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PRIYANKA RAI & DIPIKA DALAKOTI | Issue Dated: April 1, 2007
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THE ROAD TO SUBSTANCE It was a white sea, with waves of round white caps surging over one another at Darul Uloom Deoband. It wasn’t a scene after Friday prayers. Nor had a preacher come to address the students. It wasn’t even 'Maulana Mulayam', the Chief Minister who earned the sobriquet for placating the minorities. The visitor to one of the two highest theological seats for Sunnis, was the crown prince of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi. People falling over one another to get a glimpse, people scrambling in narrow bylanes of Deoband, people straining their ears to hear what he had to offer, people running after his car, people waiting for him for hours under the scorching sun. It could have been a surreal experience for Rahul, whose politics so far has been limited to his parliamentary constituency Amethi.

He swayed the crowds, charmed the youth, swept young women off their feet. He would wave at people, shake hands with bystanders, take garlands from audience, would deliver whistle-stop yet earthy speeches and stop at roadside dhabas to have food like any common man. And yes, he played what he thought was a political masterstroke just before reaching Deoband: “Had the Gandhi family been active in politics (at that time), Babri Masjid demolition would not have taken place. My father said to my mother that he would stand in front of Babri Masjid. They would have had to kill him first”

Of course, he hit bull’s eye, grabbing media headlines for next two days. Politicos were shaken and people stirred. “He appears absolutely sincere. Indiraji and Rajivji never compromised with communal forces”, said Suhail Haider, an unemployed youth at Muzaffarnagar. The political class predictably tried to deride him. “At this rate, he would soon denounce the policies of the Manmohan Singh government too, putting all the blame for SEZs and high inflation on him”, claimed BJP leader Sushma Swaraj. The self-proclaimed champion of Muslims, Samajwadi Party, was most shaken. “He is just trying to pass the buck and fool people”, said party MP Mohan Singh.

TSI asked Rahul why his speeches were plain, simple and non-dramatic unlike all other politicians. “Most answers in life are quiet simple” he replied. The glowing smile on his face showed a lot of promise. He looked determined to bring about what he called a golden tomorrow. Watching Rahul at the Road Show, brought back memories of his father Rajiv Gandhi, campaigning during the 1991 elections. Though he lacks his father’s oratory, he made it up with his short, crisp, impromptu speeches and a dialogue delivery that reminded people of Rajiv.

Rahul has done the calculation. Poll percentage, vote share, caste break up and yes, past performance of the party. He claimed the Congress had polled 15% more votes than the BSP in 1996 when the two parties had forged an unequal alliance. He said, “That was the reason for the weakening of Congress. . . It damaged us completely”. He told the people that such an alliance would have just not been be possible if any member from the Gandhi family was active in politics. He made clear he was not against making alliances but it should be on respectable terms. THE ROAD TO SUBSTANCE Rahul seems to have studied political history and picked up right lessons as well. He seems to follow in Charan Singh’s footsteps in trying to bring together Brahmins, Rajputs, backward Jats, Dalits and Muslims. He makes sure he garlands Charan Singh’s busts wherever he finds them. After all, Charan Singh still rules hearts in the Jatland. Yet, there were sceptics. “How can we believe somebody who is coming to us for the first time? He needs to prove his credentials first”, said Babulal Baghel, a middle-aged farmer near Bahedi.

But most of the crowd looked at Rahul with lots of hope and expectations. There was overwhelming response to his rallies in Muslim and Jat dominated areas of western UP. People hoped that his visit would increase the vote count for the Congress. Though UP has become a laboratory of caste politics during the past two decades, Rahul believes “caste is one factor but not the major factor. Somehow Congress has lost the ability to connect to the people at the ground level”.

Road shows have always been a hit with people. The previous time it was Sonia Gandhi who undertook one in western UP. An excited tea vendor remembered when Sonia came to Daurala she had given a cheque of Rs 50,000 to a poor woman for her daughter’s marriage. With Election Commission guidelines in force, Rahul didn’t indulge in such gimmicks. He stopped in a village to have a sugarcane and in another he ate some freshly made jaggery.

The road show was actually a show of strength by the Congress, a show of popularity among the masses and also warning signals to allies as well as rivals. The Congress has been talking tto Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Ajit Singh and Jan Morcha leaders V.P. Singh and Raj Babbar for a pre-poll alliance. According to senior party leaders, talks were not making much headway due to outrageous demands for seats by prospective allies. RLD for example, fought only 35 seats in alliance with Samajwadi Party last time, but is demanding over 200 seats.

Rahul’s road show surely has narrowed the choice for Ajit Singh. “When so many Muslims are with the Congress, how can he go alone? He will do it at his own peril. RLD’s tally won’t reach even double-digits”, claimed Virendra Singh, a local Congress leader in Meerut. It also sent warning signals to 'Muslim-friendly' Samajwadi Party while it has rejuvenated the grassroot Congress workers in western UP. People had come from even Uttarakhand and Haryana to see and hear Rahul. “We had heard about Rahul’s visit from the media. We just came to hear him”, said Narendra Kaushik, who had come with half-a dozen friends all the way from Sonepat (Haryana) to Daurala.

Indeed, it was major political baptism for Rahul, a trial by fire. For it was one of those rare occasions when he was not accompanied by either his mother or his sister, Priyanka Vadra. He certainly managed to sway the crowds off their feet by his simple charm and earthy mannerism. But, will it translate into votes for the party? We will have to wait for 7 May 7, the day votes are counted in UP. The political circus has just begun. Keep watching for more road shows and rallies!
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017