Neerja Chowdhury reports from Phulpur where Rahul Gandhi kicked off Congress campaign for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
It was not the usually mild mannered Rahul Gandhi reading from a prepared speech seen at Phulpur on Monday, but an angry young man who adopted an aggressive stance against his political rivals, as he kicked off the Congress' poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh from his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru's constituency, on his birth anniversary.
Nothing would change in UP, he said, unless people got angry. "Gussa is baat ka ki garib ke khilaaf kyon atyachar ho raha hai". "Gussa" was a theme that the party general secretary played on with effect as a poll message and a strategy.
When he saw the "bhrashtachar" and the "goondagardi" in UP, "mujhe gussa aata hai", Rahul said. There was a time, when Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav also used to get angry, he said. "But today the anger in them has died down and it is only a lust for power, after which they are running," he said taking a swipe at the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party leaders.
The photographs on hoardings, posters, and in newspaper ads in Allahabad showed Rahul as angry -- or reflective -- and not just as a happy, dimpled face, and the slogan used was also an aggressive one: "Jawab hum daenge".
The Congress realides that in UP, Rahul Gandhi has to contend with the aggressive politics of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Both the BSP and the SP leaders had scored in the past when they adopted assertive positions.
At Phulpur, Rahul Gandhi also displayed his willingness to lead from the front. "Sometimes I think, why don't I go to Lucknow and fight your battle," Rahul Gandhi said, urging the youth to rise and fight.
While he is clearly not the Congress' chief ministerial candidate in the forthcoming state polls, his words indicated that the battle for UP would now be fought under his leadership. So far there has been division in the party circles whether, given the Congress' weak organisational position, he should get identified so closely with the party's campaign, since he is seen as the ace up the party's sleeve for 2014.
Referring to people from UP compelled to go out to seek work, he asked the youth gathered at Trivenipuram grounds at Ghoosi, "Kab tak sahoge? Kab tak Punjab maen kaam talash karoge, kab tak Maharashtra maen bheekh mangte rahoge?" "Maain is cheese ka Jawab chahta hoon," he asked.
"No one can save UP till the janata here wakes up, and decides to bring change. Till this happens, you will get the government of one caste or the other. It will not be UP ki sarkar or aam admi ki sarkar," Rahul said, speaking extempore for 25 minutes without referring to notes. The young Gandhi has clearly emerged as the only weapon in the Congress' armoury in UP.
The thrust of Rahul's speech, which is supposed to set the tone for the party's poll campaign, was to position the Congress as an organisation, committed to the poor and the aam admi.
"We will bring the Food Security Bill in the winter session which gives the right to food to every Indian," he said to an enthusiastic response. "The question is whether UP will get that 'bhojan' or will it be cornered by the BSP contractors and criminals?"
Outlining the Congress' plan, the AICC general secretary announced that his party would bring a strong Lokpal Bill in the winter session of Parliament and give the Lokpal a constitutional status enjoyed by the Election Commission of India.
Just as Mayawati has made Rahul Gandhi the main target of her attack in recent days, almost projecting the UP battle to be a Mayawati vs Rahul fight, so also Rahul Gandhi took her on as the Congress' main adversary, and said she had established a mafia rule in UP. Her government was misusing the funds sent by the Centre for the poor
Both are angling for the support of the same constituency. The Jatavs amongst the Dalits remain firmly with Mayawati, and she is desperately trying to woo the Brahmins -- and held a special conclave in Lucknow -- whose support to her in 2007 had ensured her a clear majority. But this time the Brahmins are disenchanted with her, but still undecided and keeping their cards close to their chest. The Muslims would support the Congress provided other communities -- particularly the Brahmins -- back the party.
Rahul made only passing references in his speech to Mulayam Singh Yadav's SP, when he referred to criminality during his regime, and even less to the BJP, who he criticised by innuendo for trying to prevent the Land Acqusition Bill now before the Standing Committee of Parliament.
Rahul Gandhi used the occasion to sharply rebut those doubting Thomases who often referred to his visits to Dalit homes as politically inconsequential events.
He had been in politics for seven years, he said, but it was the poor of UP who had taught him politics. "Unless the neta eats the poor person's roti, he will never be able to understand the problems of poverty. Unless he drinks the dirty water from his well, and suffers disease as a result, he will never be able to understand poverty."
Visits to the home of the poor, be it in Bundelkhand, or Bhatta Parsaul or in the Mirzapur-Bhadohi belt, had helped him to put policy initiatives in place, he said. The prime minister had sanctioned a financial package for Bundelkhand, an amended land acquisition bill to compensate the farmers was on the anvil, and there was a package to help revive the livelihood opportunities of the weavers, and money now expected to go directly to the weavers themselves.
At the end of the meeting, Rahul handed over Congress flags to 10 Union Ministers and MPs from UP, as they are now tasked with carrying out yatras in specific areas covering the entire state. These will culminate in a big rally in Lucknow in January. The party is now working to a schedule that the UP poll will be held in February along with elections in Punjab an Uttarakahnd.
Even as Rahul Gandhi seemed to enthuse the youth in his audience, the real challenge before the Congress is the Congress party itself -- the division in its ranks and the flabbiness of its leaders, who have become unused to working, or mobilising, at the grassroots.