Since Rahul Gandhi joined politics in 2004, his biggest ambition has been to revive the party's fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically important state.
The Congress party's rainbow coalition used to contain the extremes of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims, leaving out the peasant OBCs. The OBCs have never been Congress voters. The OBC communities, the socialist parties and politicians who have represented, and their anti-Congressism, are well-entrenched in the state's history.
Farmers are mostly OBCs. Why is Rahul Gandhi spending a month wooing them when he doesn't expect OBC votes to prop up the Congress?
Rahul unsuccessfully tried to woo the MBCs (most backward classes) in the 2012 assembly election. In this election, the Congress's stated strategy has been to woo Brahmins, Thakurs and Muslims, who together form 35% of the vote-share.
Farmers are mostly OBCs. Why is Rahul spending a month wooing them when he doesn't expect OBC votes to prop up the Congress?
The answer speaks a lot about what the Congress is doing in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress knows as well as anyone else that it is next to impossible to leapfrog from number 4 to forming government. Yet it is putting its best foot forward not to win, but to defeat the Bhartiya Janata Party.
Since consolidating non-Yadav backwards is the stated strategy of the BJP, the Congress is trying to puncture that effort. The BJP is wooing the backwards through caste identity and some Hindutva. The Congress is trying to undermine those efforts through class identity.
Rahul's speeches clearly show he is trying to exploit discontent amongst farmers – discontent not as Hindus or on account of caste, but on account of farm distress.
The Modi government's tight leash on minimum support prices offered for farm produce, coupled with two years of drought, have meant that farmers are under renewed financial stress. Rahul is daring Prime Minister Narendra Modi to waive farmers' loans, reduce their electricity bills, increase the MSP. Moreover, he is portraying Modi and the BJP as pro-corporate and anti-poor.
If the Congress is able to help create the impression that backward consolidation is not taking place in favour of the BJP (due to farm distress), it could prevent creating the impression that the BJP is in the race for the chief minister's office. This would then open up the opportunity for Brahmins and Thakurs to consider the Congress for their votes.
The farmers' welfare positioning may also help the Congress win over rural upper castes who own land, and may be inclined to vote for the BJP on account of Hindutva or caste. Stuck between Mandir and Mandal, the Congress sees an opening through class politics.
As part of Rahul's yatra, the first house where he had lunch was that of a Sonkar, an MBC community. In the rallies, farmers suffering from a debt crisis have been especially invited to attend.
If the Congress comes to power, your farm loan will be waived and electricity bill halved – such a promise is as good as a freebie, perhaps a bigger freebie that Akhilesh Yadav's promise of a laptop in the 2012 election and smartphone in this election.
Targeting farmers has a success record. In 2009, the UPA-1 government had waived off farmers' loans worth Rs 60,000 crores. In that Lok Sabha election, the Congress won 21 of 80 seats, a lot more that its own expectations. Part of the credit went to the farm loan waiver, along with the rural employment guarantee law that targeted the landless.
Through this strategy of exploiting farm distress, Rahul is also attempting an image makeover for himself and his party. He is spending thirty days speaking only to and for farmers. This is the longest time he has continuously spent in an election campaign. Rahul's strategist Prashant Kishor is hoping the Kisan Mahapadyatra from Deoria to Delhi will recast Rahul's image as a hands-on 24x7 politician with a coherent message, one that answers the question of Rahul's ideology: pro-poor, left of centre.