Nagla Bitona, Uttar Pradesh: Playing for high stakes, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi launched a mass contact programme on Tuesday and in the process assumed the lead role in his party’s campaign for the crucial electoral contest for the Uttar Pradesh assembly in 2012.
It will be the first time after the 2009 general election, where the Congress swept to power for a second consecutive term, that the general secretary is directly taking charge of the party’s poll campaign. It could serve as a morale booster for the party, which has been struggling to hold its own after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has floundered in its second stint.
Gandhi, who was arrested by the state police during an agitation along with farmers against land acquisition last month, launched a padyatra, or foot march, named the Kissan Sandesh Yatra on Tuesday from Bhatta and Parsaul villages, the epicentre of farmer protests.
Conventionally, mass contact programmes through a padyatra have often paid rich dividends to politicians. The Congress is seeking to position itself as the principal challenger to the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which at this stage still appears to be the frontrunner in the polls due next year.
Grassroots campaign: Rahul Gandhi during his padyatra in Uttar Pradesh. It will be the first time after the 2009 general election that Gandhi is directly taking charge of a party poll campaign. Photograph by Devender Tiwari/Hindustan Times
The fresh campaign led by Gandhi, seen as the ruling Congress party’s future prime ministerial candidate, assumes significance, at a time the UPA government is all set to bring in new legislation to replace an archaic law for acquiring land for infrastructure development and industrial purposes.
The Congress general secretary, who had been denied permission to hold a mahapanchayat (general meeting) in Bhatta-Parsaul, reached the villages early morning, from where he walked to nearby Rustampur, Bhaipur and Nagla Bitona villages.
Digvijay Singh, Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, who was with Gandhi during his first visit, and other senior leaders did not accompany him in his political march on Tuesday.
The march, expected to crisscross villages along the controversial Yamuna Expressway, is likely to end with a political rally in Aligarh, which also saw farmer protests against land acquisition in August.
Experts say Gandhi is the right person to take the risk for the central ruling party in India’s most populous state that sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.
“It is quite natural for Rahul Gandhi to take up the leadership in the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh. It’s a huge risk, but Rahul is the right person to take that risk... No other leader in the Congress has the potential to enthuse the cadre, because he draws euphoria and is a crowd puller,” said A.K. Verma, a Kanpur-based political analyst and head of the department of political science at Christ Church College.
The Amethi parliamentarian appeared to be at ease with his new task, striking a chord with the locals.
Seated comfortably with the village elders under a neem tree, braving the hot and sultry weather in Nagla Bitona, Gandhi listened to the villagers, who were taking turns to explain their woes.
“Nobody has any idea about what’s happening in Uttar Pradesh government’s policies. If someone dares to question, he would be beaten up,” said Hansraj Bharpur even as another villager shouted: “We want justice. The Uttar Pradesh government is brokering for the rich. We are not against development, but in the name of development, this government is cheating farmers.”
In response, Gandhi said: “The world outside does not know much about what’s happening here. Some people do not know what happened to their land; some feel that the rates (at which their land was bought) were cheap. I thought I would listen to you directly. Whatever is happening from Bhatta till Agra, I want to understand.”
Farmers in the region are demanding greater compensation for land earmarked for a new motorway to the city of the Taj Mahal. The 165km, six-lane Yamuna Expressway is due to be completed by October.
“I think the state of Uttar Pradesh is also moving away from the caste-banner-poster politics to class politics because they are exposed to the new variable in politics, i.e. development,” Verma pointed out, though he was sceptical as to whether the party would be able to translate the initiative into votes.
However, the BSP was quick to dismiss Gandhi’s mass contact as a “political stunt”. The party, however, received a setback after the Supreme Court on Tuesday criticized the state government for its violent action against farmers and termed it as “anti-people and a sinister campaign”.
PTI contributed to this story.