Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh: This pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhi family may be facing several problems ranging from unemployment to a local economy affected by several plants that have closed down, but voters here are posed to elect Congress party president Sonia Gandhi to the Lok Sabha for a second time.
Rae Bareli goes to the polls on Thursday.
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The number of registered unemployed people in the district has gone up from 24,074 in 2004—when Gandhi was elected from here for the first time—to 54,310 by December, according to government data. Meanwhile, the number of government jobs available has gone down from 101 to 12.
“While the number of educated youth seeking employment has increased, job opportunities have fallen,” said an official at the district employment exchange office, who did not want to be identified. “One major reason is that the state government, which is hostile to this district, does not notify any new jobs and hires people from outside.”
Flopped plan: Ram Kumari with her National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or NREGS card. Under NREGS, villagers from Savran, Rae Bareli, were given less than a fortnight of work each to dig a pond. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
There’s no love lost between the Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, who is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Recently, Mayawati and Gandhi were locked in a war of words over the former cancelling an allocation of land for a railway coach factory in the district.
Still, the problem runs much deeper. There are around 100 businesses that have, over the years, shut shop in Rae Bareli, including 20 factories. Many of these have been shut for at least a decade, and some locals claim little has been done to revive them. Companies that have closed units here include RPG Cables Ltd, Nand Ganj Sihori Sugar Mill Co. Ltd, Ganga Asbestos Pvt. Ltd and RBL Textile Mill.
This reporter didn’t reach out to individual companies to ask them reasons for their units being closed. Then, the state-owned Indian Telephone Industries Ltd (ITI) factory in Rae Bareli town is ailing, with the Union government providing it occasional bailout packages.
“There is nothing left here. We don’t get our salaries for three-four months. It is becoming very difficult for workers and many have opted for VRS (voluntary retirement scheme). There are some 100 other industries that remain shut. All this is happening because of the absence of the right atmosphere and policies,” said B.D. Tripathi, president of ITI’s employees’ union. Tripathi belongs to the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the trade union arm of the Congress.
“Sonia Gandhi talked about issues such as development and employment after being voted to power in 2004, but has done nothing since... If she really wanted to do something, nobody could have stopped her,” alleged R.B. Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Rae Bareli.
“Just before the election was notified, they laid the foundation stone for the rail coach factory here,” said another BJP leader, on condition of anonymity. “They (Congress) say Mayawati proved to be a hindrance. Didn’t (railway minister) Lalu Yadav set up a rail coach factory in Bihar, despite an opposition government in power in the state? How could somebody as powerful as Sonia Gandhi be stopped then, if she really intended to establish the factory?”
Javaid Urfi, spokesperson of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee, however, said the state government “had created several hurdles for us from bringing the project here”.
Despite these issues, support for Gandhi remains strong in the constituency.
“We always voted for the Congress and will vote for Sonia Gandhi this time, too. She has done a lot of work for us,” said Ram Lal Chowdhary, who runs a small business ironing clothes.
“I vote for Sonia Gandhi because that is in Rae Bareli’s interest. She has done a lot for us,” said Anita Sonkar, who runs a juice stall.
While people in the constituency have pinned their hopes on Gandhi, even her government’s flagship scheme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) has not really taken off in the area, the BJP’s Singh claimed.
In Savran village of the district, the two ponds dug under the scheme remain dry. “The NREGS has flopped. Nobody has got full payment or enough work. Some two or three ponds have been dug, which are useless, and corruption is rampant,” Singh said.
Deepak Singh, a secretary of the state unit of the Congress party, said: “For NREGS, there’s non-cooperation from the state government.” NREGS promises 100 days of work to one member of a poor rural family.
“Nobody got 100 days of work, though we were all paid for whatever work we did,” said Shravan, who uses only one name, and had worked under the scheme in the village.
Ram Kumari, whose husband worked under the scheme said: “Everybody got work for only 7-10 days. For the other pond, they got Rs100 a day but for this one, we were paid only Rs50 because there were losses.”
Roads and education, however, are areas that have shown improvement in the past five years. New roads have been laid and various plans for improvement of existing roads have been passed and several private schools and vocational training institutes have also been set up in the district. Ryan International School, the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Footware Design and Development Institute and Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology are a few examples.
An analyst said that none of these issues matter to voters in Rae Bareli. “People there believe that if there is anything positive that anyone can do, it is (Sonia) Gandhi. They don’t think anybody can be better than her,” said Ramesh Dikshit, a professor of political science at Lucknow University.
That doesn’t always work to the benefit of the constituency, he added.
“One has to see that Uttar Pradesh has not had a Congress government since 1989, and other governments have been hostile towards Rae Bareli because it elects members from the Gandhi family, which is also a huge problem.”