The Congress strategy is to reach out to the rural poor as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has successfully displaced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the middle class hero. Anita Katyal reports
Having lost the urban middle class voter to a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress is focusing its attention in wooing and consolidating its traditional support base of the rural poor and underprivileged.
This has become apparent from the tone and tenor of Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s speeches and will get more pronounced when campaigning for the forthcoming assembly elections picks up.
The Congress has devised a strategy to reach out to the rural poor as it is aware that BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has successfully displaced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the middle class hero. The Congress had won handsomely in urban centres in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections primarily because of the PM’s image and economic policies that had paid rich dividends for city dwellers.
While the PM’s policies on economic liberalisation ensured that the Congress occupied the right of centre space, Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s pro-poor image and her left of centre leanings endeared her to the party’s traditional voter in the country’s hinterland. She was seen as the chief architect of UPA-I’s farm loan waiver scheme and the rural job guarantee programme.
As the 2014 Lok Sabha polls draw close and the party prepares for crucial assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, Rahul Gandhi has little choice but to follow in his mother’s footsteps given that the party is battling charges of corruption and poor governance while inflation and the ongoing economic slowdown have taken the sheen off the UPA-II government.
“Since we have lost the support of the urban middle classes, our party has to ensure the consolidation of rural poor voters and that’s exactly what Rahul Gandhi is doing,” said a senior Congress minister. But he argued that this is not a departure from the stance adopted so far by the Congress vice-president. Rahul Gandhi had taken up the cause of farmers and tribals in Bhatta Parsaul and Niyamgiri, and made a conscious effort to reach out to Dalits through his occasional sleepover at their homes, the minister said.
Another senior Congress leader rued that the party did not have a leader who could successfully wean away urban voters from Modi who has concentrated on wooing them both through his rallies in cities as well as effective and extensive use of social media.
Rahul Gandhi is adding more than a dash of emotion in his speeches with references to his grandmother Indira Gandhi, and parents Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. The purpose is to tug at the heartstrings of people, play on the recall value of his family members and constantly remind the rural voter that it was Indira Gandhi who had laid the foundation of the Congress party’s pro-welfare programmes with her ‘garibi hatao’ slogan. Both his grandmother and father had sacrificed their lives for the country, Rahul Gandhi told a public rally in Rajasthan.
While painting the Congress as the saviour of the poor with constant references to the recently enacted food and land bills, Rahul Gandhi has projected the BJP as a party of the rich and privileged.
Addressing an election rally in the Rahatrgarh of Sagar district of Bundelkhand region in Madhya Pradesh on Thursday, Rahul Gandhi did just that. Taking on Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Congress vice-president said he was far removed from concerns of the poor.
“The BJP's politics is the politics of air-conditioners and industrialists,” he said, adding that the BJP had deep reservations about the pro-poor food and land bills.
“When it came to giving food to the poor, the BJP opposed the food bill and asked where the government would get the funds for it,” he said.
Speaking about the new Land Acquisition Bill promising higher compensation for acquired land, Rahul Gandhi emphasised that it was the Congress which had pushed for it as the party wanted the farmer and the labourer to get the market rate for his land.
The Congress VP went on to empathise with the suffering of the poor. “Who is going to feed the poor? Will building roads and airports give them food? The Congress believes in doing both -- building infrastructure as well as providing food for the poor,” he said.
He, once again, invoked his grandmother Indira Gandhi saying that she used to talk about basic needs of the poor like roti, kapda aur makan , adding that today the poor are saying poori roti khayenge, Congress party layenge.
Rahul Gandhi’s speech evoked an immediate response from Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who said, “Congress VP says BJP's politics is of air-conditioning ... and royal ways. How ill informed one can be," he said on Twitter.
Although demoralised over the party’s falling graph, Congress leaders are feeling encouraged by Rahul Gandhi’s hard hitting speeches in which he launched a full-scale attack against the BJP and his outreach to their traditional constituency forcing them to react.
“Not only is Rahul Gandhi grabbing eyeballs and headlines, he is also setting the agenda, if the reactions of BJP leaders are anything to go by,” said a senior Congress leader. Justifying the emotional pitch in Rahul Gandhi’s speeches, he said, this may not work in urban areas but it proves very effective in rural areas. “As far as the urban voter is concerned, the head rules over the heart but rural voters are all heart,” he added.
This has been the Congress game plan ever since Rahul Gandhi kick started his election campaign with a rally in Rajasthan’s Salumbar, which is dominated by tribals.
It is the same thread which has been running through his speeches since then and will continue on similar lines in the coming days as Rahul Gandhi hard sells the food and land bills as two key legislation which, according to him, will change the lives of the poor in the country.