Sunday, February 26, 2012

UP in the air The Congress party’s blueprint for elections in Uttar Pradesh envisaged a coalition of castes. But a week before the last day of the poll, Radhika Ramaseshan finds that the strategy seems to have come unstuck

UP in the air

Quite like the Congress party's headquarters in New Delhi, its Lucknow base is bustling with life. The Mall Avenue office is packed with faithfuls and flunkeys, regardless of the fact that the Congress was put out to pasture in Uttar Pradesh 22 years ago.

It's a day after Lucknow polled in the 2012 Assembly election and stunned itself with a record turnout of 55.8 per cent: 20 per cent more than that in 2007. Party functionaries settle on the lawns on a balmy winter morning for an adda over chai andnamkeen — and an analysis of the turnout. Would it bring good tidings for the party?

"We fought well; we registered our presence. But winning seats? That's the biggest puzzle," says a Congressman. "I agree," another asserts. "Only credit Rahul Gandhi's hard work. No kudos to the rest, please."

That assertion makes the lone lady in the gathering apoplectic. "What have our great leaders Digvijay Singh and Rita Bahuguna Joshi contributed? Nothing. Can they even swing 2 per cent of their community? No," she insists. Singh, the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister, is perceived as an "outsider" while many doubt Joshi's "loyalty quotient" because she's switched parties.

Yet what's clear is that the workers are upbeat after a hectic campaign. Joshi, who heads the state Congress, is fighting from the prestigious Lucknow cantonment constituency. Even her female detractor admits that her confrontational bouts with chief minister Mayawati "considerably energised" the workers.

But not too many people support the blueprint of Rahul's Mission 2012, chalked out by Digvijay Singh, the party general secretary who's minding UP. Singh, who had embarked on a massive Dalit outreach before he was voted out of power in his home state, sought to coalesce the backward castes, especially the Kurmis, with the Muslims.

However, the ground reports from the areas where the Kurmi-Muslim coalition could have worked wonders for the Congress — as in Barabanki, Kaiserganj and Bahraich in Avadh — aren't encouraging.

Rahul's hand-picked mascot, central steel minister Beni Prasad Verma, a Kurmi, was tasked to tap the caste votes. But the strategy seems to have floundered — Verma's son, Rakesh, fighting from Dariyabad, has had trouble defending his seat.

For the Congress, the electoral path has been full of hurdles. Midway through electioneering, the party's much vaunted 4.5 per cent quota for backward caste minorities came unstuck — especially when law minister Salman Khurshid tried to inflate Muslims' expectations by promising a 9 per cent reservation, unmindful of the fact that it violated the Constitution.

The law and the Constitution are our biggest guarantors of secularism, equality and democracy," stresses Khalid Mian, a Muslim leader of Sambhal. "To think that we will welcome brash sops such as Khurshid's betrays a lack of understanding of our minds."

Not only did Khurshid provoke the Election Commission's censure, his sale pitch to ensure a victory for his wife, Louise Khurshid, from Farukkhabad, also may not have worked. The BJP managed to polarise the Hindu backward castes by harping that the minority slots had threatened to bite into their share of the reservation cake.

"In the end, Mrs Khurshid perhaps did not get the Hindu or the Muslim vote," a Farukkhabad Congress functionary confesses.

For the Congress, the last-minute stumbles have upset a plan that took off well. Many — including even his political detractors — lauded Rahul Gandhi's initial campaigns. "Rahul started off on the right note by focusing on good governance," says a BJP leader. "When it got mixed up with religious reservation, the thrust was lost sight of."

For a while, Congressmen from UP, persuaded by the Amethi MP's uncharacteristically spunky speeches and gestures — which ranged from rolling back his kurta sleeves to tearing a sheet of paper symbolising "empty" manifestos — were convinced that the party would bag at least 100 of the 403 seats — a four-fold jump from its 2007 showing of 22. "It was not an empty boast. We won 20 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Multiply this by five (each parliamentary constituency has five or six Assembly segments) and our claim is substantiated," a Congress minister reasons.

