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Why Rahul Gandhi's UP yatra has rattled Mayawati

Last updated on: July 13, 2011 09:06 IST

'Gandhi ateet hi nahin, bhavishya bhi'

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Neerja Chowdhury

Will the padyatra and mahapanchayat be stand-alone events or will they become part of a sustained and ongoing movement? That was the question on the minds of many in Uttar Pradesh. Neerja Chowdhury analyses the events and its effect on the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections.

Rahul Gandhi's padayatra and the Aligarh mahapanchayat may not have won the Congress Uttar Pradesh but it has rattled Mayawati and made people in UP look at the Congress with fresh eyes.

By starting his four-day padyatra from Bhatta Parsaul, going on to Aligarh, Rahul underscored the point that he had no intention of giving up on the farmers' issue in UP. Once Mayawati had announced a new compensation policy for UP, following his last visit there, it had seemed that Rahul's campaign had cooled off.

Posters all over Aligarh showed Rahul Gandhi against the backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi, with the words, "Gandhi ateet hi nahin, bhavishya bhi."

The Rahul padyatra may not be comparable to Gandhi's Dandi March, as some Congress leaders stated in their sycophantic speeches, but it did show him reaching out to the farmers in their villages, going to them on foot in hot and sultry weather, sitting with them in their huts and listening to their grievances for all of four days -- something that politicians have forgotten to do.

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Image: Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi during his UP padyatra

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'Nothing banavati in Rahul Gandhi's speech'

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This was not lost on those who had gathered in the Aligarh Numaish Grounds to hear Rahul Gandhi, and many (this writer talked to) commented on it.

Rahul Gandhi's speech in Aligarh -- which could hardly be called political oratory of the kind that UP was once used to from its leaders -- was to the point. "There was nothing banavati about it," as a government official from Aligarh, who went to hear him, remarked.

Rahul took on Mayawati for heading a government of 'land grabbers' but focused entirely on the issues agitating the farmers, the acquisition of their land without adequate compensation.

Rahul's programme of individualised jan sampark was followed up by organisational mobilisation that was evident in Aligarh. Prominent Congress leaders belonging to Uttar Pradesh were all present on the dais reinforcing an impression of unity in an otherwise faction ridden party. Even more important, they had mobilised crowds from their respective areas, on a scale probably not done for a long time.

To some Congress workers, Aligarh was reminiscent of the 'Firozabad spirit', where the party had closed ranks, and from where Raj Babbar had won in a November 2009 bypoll, defeating Mulayam Singh Yadav's daughter-in- law by a huge margin.

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Image: Rahul Gandhi speaks to villagers during his padyatra in Uttar Pradesh

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Thakurs in UP now beginning to look towards Congress

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A closer look at the complexion of the crowd present at the grounds -- as indeed the villages Rahul had visited in the preceding four days -- pointed to the strategy the Congress has decided to adopt in UP. And that appears to be to fashion a Brahmin-Jat-Gujjar-Kurmi-Muslim axis around the issue of farmers.

It is early days yet, but there were indications of Brahmins -- and indeed Thakurs -- in the area visited by Rahul beginning to look towards the Congress. "Rahulji ko dekh kar pandit kuch jhuka hai Congress ki taraf," commented a businessman from Aligarh. "They have felt neglected and don't get the samman in Mayawati's government that they had during the earlier Congress regimes."

The Bharatiya Janata Party's projection of Rajnath Singh, many said, had also annoyed the Brahmins, who had wanted Kalraj Mishra.

There was a large contingent of Jats at the rally, as indeed many office bearers of the Akhil UP Jat Mahasabha who had come from Meerut, Moradabad, Bijnore and Saharanpur. They were quite candid about what they are looking for from Rahul.

Jats have already been given reservations in state services but would now like these to be extended to them in central services within the 27 percent OBC quota. They are the only community, they said, who have not got the benefit of reservations at the Centre, while getting it in the state.

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Image: A village elder blesses Rahul Gandhi
Photographs: Sahim Salim
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'Paradigm shift in the way politics is done in the cow belt'

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They maintained that if Rasahtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh were to join the Union Cabinet, the Jats in UP would 'swing' to the Congress' side. As one of them quipped, "Then we will get reservation in the central services also, if not today, then tomorrow." For the moment that has not happened, despite negotiations, in Tuesday's reshuffle, as there is still no agreement on seat sharing between the two parties.

The Gujjars are concentrated in a small pocket in UP, in Gautam Buddha Nagar and around Dadri, and Union Minister Sachin Pilot, a Gujjar, whose village falls in this area, had spent several days mobilising people from the area for the mahapanchayat. The Jats were of the view that if "there is an understanding with Chaudhary Ajit Singh, and Sachin Pilot can lead a movement in the Gujjar dominated area, the Muslims will cast their lot with the Congress and the party can sweep Western UP."

Pilot himself saw Rahul's latest initiative bringing "a paradigm shift in the way politics is done in the cow belt".

With Mulayam Singh Yadav not taking off as he was expected to -- in the words of a Muslim at the rally , "Mulayam under se khatam ho gaye hain" -- the Muslims, whose decisions are determined by who will defeat the BJP, are waiting to see if the Congress can mobilise the support of other communities.

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Image: Sachin Pilot
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
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'UP Cong leaders have become unused to working hard'

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Knowing the stakes in UP, the ministry of minority affairs is now giving final touches to a plan to give reservation in central service jobs to socially and educationally backward Muslims, in the 27 percent OBC quota, with an eye on the elections in UP, where Muslims comprise 16 percent of the population.

Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh's statements, from Batala House, to Baba Ramdev to rubbishing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, appeared to have gone down well with the Muslims.

The Congress has tried to give a suitable signal to the Kurmis by elevating Beni Prasad Verma to full Cabinet rank in the reshuffle -- his support had made a difference in the 2009 elections.

For many, Rahul Gandhi represents a new energy in what is otherwise a jaded political scenario in Uttar Pradesh. They believe that, given his 'sincerity', it is possible for him to create a 'mahaul' in favour of the Congress -- provided he keeps at it. But given past record, they were not sure he will.

Will the padyatra and mahapanchayat be stand-alone events or will they become part of a sustained and ongoing movement? That was the question on the minds of many at Aligarh. That cannot happen merely with Rahul putting forth a wish list or by waving a magic wand. He will have to galvanise the Congress machinery so that it can start to mobilise people the way it did in Aligarh.

The trouble, however, is that established UP Congress leaders have become 'too soft and flabby and unused to working hard'. There are no indications so far of giving the younger ones prominence or responsibility. Small wonder then that many advocate a tie-up with both Ajit Singh and Mulayam Singh, so as to win in 2012. Otherwise, as they put it, "Mayawati remains strong".

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Image: Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav
Photographs: Reuters
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