Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday renewed his demand for change in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh as he embarked on a five-day campaign to rally support for his party, part of a strategy aimed at reviving its fortunes in the politically crucial state.
Coming down heavily on the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Gandhi said chief minister Mayawati was trying to “kill the land acquisition Bill”, which he said was initiated by the Congress party to help farmers whose land had been acquired forcibly in Tappal and Bhatta Parsaul in western Uttar Pradesh.
He said the Congress had kept its promises to the poor by implementing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Rs.7,000 crore farm loan waiver programme. He alleged that the Mayawati-led government was misusing welfare funds released by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre.
Gandhi also attacked the Samajwadi Party-led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, saying that it was not fighting for the poor and farmers. He reiterated that political leaders should come down to the grass roots level to understand issues affecting people.
“The day when a government for the poor and the common man comes here, change will begin,” he said, urging the crowd of around 30,000 people to vote for the Congress to ensure that the people of the state get jobs in Uttar Pradesh instead of having to travel to other parts of the country to seek employment.
Gathering support: Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally in Babrala, Uttar Pradesh, on Tuesday. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
“Change will begin in five years,” said Gandhi, who spoke for more than 30 minutes. “I will give you in writing that in 10 years people will start coming to see what’s happening in UP... awake, rise and change UP.”
Others who addressed the meeting were Union coal minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, state unit leaders Pramod Tiwari and Rita Bahuguna Joshi, Salim Sherwani, a veteran Muslim leader of the region, and the Congress candidate from Gunnaur, Ajit Yadav.
Sherwani recalled former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s father. The elder Gandhi’s efforts had led to a fertilizer plant run by the Tata group being set up in Babrala. “Bring the Congress back to power for the growth of Uttar Pradesh,” Sherwani said.
The campaign in the region that’s dominated by other backward classes (OBCs), mainly Yadavs and Lodhs, and Muslims, is considered a significant one for the Congress, which is desperate to revive its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh.
Winning support in this region is critical for the Congress to gain an edge over the SP to win the support of the crucial Muslim votes in the state, political observers said. Muslims, who constitute around 19% of the state’s population, can influence the electoral verdict in almost half the state’s 403 seats.
The Congress is also eyeing the votes of OBCs, most of whom are upset with Mayawati, and the resentment among the Yadavs who have been consistently backing Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Rahul Gandhi’s tour began with a public rally in Gunnaur constituency, where Mulayam Singh Yadav himself has won twice in the last two decades. It will cover the constituencies of key SP leaders Dharmendra Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav, nephew and son, respectively, of the party leader.
However, political observers warn that too obvious an overture to Muslims may irk the Brahmins, who currently favour Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, consolidating the Hindu vote behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
With Congress seeking to make a strong showing, the region is expected to witness a four-cornered fight involving the BSP, which still has considerable support, the SP, Congress and the BJP, which enjoys the backing of the Lodhi-Rajputs. The Lodhi-Rajputs are expected to back the BJP after the return of former chief minister Kalyan Singh to the fold.
In Sahaswan and Bilsi, both Muslim-dominated constituencies, Gandhi repeated his call for change. His criticism of Mulayam Singh Yadav was sharper in Bilsi, casting doubt on his commitment towards the poor.
“Change can be brought only by you,” he told the crowd. The Congress’ attempt to eat into the SP vote share is evident from the seat distribution. Its candidates in Sahaswan and Bilsi, Yogendra Kunnu Babu and Brajpal Sakia, respectively are former SP legislators. “The Congress’ ticket distribution in this region will definitely affect the SP’s prospects adversely,” said Anand Swaroop in Babrala.
Backing up the Congress bid to woo Muslims was Digvijay Singh’s attack on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He also reiterated the role that Hindu fundamentalists allegedly played in some terror attacks in his speech in Sahaswan. According to Anurag Wasnik, a small shopkeeper in Bilsi, the Congress won’t get much support from Muslims as it hasn’t fielded a candidate from the community as has the BSP.
But a Muslim woman who attended Gandhi’s public meeting, said: “The Muslims here are sick of Mayawati. She was a chief minister only for the Jatavs.”
However, the ruling BSP will remain the main target of the Congress, said Sudhir Panwar, a professor of Lucknow University.
“The Congress, SP and the BSP are fighting for Muslim votes. But the forthcoming election will be the first poll in which the Muslims in the state will cast a positive vote because they don’t fear the BJP’s coming to power,” Panwar said.