In Rae Bareli, the Congress' fight is about ensuring a bigger win for Sonia Gandhi. For Uma Bharti and the BJP, what matters is who emerges second.
ELSEWHERE IN Uttar Pradesh, the once omnipresent Congress karyakarta (worker) may be hard to behold. Not in Rae Bareli, the high seat of Congress power and one of only two Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh where Congress workers lord it over their lesser opponents. Currently they feel doubly important for having been called upon to assist in Sonia Gandhi's re-election a prestigious project invested with high symbolism and under the overall charge of Rahul Gandhi.
At Pande Kothi, the Congress' central election office, the mood is buoyant, and K.L. Sharma, coordinator of Ms. Gandhi's campaign, is out of breath from holding consecutive meetings with workers drawn from village, nyaya panchayat, block, Assembly, and district levels. In the computer room, posters of the Congress chief are being redrawn in soft focus. Outside, eager beavers crowd the entrance waiting to be summoned and assigned work. The Congress affiliates, the Youth Congress, the National Students Union of India, the Seva Dal, and so forth, all want a piece of the action.
There is an unreal feel to the scene. The milling workers, the busy conclaving, and the high energy levels in the complex, not to mention the visible unease in the Opposition camps all belong in a different era, when the Congress was all there was in Uttar Pradesh. But in minuscule Rae Bareli, ever at the beck and call of the family, what matters is the here and now. And the demand of the moment is that Ms. Gandhi coast home with the highest margin any Indian parliamentary constituency has seen.
The significance of a large victory margin is stressed over and again by Manoj Mattoo, a family confidant entrusted with the care of Rae Bareli and Amethi, by Indresh Vikram Singh, media coordinator, by every member of the high-profile campaign. The reason is obvious. Ms. Gandhi's "renunciation" would lose its sheen were she to return to the Lok Sabha with fewer votes than before. The loss of prestige would diminish the Congress in the eyes of its opponents. Conversely, a thumping victory would silence her critics and uphold the Congress' claim that its leader is beyond compare, that among today's politicians Ms. Gandhi alone practises principled politics. In Mr. Singh's words, the Congress' message had to be one of siddhant aur seva (principles and service).
The circumstances of the current election in Rae Bareli decree that Ms. Gandhi should surpass her 2004 performance even if she does not set a new record. The record is held by Arun Nehru, who riding the Rajiv Gandhi wave of 1984, polled an incredible 70 per cent of the popular vote from here. That year, Rajiv himself polled 83.67 per cent from neighbouring Amethi. By comparison, Sonia Gandhi's achievements would seem more modest. In 1999, she polled 67.12 per cent from Amethi, and in 2004, she polled 58.75 per cent from Rae Bareli.
Rae Bareli can do better for the sake of its beloved "Soniaji." After all, the constituency knows the value of its Nehru-Gandhi connection, and knows too that "sacrifice" is integral to the clan's mass appeal. So when the head of the family gives up prized posts and rushes to be with her "people" in the full glare of the international media, it is inconceivable that they will let her down. Gushes a Congress worker: "Don't call it an election, it is a people's movement."
Yet for all this fervour, there are practical problems to consider, the May heat in the Hindi heartland being among them. Even with a majority of the votes polled going in Ms. Gandhi's favour, the margin cannot be huge without a higher turnout. There is genuine fear that the elderly will resist coming out; that voters will be complacent knowing Ms. Gandhi will win. In 1984, Arun Nehru polled 70 per cent on a voter turnout of 59.63 per cent. Ms. Gandhi's 2004 election saw a turnout of only 48.42 per cent.
Hence the frenzied activity in Pande Kothi. Orders have gone out that by next week, each polling booth ought to have its own supervisory committee. To be sure, the party machinery will roll out the usual spectacle posters, banners, motorcycle rallies, etc. but the emphasis will be on door-to-door contact. Says Mr. Singh: "You will soon see the booth committees in a competition to mobilise voters; each booth will want to set the record both for turnout and vote margin." The Rahul Gandhi factor adds to the urgency. Party workers say that the junior Gandhi is a hard taskmaster who will want to verify every detail: "It is not enough that we go door to door, we have to prove that we went."
Confusion among opponents
The Congress is helped by the confusion among its opponents. With the Samajwadi Party choosing to field a weakling, the Congress' biggest threat was the Uma Bharti-backed Apna Dal candidate, Prabha Singh Lodhi. A newcomer to electoral politics, Ms. Lodhi was hopelessly placed against the charisma of Ms. Gandhi. Yet with the feisty sanyasin behind her, there was a chance that she could nibble at Ms. Gandhi votes and reduce her victory margin. In itself that would have been an achievement for Ms. Lodhi and Ms. Bharti. That calculation has been dealt a blow by the emergence of Vinay Katiyar as the Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate. Ms. Bharti's calling card is that she represents the twin attributes of mandal and mandir. But so does Mr. Katiyar. Ms. Bharti is known for her colourful denunciation of Ms. Gandhi. Mr. Katiyar has been no less visceral about Ms. Gandhi. Unsurprisingly, the sanyasin's reaction is sharp. "If the BJP was serious, it would have fielded Lal Krishna Advani against Sonia," she fumes.
Ms. Bharti knows as does the BJP that the competition is for the second place. Neither can afford to let the other win. There cannot be a better launch pad for Ms. Bharti's new party than the BJP's rout in Rae Bareli; that will prove her claim that her parent party is a mere shell, "a body without a soul." Also that she is the "real BJP." For this very reason, the BJP needs to finish ahead of Ms. Bharti's candidate.
Which is why the party pressed the reluctant Mr. Katiyar into the campaign.
It is a given that Ms. Bharti and Mr. Katiyar will both make vicious personal attacks on the Congress chief. But the competitive rabble-rousing can only strengthen Ms. Gandhi in a constituency fiercely protective of the family. Rae Bareli is unique for lavishing attention on the Gandhis even as it rejects the Congress. Of the five MLAs from Ms. Gandhi's parliamentary constituency, not one is from the Congress. Yet field a member of the Gandhi clan for Parliament and Rae Bareli rises as one to support him or her from Feroze Gandhi to Indira Gandhi to Sonia Gandhi. In Rae Bareli, history is on the side of the Gandhis. Nonetheless, party managers do not want anything left to chance.
More significantly, the stakes have suddenly become high for all parties in an election that was seen as a mere formality. Post her second "renunciation," Ms. Gandhi must win with a higher margin. The BJP and Ms. Bharti must strive to bring down that margin. They must also engage in a bitter fight to push the other to the third place.