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September 3, 1999
T V R Shenoy
Why is it that not a single Nehru-Gandhi family head has chanced his or her luck with Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, or Calcutta?
I received a call from a friend, a fellow journalist, just before I sat down to write this column. He was going down to Bellary to cover the Sonia Gandhi-Sushma Swaraj contest, and wanted my advice. "Don't forget to carry bottles of water!" was the first thing that came to mind.
Only later did it strike me what my first reaction said of half a century of Congress rule: despite being the most loyal of constituencies Bellary's voters don't have access to clean drinking water. The electorate there have elected Congress nominees 12 successive times, but what have those voters received in return?
Given this history of neglect, I was a little taken aback when I heard Sonia Gandhi's election pitch. There was lots of highly emotive stuff about "Indiramma" and her "amar prem" for Rajiv Gandhi, but nothing about Bellary itself. "Because my mother-in-law had such close links with the people of Karnataka!" was her response when the media asked her why she had chosen Bellary.
Having been to Bellary -- and I shall go down again before returning to vote in Delhi -- all I can say is that "Indiramma" obviously didn't like rural Karnataka enough to provide it with a decent supply of water...
Of course, that nonsense wasn't much of an answer in the first place. It was from Chikmagalur, not Bellary, that Indira Gandhi stood when she lost from Rae Bareilly in 1977. Of course, in 1998, Chikmagalur too fell to the BJP's Sreekantappa -- as did Rae Bareilly -- which may explain why Sonia prudently stayed away. Even the Congress president seemed to sense that such appeals to the past weren't having much effect on the voters -- which explains why she abruptly turned to the future.
From being the daughter-in-law of Indira and the wife of Rajiv, Sonia Gandhi suddenly cast herself in another light -- as the mother of Priyanka. (This is not a very good omen; Indira Gandhi entered politics as Pandit Nehru's daughter, her downfall began in 1977 when she was perceived as Sanjay's mother.) But the whole sordid drama drives home the point that the Congress has little to commend itself except for the dynasty.
But will the magic of the Nehru-Gandhi name still work come the fifth of September? The answers differed depending upon whom I asked in Bellary. Or, to be more precise, where in Bellary I asked. People there define their habitation as either "towards the river" or "away from the river." The closer one is to the river -- remember there is no functioning water supply -- the greater the chance of being prosperous in this rural constituency. And prosperity, in turn, brings along other benefits -- such as literacy.
There is a direct correlation between voting for the Congress and the place where you live in Bellary. The more prosperous and more educated a voter is, the less likely he or she is to choose a Congress nominee. Contrariwise, the illiterate are far more likely to vote for the Congress. That, by the way, is true of India as a whole, not just Bellary -- a fact that has been realised by every Nehru-Gandhi who made a serious bid for the prime ministership.
The clan claims Allahabad as its home but no senior Nehru-Gandhi has stood before the politically sophisticated voters of that ancient city. Jawaharlal Nehru picked rural Phulpur. Indira Gandhi's constituencies of choice were Rae Bareilly, Chikmagalur, and Medak. Sanjay, Rajiv, and now Sonia Gandhi opted for Amethi. And the last named has added Bellary to that list. Not one of those seats is in an urban area.
Why is it that not a single Nehru-Gandhi family head has chanced his or her luck with Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, or Calcutta? Not one of them has stood from one of the relatively prosperous states such as Punjab or Maharashtra. Not one of them has stood from a state with the literacy levels of a Kerala or a Bengal. The inevitable conclusion is that the Congress feeds off illiteracy and poverty.
(By the way. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is standing from the capital of Uttar Pradesh, L K Advani from the capital of Gujarat, and Dr Murli Manohar Joshi from Allahabad. For good measure, Mamata Bannerjee, a BJP ally, is standing from a Calcutta constituency.)
"Garibi hatao!" was Indira Gandhi¹s famous rallying cry in 1971. Had she kept her word, the Congress too might have been demolished. But as long as voters are too busy worrying about daily necessities such as water -- as in Bellary -- they might just continue voting for the Congress out of habit. Or will they?
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