It may have been a coincidence, but the day that Rahul Gandhi launched his road show in western Uttar Pradesh, a leading economic daily carried a significant news item on the state of the sugar industry. The sugar mills in UP, the showpieces of the Mulayam Singh Yadav era since 2003, now owe the farmers a total of 395 crore (3.95 billion) rupees. Of this, about 225 crore or 2.25 billion rupees is owed by the public sector mills. Defaulting units are spread across the map of the sprawling state: from Baghpat and Ghaziabad to Maharajganj and Sitapur.
Sugar and dues may have been the subject of his maiden speech in the Lok Sabha, but they were far from Rahul Gandhi’s mind on his first day on the campaign trail in 2007. This despite the fact that, as the mercury soars through April and voters flock to the polling booths, so will the sugar mills’ dues to the cultivators rise.
But Rahul Gandhi chose politics and not economics to make his mark. Claiming the mantle of his late grandmother, he reminded listeners that the last 15 years had not seen the accretion of a single megawatt of power. UP lagged behind the country despite substantial Central largesse. More than that, the Congress was back in the race, and would not align with any party as it reached out to the people.
He even went so far as to assert that the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 could have been averted had a member of his family been at the helm of the affairs. Implicitly, he distanced himself, his family and party from the legacy of P.V. Narasimha Rao. If the alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party wiped out the Congress on the ground, the inaction on Babri Masjid whittled away what credibility it had left in the hearts of the minorities.
There is ample reason to agree with the issues of governance raised by Rahul Gandhi. The recent Planning Commission report, which is a non-partisan document, shows how far the state has slipped. The per-capita income of UP was 17 per cent below the all-India level in 1980. It is 47 per cent below as of 2003. Once behind the national average by less than one-fifth, UP’s per-capita income now is about half the all-India level.
The emphasis on power output is also not too far off the mark. Only one in three households has electricity in UP. The all-India figure is 84 per cent. Much of the state is shrouded in darkness at night, save for diesel generators. UP is the lowest among the states in terms of the percentage of villages electrified. Less than two of three villages have electricity. Of the rural households, 80 per cent do not have electricity.
But it is on politics that the heir apparent of the Congress is rather ill-informed about his family’s track record. It was Rajiv Gandhi, no less, who launched his election campaign in November, 1989 from Faizabad with the call for Ram rajya. Coming as it did on the heels of the shilanyas or foundation ceremony by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad at the disputed site in Ayodhya, the undertone was ominous for the very pluralism Rahul Gandhi now stands up to uphold. Even earlier, it was under Congress regimes in Lucknow and New Delhi in February 1986 that the locks on the Babri Masjid were broken and prayers by local Hindus resumed.
Rahul has also neatly skipped over the deeper reasons for the debacle of his once-mighty party. In 1971, the Congress won nearly half the popular vote in the state. In 1974, it followed up with a creditable performance at the hustings in the state assembly elections. When she led it back to power in the state and at the Centre — in reverse order — Indira Gandhi shifted political tack.
Rahul spent a long time on his first day at the Dar-ul-Uloom. It is not far, as the crow flies, from Hashimpura, where the Provincial Armed Constabulary had run amuck with the minorities in 1987. Once she found that many Muslims had voted for Charan Singh’s Lok Dal in 1980, Indira Gandhi too played the saffron card. Much like the Churchills playing the Orange card in loyalist Ulster, the Gandhis too stooped to conquer. What neither of them realized was that they were sowing a whirlwind.
The very sectarian passions that worked for the Congress in the mid-Eighties soon became furies that spun out of control. It was Rajiv and not Rao who paved the way forward for saffron dominance in the state and, at one remove, the country.
The content of Rahul Gandhi’s comments is less important than their timing. The Babri Masjid issue has not been raised by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is focussing on terrorism. The Samajwadi Party has not taken up the issue and is busy trying to court upper-caste Hindus. But now, both have been given a handle by Rahul Gandhi.
As for the BSP and SP, their rise had less to do with alliance politics and more to do with the assertion of groups long marginal to north India’s politics. Mulayam Singh left the wrestling arena for the political pulpit in the late Sixties and followed in the footsteps of the most articulate peasant leader north India has ever known — Charan Singh. His appeal to minorities rests on his stout defence of the very Babri Masjid that a Congress government later failed to protect and defend.
As for the Dalit party, the BSP, it was as an independent 22 long years ago that Mayavati contested in the by-election to the Bijnore Lok Sabha seat in 1985, polling a hefty 18 per cent of the vote. The slogan, “Vote hamara, Raj tumhara nahin chalega”, was heard for the first, but not the last time. Since then, the idea that Dalit votes should be a currency for Dalit power, and not for rule by others, has come to be an accepted idea for over a fourth of the voters in the state.
There is, of course, a difference between the leaders of the SP or BSP and the heir apparent of the Congress. These set out to do something, not to be some one. Mulayam took up issues of farm prices and water rates, Mayavati those of Dalit dignity and oppression.
It was through the dust of the village streets and the alley ways of its crowded qasbas that they walked to forge a constituency in politics. They did not have the advantage of a distinguished political lineage, only the will and the energy to engage in political struggle. They set out to build a base, not to inherit a constituency.
Their record at governance may and does indeed have holes that should be picked on, but surely this is not the time to push the clock back and accord primacy not on the basis of proven record, but on genealogical descent. The lines on the economy and law and order would have struck home. But if Rahul wants to get going and rebuild his shattered party in India’s most populous state, then he had better get rid of his political amnesia.
There is little doubt that the Congress had a great record of leadership and service in the past. There is even less doubt that somewhere it lost its way. But simply claiming a lineage as one’s pride will do little to restore its flagging fortunes.