DEORIA, Uttar Pradesh -- Earlier this week, while Rahul Gandhi was addressing what has now become the infamous khat panchayat of Deoria, Rajuria Devi, a 45-year-old farmer, was telling HuffPost India about the problems her family was facing because of the three-year-long drought in this sugarcane producing district of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Nothing that Gandhi said during the 15 minutes that he spoke, compelled her to listen.
She continued talking after Gandhi had left the venue, pausing only when she noticed that people around her were carrying away the cots that had been brought for the farmers to sit on while they interacted with the Congress vice president. But since the khat panchayat had unfolded like any other political rally, the cots, made up of pink and golden coloured strings, were reduced to platforms for people to stand on, and eventually became freebies that people took home.
With the sun beating down her, and sweat drenching her back, Rajuria Devi lifted the cot closest to her, held it high over her head, and made her way towards one of the choked exits. "I came so far, it will be good to get something out of it," she said.
Rajuria Devi's parting words just go to show that the best laid campaign strategies will not work unless the face of the party manages to captivate the audience, or responds to a crisis with some spunk, none of which requires a great deal of political acumen. By the end of the day on 6 September, the story of the cots had eclipsed the launch of Gandhi's 2,500-kilometre Kisan Yatra from Deoria to Delhi, and had once again exposed his unwillingness to go beyond what has been scripted.
Instead of reports on Congress' three promises to the farmers: karza maaf, bijli ka bill half, and MSP ka karo hisaab (debt waived, electricity bill waived, and decide the Minimum Support Price), or the fact that a huge door-to-door operation to register farmers grievances was underway, the national news and social media was all about the cots.
While speaking to HuffPost India, R.P.N. Singh, Congress' lawmaker from Kushinagar, which hosted the second khat sabha, shook his head over the fuss being made about the cots, and said that it was "good thing" the farmer had taken them. "They will remember us fondly. After all, the cots are very pretty," he added, smiling.
Observers pointed out that leaders such as Narendra Modi and Lalu Prasad Yadav would have spontaneously said or done something to deflect attention away from the embarrassment, or like Singh, tried to put a positive spin on it. In this case, there was tremendous scope for a spin since reports of looting and stealing were indeed unfair and exaggerated, but still Gandhi's laboured response came more than a day later.
So while Congress Party's strategist Prashant Kishor can plan yatras and do the math over caste permutations, it is Gandhi, who will have to bring a lot of heart and some spark into the electoral battlefield of Uttar Pradesh, home to some of India's most formidable and colourful political personalities.
Ashutosh Misra, professor of political science at Lucknow University, said that the "cots could have been thrown into oblivion" had the Congress Party leaders deigned to take the matter seriously. "One can be good or bad in politics, but not a joke," he said.
One can be good or bad in politics, but not a joke.
IN THE CONVERSATION
There is little doubt that Kishor's stratagems, and the energy of a new breed of party workers on the ground, has pulled the Congress out of oblivion, and made it a contender in the India's most populous and politically significant state, the outcome of which will decide political fates of many for the near future.
The Grand Old Party, which is wooing Brahmins, Muslims, and non-Chamar Dalits for the state polls, was the first to launch its poll campaign and then made an early announcement of its chief ministerial candidate -- Sheila Dikshit, a Brahmin, and the daughter- in-law of late Uma Shankar Dikshit, the Congress stalwart from Unnao.
So far, the party has managed to keep the momentum going with events such as Sonia Gandhi's roadshow in Varanasi, and Gandhi's massive outreach to the farmers, which transcends caste and religious barriers. Then, there is the highly anticipated entry of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who, while untested, is expected to bring vitality into the campaign.
Misra observed that the Congress had undoubtedly "made a mark," and this pace of campaigning might even be able to win the party enough seats to form a face saving alliance, but he added that "big wins need big leaders." A senior Congress Party official, who asked not be named, said that tremendous effort had been poured into "revitalising" the Grand Old Party in Uttar Pradesh, not to win 30 or 50 seats, but to go the whole way. "Otherwise it isn't worth it," the official said.
SHEILA, THE IPS OFFICER?
Whether they are loved or reviled, Congress' chief competitors such as Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav figure in everyday conversations of the 200 million people who live in UP, and the Grand Old Party doesn't have such a leader, simply because no one has been groomed for such a role.
A Lucknow cab driver, who spoke a great deal about Mayawati's ability to control bureaucrats and the police, and the wrangling for power between the nephew and uncle in the Yadav household, had surprisingly little to say about the Congress Party. In fact, he confused Dikshit with Kiran Bedi, referring to her as the "IPS officer from Delhi."
The three-time Delhi chief minister has been brought in by the Congress Party to woo the Brahmins, who constitute 12 percent of the electorate, and as one senior Congress Party official put it, "still happen to be the most influential section of society." But the 78-year-old veteran leader has fallen ill twice while campaigning. Even Sonia Gandhi, 69, fell sick and cut short her roadshow in Varanasi, last month.
"You don't get Brahmins just by putting a Brahmin candidate," Misra said. "She is above 70, she has lost her aura, and she had nothing new to say, she doesn't inspire. This is not a mathematical exercise. It is chemistry."
This is not a mathematical exercise. It is chemistry.
RAHUL IS A 'GOOD BOY'
In the nearly three decades that the Congress Party has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh, the two regional parties which emerged as behemoths cultivated core constituencies on caste and religious lines. While the Congress does not command such loyalties, the Grand Old Party does still evoke goodwill, which come from people's memories of the freedom struggle, and a time when it reigned supreme, and was responsible for both the triumphs and travails of the country.
It is really up to Congress' leaders to unlock these reserves of goodwill.
In one household of Pachladi village in Deoria, which Gandhi visited on his Kisan Yatra, 18-year-old Nirmala Prajapati and her mother-in-law Umlata Devi, differed in their choice of leaders. While her in-laws have always supported the Congress Party, Prajapati, a homemaker, told HuffPost India that she likes Modi because he "brings hope."
But her mother-in-law, who earns Rs.1000 every month for cooking and cleaning utensils at the village school, disagreed. "He (Gandhi) has a good heart. I believe in my heart that he will do good," she said.
At the khat sabha, Mithilesh Gupta, a middle-aged woman, talked about her troubles in procuring a ration card to purchase subsidised staples. When HuffPost India asked her what she thought Gandhi could do to help her, she said, "He is the grandson of Indira Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi. He is a good boy."
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