Budaun, Uttar Pradesh: Opposition parties may be on the offensive against the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government over illegal money stashed away in foreign banks by Indian citizens, and other scams and scandals that have rocked national politics over the past year.
For Sompati, a 67-year-old widow in Dataganj, Uttar Pradesh, none of these matters. She is bothered about rising food prices, for which she doesn’t blame the Centre. For her, the state government led by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati is an embodiment of corruption because, she said, she hasn’t been able to get her widow pension despite repeated applications.
Sompati was made to open a bank account with Rs 500 for which she had to pay a bribe of Rs 100 to a local politician. Still, she is nowhere nearer to receiving her pension with which she hopes to take care of herself and three daughters, one of whom is also a widow. She sought a neighbour’s help to reach Gangora Inter College ground in Dataganj to attend a rally addressed by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi; her hopes of meeting Gandhi and narrating her story to him didn’t materialize.
On the offensive: Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Badaun on Wednesday. Photo Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, corruption is indeed an issue ahead of crucial state assembly elections next year, but no one is targeting any one party to vent their anger.
“Everybody is the same. There is no point in talking about it,” says Sheeba, a homemaker who lives in Budaun.
There are a myriad issues that vary from place to place. Farmers complain about the price of diesel, the low price they get for their produce; others grumble about rampant corruption at the lower levels, the bribes they have to pay for getting any work done; some are sore about what they perceive as the Mayawati government’s discrimination in favour of her Jatav support base; in Yadav-dominated pockets, people talk of government negligence.
Mint’s Liz Mathew reports from the ground on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
“Nothing moves here unless you have the money to bribe the politicians and the officials. For birth and death certificates and caste certificates, for filing complaints, for anything and everything, we need to pay money,” says Lekraj, a farmer in Shenpur, Kukri.
Gandhi, who is leading the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh, seems to have sensed the people’s resentment over local rather than national issues.
His speeches on Tuesday and Wednesday focused on corruption at the state level, which, he said, had diverted a major chunk of central funds meant for the poor.
“You have given 22 years to them (other parties)…what did you get?” he asked at public rallies in Budaun, Dataganj and Shajahanpur. “Give Congress a chance for five years and next time I will seek votes only on the basis of what we did in the five years.”
In recent years, Uttar Pradesh has been governed by the BSP, the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while the Congress has languished in the political wilderness in the state.
On Wednesday, the second day of his five-day tour of Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi evoked the image of a “magic elephant that eats currency notes”—a reference to the political symbol of the BSP. He said at a rally in Budaun that the state government was misusing money from centrally funded welfare schemes, including the rural job guarantee programme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which ensures 100 days of employment a year to at least one person from every poor household.
“The elephant is eating the MGNREGA funds,” Gandhi said. “Elephants normally eat leaves. But you have a magic elephant in Lucknow that eats currency notes.”
On Thursday, Gandhi is expected to go on the offensive against the SP in the region dominated by other backward classes and Muslims and considered to be a stronghold of Uttar Pradesh’s main opposition party.
Gandhi has been struggling to revive his party’s prospects in the state ahead of the assembly elections.
Salim Sherwani, a party leader who warmed up the audience for Gandhi in Muslim-dominated Budaun, described the Nehru-Gandhi family scion as an advocate for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.
“If you want welfare and progress, only the Congress can bring it,” Sherwani said. “We have to stand behind him like a rock.”