New Delhi: Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president Mayawati, who seems to have been wrong-footed by the timing and the scale of the land-acquisition strife in the state, on Thursday launched her counter-attack on the Congress, signalling that both parties have launched their campaigns in earnest ahead of elections due there next year.
Seeking to capitalize on what is rapidly turning out to be an emotive issue, national leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is also struggling to regain ground in the state, joined the agitation and were arrested on Thursday in Ghaziabad.
Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi was briefly detained on Wednesday night after visiting the site of violent clashes between protesting farmers and police over the acquisition of land for building the 165km Yamuna Expressway connecting Delhi and Agra. The state government had restricted access to the Bhatta and Parsaul villages where farmers and police clashed at the weekend, leaving four people dead.
A visibly disturbed Mayawati, who had earlier been irked by Gandhi’s visits to Dalit homes, addressed a news conference in Lucknow and criticized the Congress party general secretary for indulging in “mean theatrics”. Both Mayawati and state cabinet secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh, who addressed the media at midnight on Wednesday, claimed the clashes in the Bhatta-Parsaul villages in Greater Noida had nothing to do with the compensation for land.
“By spreading lies and rumours, opposition parties are attempting to disturb law and order situation by misleading people and the Bhatta-Parsaul incident is an example of their dirty politics,” Mayawati told reporters in Lucknow on Thursday.
The chief minister then went on to point out that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had been dragging its feet on the proposal to bring in new legislation to replace the Land Acquisition Act 1894.
“I would like to tell ‘Yuvraj’ (Rahul Gandhi) that whatever struggle he has to do, he should do in his home first, as the decision is in the hands of the Centre,” the chief minister said. “It seems that he is not being heard in his own home and he is venting his frustration by indulging in mean dramatics.”
Gandhi, son of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, is perceived as a future prime ministerial candidate of the ruling Congress.
Admitting a new law is necessary, home minister P. Chidambaram said: “The government drafted this (a new law)... (with) better compensation, better rehabilitation and related provisions. But it was not possible to build consensus around that law because without a consensus we can’t pass the law in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.”
The UPA will introduce the legislation in the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament, he said.
Political analysts see Gandhi’s proactive stance as an attempt to turn the electoral battle in the state into a direct contest between the BSP and the Congress.
“Rahul Gandhi is being very aggressive in mobilizing the forces and it’s clear that he wants the Congress to come to the forefront. But how far he will be able to sustain the momentum he has created is to be seen,” said Badri Narayan, an Uttar Pradesh-based analyst specializing in Dalit affairs as well as politics.
Significantly, BJP MP Varun Gandhi, who is also the cousin of Rahul Gandhi, broke with party ranks and supported the Congress party general secretary’s stance.
Assembly elections are due in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state which sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha.
However, the BSP extends issue-based support to the Congress-led UPA government at the centre.
While most of the key political players were quick to join battle with the BSP, Uttar Pradesh’s main opposition Samajwadi Party (SP) virtually “missed the bus”, say political observers.
“The Samajwadi Party has not been able to come forward on this issue as it should have,” said S.K. Dwivedi, a professor of political science at Lucknow University. He, however, pointed out that the Congress lacks the organizational strength to replace SP as the main opposition in the state.
Rasheed Masood, a Rajya Sabha member of the SP, said, “It is not as if we are not involved in the people’s agitation. In fact it was our leaders, Mohan Singh, Shivpal Yadav and others who went there first with solidarity and were arrested by Mayawati.”
Elizabeth Roche, Appu Esthose Suresh of Mint and Bloomberg and PTI contributed to this story.