Priyanka Gandhi brings Delhi sophistication to the family's rural heartland, but it may be her less charismatic brother who gains. Eric Randolph Foreign Correspondent reports
LUCKNOW, INDIA // The microphone has stopped working, so Priyanka Gandhi hops down from the makeshift stage to get intimate with the villagers.
Moments before, she had seemed a little stilted - bored even - as she addressed her 15th crowd of the day, deep in the Uttar Pradesh countryside of north India's "cow belt" where she and her older brother Rahul are campaigning in state elections that begin today.
But when she is forced to go acoustic, her much-vaunted charisma emerges. Commanding, self-assured, she retains a hint of Delhi glamour despite trading in her jeans for a more traditional sari - and an added warmth that comes from her frequent references to family and motherhood.
"I have two kids. I'm used to shouting," she says when she realises the mic is broken.
And there is, of course, the uncanny resemblance to her grandmother, the former prime minister Indira Gandhi, whose flirtation with dictatorship during the Emergency of 1975-77 is now fondly remembered by Congress party supporters as forthright leadership - in contrast to the directionless drift now presided over by her Italian-born daughter-in-law, Priyanka's mother Sonia.
"Aren't you tired of your deplorable situation?" Priyanka demands of the crowd. "Get up! Awaken yourself!"
Priyanka, 40, is on home turf here in Amethi district. This was the parliamentary seat of her great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who led India to independence and became its first prime minister.
The seat has been handed down through the generations, from Indira to Priyanka’s father, Rajiv Gandhi – both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated – and now to her brother Rahul, 41.
Rahul is determined to prove his political credentials by leading Congress to a respectable result in India’s most populous state.
It’s also the state that sends more people to the national parliament, the Lok Sabha, than any other.
Priyanka’s last-minute involvement is restricted to the districts around this family stronghold – some snidely say to ensure she does not overshadow her brother, a less natural showman.
Her audience here is rapt, but Amethi is a drop in the ocean in a state with close to 100,000 villages and a population greater than that of the UK, France and Germany combined.
Congress has been out of power here for 22 years, and Rahul faces an uphill struggle to pull voters away from the caste-based and religious parties that emerged in the 1990s and wiped out the party’s former grip on the heartland state.
The Gandhis themselves are not standing in these state elections, but their role in building support ahead of national elections in 2014 could be vital to the fate of a stumbling Congress-led national coalition government.
The chief minister, Kumari Mayawati, has established a formidable base among the lowest caste, the Dalits – formerly known as “untouchables” – from which she comes.
Her main opponents, the Samajwadi Party, has strong support among the “other backward castes” a few rungs up from the Dalits, and a large chunk of the Muslim population.
“That the Dalit and backward castes have achieved political empowerment for the first time in history is definitely a positive thing,” said Sandeep Panday, a political activist campaigning for the Socialist Party in the state capital of Lucknow. “But people are starting to demand development.”
Voters face an unenviable choice. Corruption scandals in Delhi have damaged Congress’s reputation, while a carousel of different governments in the UP state assembly have miserably failed to deliver its citizens out of mass unemployment and grinding poverty.
A few minutes down the road from Priyanka’s rally, a backward-caste family tell of their struggle to feed themselves even once a day.
Only three members of the family have regular work, as day labourers in the wheat and mustard-seed fields that surround their picturesque but forlorn hamlet of Purai Tambam.
Between them, they earn a total of 150 (Dh11) to 300 rupees a day. They have 12 people to feed.
“We are landless – all we want is some kind of land,” said Rajesh Kumar, an outspoken 20-year-old in a ripped yellow T-shirt. “Or at least some development. The government must be sending money here, but none of it trickles down to us.”
It is still a deeply feudal region, and all the land around them belongs to higher castes, but even those with their own fields complain of terrible governance. Everyone recites the mantra of simple demands: “Electricity, water, fertiliser.”
Schemes to guarantee minimum prices for their crops and provide subsidised fertiliser fall victim to the rampant corruption of government middlemen.
“We queue up for the cheap fertiliser and all we get is a beating,” said Devi Singh, 40, a farmer in Sawangi Ballipur village. “We end up paying double at night on the black market.”
In the cities, conditions are little better. Mayawati’s maharajah-like focus on building hundreds of memorials to famous Dalits, including herself, has done little for the economy.
Outside a plush Lucknow hotel on Monday, desperate jobseekers jostled for an interview with the pharmaceutical firm Mankind. “There are no jobs in UP,” said Amit Kumar, 24. waiting in line. “I’ve been looking for three years since graduating from university.”
Despite all the disillusionment, the politics of caste is far from dead in UP, and no one will have a clear idea of how far Mayawati’s base has been eroded until results are announced on March 6.
The Gandhis are seeking a modest improvement – even a third place would be satisfactory – that will act as a springboard into the 2014 general elections, and a possible run at the premiership for Rahul, to replace the ageing prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
Meanwhile, the jaded voters have heard it all before. “All the parties have come through here, and they promise to take us straight to the moon”, said farmer Ram Pher Kori, 60, back in Purai Tambam village.
“But once the election is over, we will not see them again for five years.”