Amethi, Uttar Pradesh: If Rahul Gandhi wanted to better understand India’s ills, why bother leaving his constituency?
The question looms in Amethi, a seat that has passed hands from one family member to another, down four generations and six decades. And so over the last few months, as Gandhi traversed the nation to “discover India”, as the media dubs it, in planes, trains and helicopters—to Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka—many here watched bitterly.
“Rahul is the name and fame of Amethi but the ground level work is zero,” said Ram Singh Raghuvanshi, an advocate and mango farmer. “Rahul Gandhi is making a tour of India, playing cricket with children, distributing toffees. It is all a political drama. That will not help the people of Amethi.”
Still, in the hopes that his representative in Parliament might help him at least, Raghuvanshi lined up this week to see Gandhi as he ventured back “home”, really just a guest house attached to a new eye hospital. Raghuvanshi’s desire: a job for his daughter, preferably at Kingfisher Airlines. He carried her photograph, her diploma from an air hostess school in Lucknow, even a certificate she received: first place in a salad-making competition.
Perhaps pampered, perhaps neglected, the constituency’s criticism and deeply personal expectations reflect the complex climb faced by the Congress party and the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty as they cling to a populist ideology.
In many ways, Amethi’s concerns reflect much of the nation’s. Have party leaders lived up to their promise of uplifting the poor? Or, have they perpetuated corruption, mismanagement of programmes and tussles with state governments?
The questions—and the timing of Gandhi’s visit—became even more relevant in the days before a 22 July session in New Delhi where members of Parliament will vote for or against the ruling party and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
The so-called trust vote paves the way for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push for a nuclear deal between India and the US, an alliance the Left parties have protested.
In Amethi, no one is losing sleep over the nuclear deal. Here, it is water pumps, schools, employment that get people worked up. And it is these issues Gandhi says he wants to tackle. “Our overall strategy has been development,” Gandhi, also the general secretary of the Congress, said over and over.
On Tuesday, as he met lawyers in Gauriganj, a session closed to the media even as his voice bellowed outside through a microphone, Gandhi listed the various institutes he is trying to bring to the region and accused Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh, where Amethi is located, is ruled by the Bahujan Samaj Party, a Congress rival) of “blocking” him. He spoke slowly, carefully, deliberately; an aide later said the people of Amethi have great expectations of the Gandhis. Sometimes, they need to be told why things are not working.
Indeed, to a newcomer’s eye, Amethi seems to have a lot going for it: banks, stores, a major employer in the form of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. To even call this south-western pocket of Sultanpur district a village feels a misnomer. There are two-lane roads, public hand pumps, all means of public transport imaginable: buses, trains, horse-drawn tongas, and auto rickshaws.
Remind the locals of their good fortune, though, and they will readily lead you off Amethi’s main drags to muddied bylanes where even jeeps struggle to pass.
Devi Prasad Soni will present a dozen photocopied concession certificates certifying his son Dharmendra, 21, as blind. He now needs a job.
Ram Kripal Gupta, who owns a tea shop, will ask whether getting a Delhi Public School franchise is possible here. He adds that the power cuts are unbearable.
And Sunil Kumar Soni, 19, will ask you to write down his roll number—7565—and see if you can get him into the Footwear Design and Development Institute nearby.
A complaint session that began with three local residents soon swells to more than 40.
Rahul Gandhi’s father, Rajiv, they say, was better. But pressed to detail exactly why, they grow silent. “The railway station,” offers Gupta.
“He built a blanket factory,” adds Raghuvanshi. “Oh, but it closed down.”
Raghuvanshi then recounts his meeting with Rahul Gandhi that morning. “The answer was not to my satisfaction. When someone is asking for a job, you don’t say ‘We’ll see.’”
What do you say?
Raghuvanshi has no answer. The road in front of his 15-acre mango grove is also quite smooth. “Oh that,” he says, dismissively, “that was given to us by Mayawati.”
His reference is to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. But sure enough, as night falls, Amethi remains dark, houses lit by flickering candles.
The people’s politician
It is clear Gandhi is trying to connect. Consider the scene in Salon, a town closer to Sonia Gandhi’s seat in Rai Bareli. Locals lined up, loud music played, chants of support for Rahul Gandhi filled the air—hours before he arrived to speak at the local college.
As his signature green Qualis pulled up, the chants of “Long live Rahul Gandhi” boomed in unison. He laughed, relented and got down from the car.
Savita Gupta, 18, commutes home from an institute where she learns stitching. Photograph: S Mitra Kalita
A microphone squeaking, Gandhi casually cast it aside and just spoke his message to the crowd: “I am running late,” he said in Hindi. “If you have problems, please go to the Munshiganj office.”
He then stepped his way through pools of mud, piles of onlookers and security detail to get back in the car and attend the next group awaiting.
Indeed, Gandhi is not a roaring orator by any stretch of the imagination. The “plain-speaking” style, he said in an interview off the sidelines of a news conference, was the real him, even as observers say he is taking a page from his father’s political notebook.
Even as he tries to find his way, that lineage is impossible to shake, making comparisons of his personable style to the US presidential candidate Barack Obama, who entered politics from the fray, void of legacy, seem nonsensical.
As he was introduced at a programme to inaugurate a housing scheme for Dalits, for example, a supporter said, “Rahul is taking us in the same road that Indiraji and Rajivji laid down for us.”
Gandhi, though, went on to talk about the need for the youth to step up and lead.
It is unclear whether the appearances are connecting with people. Gandhi has barred media from attending many events, and met constituents behind closed doors this week at the guest house. An aide said it is because Gandhi feels he cannot be “free and frank” with reporters listening in, possibly misquoting him and leading to more controversy (once, he said his family was responsible for the partition of Bangladesh in 1971, or if they had been in power, the Babri Masjid massacre could have been averted).
But gaffes are a part of the game and Gandhi, of all people, is savvy enough to know that. His reticence seems more a part of his testing and playing the field, not gauging India per se but gauging India’s reaction to him — and his party.
In Amethi, residents publicly continue to adore and admire. He sits in the front seat of the Qualis, leading a caravan of security, advisers, medical professionals and, of course, journalists.
Security officers say suddenly their job has become most complicated; it is not clear when or where Gandhi will stop next.
On Thursday, after invoking memories of his father’s early efforts to deregulate and praising the Prime Minister’s actions during the nuclear deal, Gandhi prepared to leave his political home. Pulling away, Gandhi waved out the window. “Good luck,” one journalist called out.
For a change, Gandhi didn’t pause before response, “I don’t need luck.”