eyes of the adoring constituency, Sonia Gandhi is warm, affectionate, heroic, and worthy of the highest respect post her rejection of prime ministerial office, while Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra is dashing, Indira Gandhi-like and a natural in politics.
Yet the same Amethi had exploded in a paroxysm of joy, when the Congress fielded Rahul from the constituency. The people had poured into the streets, spilled out of terraces, and climbed atop trees for a glimpse of the Gandhi heir who was their ticket to name, fame, and prosperity.
Two years on, Rahul is a familiar face in his constituency, thanks to monthly visits spent mostly in exhaustive stocktaking. But his presence seems only to bewilder Amethi, for years cosseted and spoilt silly by the family but now suddenly having to reform itself because its no-nonsense MP will have it no other way. Before Rahul's advent, all that the people of Amethi had ever done was to flaunt their affection for the Gandhis fall at their feet, garland them, hang on to their every word, and while at it, have their own little requests heard. The family reciprocated with trademark flamboyance a smile here, a hug there, names fondly recalled and lavish promises made but not always remembered.
It was a mutually dependent two-way relationship: Amethi was proof of the dynasty's popularity, and the dynasty was proof of Amethi's power and VVIP connection.
Rahul's impatience with ceremony and his no-frills style have put an end to this touchy-feely camaraderie. Amethi is crushed that the Gandhi offspring has outlawed garlands and touching of feet. It has also learnt that in junior's fiefdom, lies, boasts, laziness, and incompetence will not be tolerated. Says family loyalist Akhilesh Pratap Singh: "Rahul dislikes flattery. He is thorough, painstaking, systematic, has a vision and works to a plan. He is precise and expects others to be precise. He will make no false claims or promises and expects others not to make them."
Close family friend Manoj Mattoo agrees with the analysis: "Rahul is not into symbolism. He wants quality and output." Bhola Tripathi, Congress in-charge at Amethi, says Rahul's instincts are that of a corporate head who will not commit to anything in a rush, a case in point being the demand for a train halt at Warisganj Kasba in Amethi. Finding the halt abolished by the National Democratic Alliance regime, he made enquiries only to learn that the Railway Ministry earned no revenue from Amethi, indeed that his voters travelled ticketless. So he told them they would have to buy their tickets if they wanted a train halt.
Says Arvind Shukla, Dainik Jagran's Amethi correspondent: " Agreed Sonia and Priyanka are more popular here. But look at it another way. The Gandhis are attacked for fostering sycophancy. They are felt to be all emotion and little else. Yet when one of them tries to be different he is dismissed as insensitive and apolitical."
Politics of symbolism
True. But in India, mass politics is as much about symbolism as it is about work done and delivered. Indian voters want their bijli, paani and sadak, they abhor doublespeak, they despair of charlatans and show-offs and they take unkindly to unfulfilled promises. But equally they want a leader who will touch their hearts, empathise with them, and say what they want to hear. The garlanding, the touching of feet are rituals that even if offensive to the leader must be gone through to establish that vital rapport with the worker and with the voter. Mass leaders are expected to reach out, not sanitise themselves from crowds. Rahul himself learnt this in the run-up to his May 2004 election when he called a workers' meeting in village Purab Bisara in block Musafirkhana.
Narrating the story, Tirath Raj Misra, Congress organiser for eight villages in the region, says Rahul had assumed it would be a business-like meeting. Instead a procession of motorcyclists ceremonially escorted him into the village made up lovingly for his arrival with a stage, pandals, music, the works.
In place of the expected workers, the whole village had turned up, clamouring to hear the Gandhi lad and drowning his protests in frenzied shouts of zindabad. Villagers mobbed him, garlanded him and asked him in turn to garland a portrait of his father. Mr. Misra recalls a furious Rahul asking the crowds to disperse: "He was upset that a workers' meeting had turned into a carnival. He refused to garland his father's photo, calling it a tamasha. People here were so angry, they said they will not vote for him. I told him, he has to listen to his voters, that only they can give him truthful feedback, indeed that he must pick his workers from among the people." The lecture worked. A repentant Rahul returned to the village the next day. The gesture, according to Mr. Misra, earned Rahul "87 per cent of the popular vote from here."
Today there are any number of Congress workers in Amethi who will complain about Rahul's "touch me not" style, his refusal to entertain individual applications and his apparent distrust of the old guard the kind that stresses loyalty over merit.
If it is difficult being Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, it cannot be easy being Rahul Gandhi in all of Uttar Pradesh. On the plus side, there is a fund of goodwill for the Congress across the State. Upper castes and Muslims get nostalgic talking of the "good old Congress days." Add to this Rahul's seeming appetite for hard work and the party's future does not appear such a write-off.
Yet the Congress is virtually defunct here. It has no structure on the ground that can mobilise and gather votes; the cadre, tired of waiting for lady luck, have long since moved to other parties. This has left the party with no workers but a crowd of leaders, most of them lobbyists.
Explains Rajesh Misra, Congress MP from Varanasi: "Today politics is all about getting things done. The Samjwadi party has 60-65 Ministers, more than a hundred chairpersons and they have the budget. Let alone travel in a lal batti gaadi (VIP car) the Congress worker cannot even install a hand pump in his village. Tell me which worker will stay in the party in this situation?" Mr. Misra regrets the Congress' inability to keep pace with the regional parties which have used their tenures in office to map and understand every inch of the ground. "The Congress leadership conducts its politics from Lucknow and Delhi. There has been no effort to read the social changes on the ground. We need to build Dalit and OBC leaderships at the village, nyaya panchyat and block levels."
Worrying state of affairs
The state of affairs is made worse by the fact that there is no single caste or community that feels loyal to the Congress. Dalits are loyal to Mayawati and Yadavs and Muslims to Mulayam Singh. As Mr. Misra says: "It is all about arithmetic. To your core support you add other votes and win. The Congress commands 5-10 per cent votes from all sections but has no base on which to build a superstructure. If we can work in this direction, the future is ours."
But this is a catch-22 situation. For the Congress, to go the regional party way is to lose its pan-national identity. It is then a long haul for Rahul. If and when he takes charge, he must revive the party on the ground even as he softens his own image and becomes more worker and voter friendly