Kanpur: Rahul Gandhi, the fashionably bestubbled 36-year-old heir apparent of India’s ruling political dynasty, is facing his first real test of political mettle: Can he save the Congress party from irrelevance here in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the Nehru-Gandhi family’s home base?
And so, with elections starting here on Saturday, his part rock star, part royalty roadshow tore through the state this week in an effort to boost party morale. He waved, smiled, addressed adoring crowds who waited and wilted for hours in the heat and, at every stop, he left a carpet of rose petals flung by his fans.
He delivered hazy nationalist appeals for voters of all stripes to unite behind the Congress. He denounced “goonda raj”, a pointed jab at the Samajwadi Party government in the state. He said he wanted to promote “the new mindset” of the Indian youth.
He promised nothing specific, except the very grandest of ambitions. “What doors were closed for Congress, I will open them,” he told his audience in Bharthana, a small town near here and a Samajwadi Party stronghold.
The tour left little doubt of Gandhi’s crowd-pulling ability. Women stood on rooftops to watch his helicopter touch down in suffocating swirls of dust. There were near-stampedes at some stops.
Here in Kanpur, so many hands had pressed his that by the end of the evening, they were swathed in bandages.
It is, however, far from certain whether his stumping will help to draw back voters who have abandoned the Congress in droves in recent years.
Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, India’s main opposition party, dismissed his foray. “He doesn’t know how to speak,” Satish Mahana, a state legislator from the BJP, said with a swipe of his hand. “He’s just moving around.”
The most pressing challenges of India prevail here in Uttar Pradesh: poverty, corruption and elections that are driven almost entirely by caste and religious loyalties. For the Congress, which leads the coalition government at the Centre, its fate in the state matters. The outcome of this race is likely to be seen as a political bellwether with national elections looming in 2009. It is likely to signal what kind of deals the two major national parties—the Congress and the BJP—will have to strike with smaller regional or caste-based parties once the national contest begins. And of course it will bear heavily on Gandhi’s own standing.
“Rahul Gandhi has staked his personal political capital,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political commentator who is president of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “If the Congress does well, it’ll be a huge, huge boost to his credibility. If it doesn’t make major gains, he’ll appear to be a very diminished crown prince.”
The Congress party, forever hitched to his family, does not hide that Gandhi is being groomed as a potential prime minister, following in the footsteps of his father Rajiv, his grandmother Indira, and his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s founding leader. Mother Sonia, who now heads the party, turned down the prime minister’s chair nearly three years ago, when a Congress-led coalition swept to power. Indeed, pedigree was the one thing that his supporters repeatedly cited. “When we see him, we see Rajiv Gandhi,” Manish Sahu gushed as he waited for the Rahul roadshow to pass through Kanpur.
A poll conducted in late March by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that, of the four major parties, the Congress would fare worst in this state, commanding barely 9% of the total vote. The two front-runners, according to the poll, were local parties that have capitalized on caste and religious divides: the Samajwadi Party, which enjoys overwhelming support among Muslims and Yadavs, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose main constituents are low-caste Dalits. Because elections here are largely won by adding up caste blocs, the Bahujan Samaj Party is wooing upper-caste Brahmins as allies.
Uttar Pradesh, which has 114 million voters, has come to represent the antithesis of India’s recent boom. Economic growth has largely bypassed it. Nearly half of its children under the age of three are malnourished. It sees more murders than any other state: nearly 6,000 in 2005 alone, according to national statistics.
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-profit watchdog group, 130 of the 785 candidates on the ballot in the first phase of the elections—which are staggered over four weeks—face criminal charges. Chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav is under investigation for assets that far exceed his legitimate earnings.
These elections are also seen to be Yadav’s toughest fight, and on Wednesday, at a rally held, perhaps unwittingly, in front of a gun shop, he issued a string of barely concealed appeals to the various blocs he is trying to woo. He told traders he had bucked demands for a national sales tax. He told farmers he would compensate them in the event of natural disasters. He reminded Muslims he had stood up for them during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. And he pledged benefits—from free medicine at government clinics to paved roads to round-the-clock electricity—the very things his opponents have accused him of not providing.
Earlier the same day, the BJP corralled its own largely Hindu upper caste base. In an upper-middle-class neighbourhood here in Kanpur, Mahana, who is seeking his fifth consecutive term, went door to door to pay respects to his most important loyalists. At the doorstep of each house, he was fed sweets and draped with garlands. His campaign workers waved BJP banners, slapped BJP stickers on any blank patch they could find and sang out his praises as “the gem of Kanpur”.
Mahana said his party had for the time being stopped campaigning on what was once its core issue: the building of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya. “All the time when you talk about the same issue, people are fed up with that.” he said. Instead, he said, his party was focusing on issues that resonate more today with voters: rising prices, lawlessness and what it calls the “appeasement” of Muslims by the Congress and the Samajwadi Party.
Gandhi’s approach, meanwhile, was to cast the Congress as being above petty communal loyalties—an umbrella that would somehow protect the interests of all Indians.
“He’s trying to shift the terrain of Uttar Pradesh politics from caste and religion,” said Ramachandra Guha, a historian of Indian politics. “It’s a calculated move.” This has always been his party’s line, he added, though the Congress-led national government has itself actively appealed to caste and religion by proposing, for instance, affirmative action quotas in university admissions and government jobs.
At a news conference here on 4 April, Gandhi sidestepped a local journalist’s question about his own stance on quotas for Muslims, saying only that he saw people as neither Hindu nor Muslim, but as Indians. Indeed, his newness to politics showed at the meeting with reporters, which quickly turned into a spectacle. The cameramen in the back shouted that they couldn’t hear. The local press corps shouted that the Delhi press corps was being favoured. Reporters jostled and shouted. Gandhi’s aides looked on helplessly. Gandhi looked decidedly uncomfortable, until finally the press corps took charge and placed microphones before him.
The one question he answered, somewhat definitively, was to assure everyone that he intended to stay in politics. “For me this is the beginning of a process,” he said. “Successful roadshow, unsuccessful roadshow.”
And then he hurried off for the next roadshow.