Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s “kisan yatra” continues to roll through Uttar Pradesh. In advance of the Assembly elections due early in 2017, Mr. Gandhi is on a >Deoria-to-Delhi trek , and in its early days he has managed to keep the spotlight on his presence in various ways. His “khaat sabhas” created a flutter as some rural folk, invited to sit around informally, >took off with the stringed cots . The subsequent wisecracks by political opponents about Congress workers struggling to stop the flight of the khaats were, wisely, dovetailed into the message of acute rural distress that the party is seeking to amplify. A poor farmer making off with a freebie as basic as a charpoy >was being called a thief , said Mr. Gandhi, taking aim at the BJP government at the Centre, while flamboyant businessmen who dupe banks were being politely referred to as defaulters. So far, Mr. Gandhi has taken >pot shots at all his opponents : he said the elephant (the election symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party) has eaten away everything, the cycle (symbol of the ruling Samajwadi government) is punctured, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes selfies with the powerful, not with ordinary farmers. If this gives the appearance of indiscriminate attacks on all foes, the strategy may in fact be rather more carefully calibrated. The Congress must know it has no chance of succeeding in its avowed aim of winning the election alone — but to count as a political force in U.P. and at the national level, the party needs to be seen to be backing itself, and being the primary spokesperson of the electorate’s aspirations.
That these roadshows are not about U.P. alone is obvious from the absence from the frame of the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate, Sheila Dikshit. Whether the roadshows will meet with the level of success that Sonia Gandhi’s 2004 campaign through U.P. or Mr. Gandhi’s own 2009 mobilisation did is still uncertain. Each of those journeys through U.P. gave the Congress the ability to throw its voice farther on the national stage. Those were, however, Lok Sabha campaigns, in which the Congress has tended to fare better than in State elections. For instance, it got 21 (out of 80) Lok Sabha seats in 2009, but three years later managed just 28 (out of 404) Assembly seats. Since then, in the singular summer of 2014 the BJP’s campaign left the Congress and the two regional giants witless. So the Congress campaign is being waged as much against the incumbent government in Lucknow as that in New Delhi. Mr. Gandhi’s media managers have succeeded in moderating the surround sound of the yatra — with no sectional vote base anymore, the Congress now has the opportunity to unveil a cohesive, inclusive manifesto.