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Engaging with diverse sections is Rahul’s forte

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with protesting sanitation workers inEast Delhi, parts of which have turned into giant garbage dumps with anestimated 15,000 tonnes of waste rotting on roadsides in the sweltering heat. Photo: Special Arrangement  

On Friday morning, when Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi sat on the ground in solidarity with striking sanitation workers in East Delhi’s Patparganj, pledging his support to their fight to get long overdue wages, it was not a random solitary act.

It was part of a plan by the Congress to engage with different sections of people defined not by religion or caste but by income and aspiration. So, for instance, while most sanitation workers would be Dalits, in the current urban context, it is their class and occupation that defines them.

Of course, Mr. Gandhi’s effort to break out of the religion-caste syndrome to build new constituencies for the Congress is not new — it goes back to the run-up to the 2014 general elections.

At the AICC session in Delhi on January 17, 2014, he spoke of the need to create a “support base” for the 70 crore Indians who had risen above the poverty line but not yet entered the middle class. Thereafter, he had travelled across the country making his election pitch, repeating his concern for “the hands that build the nation” promising them a “new future,” with “a basic rights and welfare package”.

Focus on farmers

Mr. Gandhi has, of course, focussed on the farming community to strengthen the Congress’s countrywide campaign against the Modi government-sponsored amendments to the 2013 Land Acquisition Act. But he has also been meeting other beleaguered groups.

At the AICC headquarters in Delhi, he met middle-class flat buyers battling the builders’ lobby, and ex-servicemen still battling for “One Rank, One Pension.” He travelled by train to Punjab’s grain markets in Khanna and Gobindgarh to meet farmers. In Kerala’s Thrissur, he met, and shared a meal with, fishermen agitating against a trawling ban by the Centre.

In 2004, the Congress countered the BJP’s “India Shining” message not with its “Congress ka haath, garib ke saath” slogan, but with a winning catchphrase: “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath.” The aam aadmi, or common man, was a nebulous figure, but the description resonated not just with the dispossessed and the poor but also struck a chord with the aspirational and even swathes of the middle class. In the general elections of 2004 and 2009, the new line worked for the Congress. But in 2012, as the UPA government’s image took a hit, a scrappy challenger built a political formation around an anti-corruption movement — and made the Congress’s slogan its own.

The AAP was born and, a year later, it laid the Grand Old Party low in its bastion in Delhi. For the Congress that had seen its pulling power as an umbrella party gradually diminish, with political formations that peaked in the 1990s attracting its core voters on religious, caste and regional lines, the AAP’s rise was the last straw.

Today, as Mr. Gandhi lent his support to Delhi’s sanitation workers, there was some resonance, possibly, because his party is in opposition now.

He is no longer the “rebel within”, he is the leader of the principal Opposition party taking on the government/governments in power. And that makes all the difference.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 2:55:54 AM |

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