But last week, over breakfast with some senior editors, Rahul suggested that the Congress could "improve" its vote percentage (eight in 2007) but did not elaborate whether this would translate into seats. Congress sources concede that he was charting out an "exit route" for himself.

Few in the party, however, are ready to throw in the towel yet. "We did not perform too well in the first three phases. But we picked up in the fourth and hope to sustain the momentum," maintains a general secretary.

It's not a hollow boast. In Lucknow, older Hindus and Muslims have warmed up to the Congress. "I am a hardcore RSS cadre but this time I voted for the Congress because I was disgusted with the BJP's double face. Its leaders wax pious on public probity but have no qualms accepting Mayawati's dubious discards," says Lucknow lawyer Ajay Singh.

If Lucknow holds out a glimmer of optimism, the faultlines are pronounced in the Gandhi bastion of Rae Bareli and Amethi near Lucknow.

The services of the family faithfuls are marshalled as Priyanka Vadra campaigns for lost support. One of them is Jagdish Piyush. "Wahi tapalta, wahi tezi, wahi khilkhilana" (the same sharpness of repartee, sparkle and tinkling laughter)," gushes Piyush, who has spent three decades composing paeans to the Gandhis. Older and palpably weary, he is among the hordes waiting outside the heavily guarded Munshiganj guesthouse in Amethi.

On her trail through the dusty tracks of the Gauriganj Assembly, Priyanka has everything needed in a stand-out campaigner: a warm smile, drop-dead looks, a casual manner and an intimate tone in smaller meetings.

Yet the note underlying her questions on the polls to residents of Terhut nettle local Congressmen. "She's speaking to people in India's politically savviest state and asking them what this election is about," asks one old-timer, tired of Priyanka's inquisition.

When she asks if the area's MP and MLA have served them well, the answer is a resounding no. Rahul became Terhut's Lok Sabha representative after it was integrated with Gauriganj post delimitation but has never called on them, the villagers complain. "Ok, he came to the nearby village. I will convey your grievance to him," Priyanka answers with a smile.

The mixed response to Priyanka's roadside interactions emanates from the overweening feeling that while Rae Bareli and Amethi are premier seats, they've suffered "neglect" because of lack of infrastructure and jobs. "The Gandhis have failed to get us jobs in the local units," a local says. "What good is to set up a fashion technology institute in Rae Bareli when we get nothing out of it?"

The carps don't end there. Congressmen, nurtured on the networks of patronage created by Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi — who were all elected from these places — sound testy with Rahul and Sonia's alleged reluctance to yank the power levers. "In this backward region, we survive on favours like securing business contracts and jobs for our followers. When we approach the mother or son, the stock answer is: go through the process of tendering and applications; we will not circumvent the procedures. But what do we tell our supplicants? That we are helpless? Over the years, I've lost my followers to the Samajwadi and the BSP," an Amethi Congressman rues.

So have things strayed away from script for the Congress? Not quite. In several towns and villages, it figures prominently in the political discourse and is poised to pick up seats. But the consensus is that had Rahul been outfitted with a more vibrant organisation and credible state leadership, election 2012 might have yielded a bounty.

If, as someone said, is the most poignant word in electoral history.


Centre's pro-poor schemes 

Misuse and underuse of central funds by Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav regimes 

Vote for the party ruling at the Centre so that funds flow in 

Remind voters of the "halcyon" 

Congress era before 1989 when it was voted out 

Pan Uttar Pradesh appeal by exhorting voters to rise above caste, religion 

Maximise the Gandhi family's legacy 

Rahul and Priyanka's outreach to young voters 

Caste engineering by stitching up a coalition of Muslims and backward caste Kurmis; first serious foray into OBC politics post-Mandal 

Project 4.5 per cent minority reservation 

Promise enhanced 9 per cent quota 

Alliance with Jat party Rashtriya Lok Dal to consolidate Jat-Muslim votes in the western region

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