x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Gandhis challenge caste-based politics in a prelude to 2014

The apparent revival of Congress Party fortunes in Uttar Pradash, after 20 years of impotence, has to do with the Gandhi family's status and with promising policies.

As the helicopter carrying Congress president Sonia Gandhi took off from Allahabad, one of the largest cities in Uttar Pradesh, scores of young men attending her election rally last week stood up on their chairs, waving the helicopter goodbye. They remained standing, staring as the helicopter disappeared into the sky.

What was it about Mrs Gandhi and her children, Rahul and Priyanka, that resonates so strongly to evoke near-hysterical reactions wherever they have been in Uttar Pradesh? The Congress party had been almost entirely missing from the province's political scene for the last 20 years.

One young man at the rally answered that question carefully. Mrs Gandhi and her children were like celebrities, he said, descendants of a string of former prime ministers and part of the Congress gene pool from the turn of the last century. Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul and Priyanka's great-grandfather, had been a disciple of none other than Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru's daughter, Indira and her son Rajiv, had fallen to assassins.

Then there was 2004, when Sonia Gandhi turned down the prime minister's job, even though her party had come from behind to defeat the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in favour of the present prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Watching and hearing the Gandhis speak was like claiming a bit of India's history for oneself. "When I think of the Nehru-Gandhi family," the young man said, "I imagine them being cloaked in blood. How many families in India have given the kind of sacrifices like they have?"

The Congress first family's near-mythical status across the country is not new. What is different this time is that the Congress party has returned to Uttar Pradesh as a serious contender for the first time since 1992, when it was routed in the elections that followed the demolition of the 15th-century Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh's ancient city of Ayodhya.

Across the state, considered to be India's political bellwether because of its size and population, the Congress party is making its presence felt. Rahul Gandhi, the party general secretary who is widely tipped to become prime minister after general elections in 2014, has been barnstorming for several months, in recent weeks at a scorching pace with some serious heli-hopping.

Then there is his sister Priyanka, whose dimpled smile and air of identification with the poor, many of whom still live in mud shacks, imparts a special star quality. These two complement the impeccably polite but incredibly tough Mrs Gandhi, widow of Rajiv, whose election speeches, which must be delivered in Hindi, are still written for her in Romanised transliterations.

This is not to say that the Congress party will surely win Uttar Pradesh, a state that elects 80 members to the 545-seat federal parliament. That honour may go to the Samajwadi Party (SP), which represents the so-called "backward castes" and is locked in a contest with the ruling party, the pro-lower caste Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is led by the state's chief minister, Mayawati.

The caste cauldron in a state like Uttar Pradesh is peppered with a minefield of real humiliation and imagined slights between the upper and lower castes. Caste loyalty is deemed equivalent to political loyalty, which means that promises of "progress" and "development" by ostensibly caste-neutral parties, like the Congress, are sometimes seen as fanciful or irrelevant.

That is why parties juggle a candidate's political credentials with the caste permutation that exists in each constituency. Political strategy in India must be synchronised with caste reality if a candidate wants to win.

If there is a voter backlash against the ruling BSP, because its legislators have been corrupt, or failed to work for the people who voted them in, or even because the upper castes want to "punish" the lower castes for daring to rule for the last five years, then it is likely that the SP will reap the benefit of that negative vote. The SP and the BSP are the strongest parties in Uttar Pradesh today because they have been able to attract their respective caste-loyal votes. To win, one caste must wean away parts of the other to its side.

In this complex caste scenario, the Congress party realises it had to do something dramatic to change the rules of the game. For 20 years it has been buffeted by the Babri mosque whirlwind, accused by Uttar Pradesh's Muslims for allowing right-wing protesters to demolish the mosque.

Enter Rahul Gandhi, who has managed to resurrect a supine party through sheer grit and perseverance - eating and sleeping with Dalit families, persuading the Congress to announce a quota for Muslims in central government, and even announcing a debt waiver for the state's large community of recession-hit weavers.

Uttar Pradesh's voters are supremely indifferent to the charge against Mr Gandhi that he is riding the coattails of a dynasty. Every political leader worth his name across the country has promoted his children or siblings. There are the SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son, Akhilesh Yadav, looking to be Uttar Pradesh's new chief minister, to name just one example.

Across Uttar Pradesh, there is a grudging admission that Mr Gandhi has created something of a favourable wind for the Congress, even if it is a mild one. Clearly, too, the young Congress scion is playing for the long haul, with his sights firmly set on the 2014 general election. The election in Uttar Pradesh today is like a semi-final exam, albeit an important one.

 

Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi