Just outside the Government Inter College grounds in Rae Bareilly, barely twenty minutes after Sonia Gandhi’s first rally in her own bastion winds up, 70-year-old Jwala Singh, an old timer with the Congress is dismissive of the Congress president’s first guest appearance in her own constituency. Settling down for a cup of tea by the roadside, Singh asks for extra sugar as he takes the first sip, almost as if the sugar overdose is necessary to easily swallow the bitter truth that he is about to offer to his audience. "I should say the Congress is winning here but that would be a lie. To tell you the truth, the Congress will lose at least four out of the five assembly seats in the Rae Bareilly constituency this time. The Gandhi parivaar may get the votes for the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls but it won’t get it this time."
Puzzled to hear this from a Congress worker, we ask him why. Singh, answers the query with a few more questions of his own. "Why should the Congress win? What work do they have to show here? Where is the average worker on the ground? Assembly elections are about candidates and work done on the ground not about helicopter trips." Caustic, one would think, coming from a party worker. Perhaps, even brave. But travel outside into the countryside and the anti-Congress refrain continues. A little outside of Rae Bareilly town, 27-year-old, Madho Prasad Diwedi, defines the anti-Congress mood: "Rahulji says the Congress has not been in power for 22 years and should be given a chance this time. Soniaji is a saansad from Rae Bareilly, yet we get only four hours of electricity in a day, sometimes even less. The 24-hour electricity supply from the NTPC power plant that Soniaji promised still hasn’t materialised. The Gandhi charm only works in the Lok Sabha elections. It has little effect in the Vidhan Sabha polls."
Diwedi’s disillusionment with the first family of the Congress has many votaries. If Uttar Pradesh polls in 2012 are about a strong anti-incumbency current for the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), successfully being used to advantage by other parties, then that same anti-incumbency factor applies to the Congress in the Rae Bareilly-Amethi-Sultanpur belt. Few in the area are impressed with Rahul Gandhi’s chopper rallies. In Jadishpur, Mohammad Wasif, 65, says, "Rahulji says he has been working here for the last two years. We haven’t seen any of that work. We have only now seen him come in a helicopter and go away quickly. How long will be hide behind the excuse that Congress is not in power here?" Azhar Usman, 35 adds, "there is a slogan of our own that we have coined here. It goes, Congress sey bair nahi par vidhayakon tumhari khair nahi. (We are not opposed to the Congress but will not spare the Congress MLAs.) The Congress candidates here have never done any work. Why should they get the votes?"
In Badlapur village in Jaunpur, women voters seem to have made their choice. Manifestoes of various parties have been read and understood. What has also been underlined is what each one of them gains from the party that they hope to bring to power. For Gaura Kumari, 34, nothing matters more than the promise of a salary hike in her teaching job and the scholarship promised for her daughter by the Samajwadi Party. She says, "This time I think we will try out the Samajwadi Party. Congress next time." Is she not charmed by Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi and pat comes the reply with a smile, "not enough to vote for them." Soaking the winter sun on her cot, Ajodhya Devi, her mother-in-law is worldly wise. She adds, "Nothing is black and white. People in UP vote on the basis of caste. You will only know the result on the final day."
In a political landscape deeply divided along caste and sub-caste lines, perhaps, Ajodhya’s words hold true. But 2012, has made development and prosperity important catch words even for parties like the Samajwadi. With its mud huts and dirt tracks and next-to-nothing-development, Eastern UP perhaps is the best example of the fresh political vocabulary of "new politics" that the Gandhi’s should be credited with introducing in the area. And they maybe serious in their attempt to do that. It’s not without reason that Priyanka Gandhi is not just helping her brother in the family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareilly, but for the first time has even stepped out to campaign in neighbouring Sultanpur. Reports suggest that she would also campaign in Allahabad, another old family family bastion. Many believe that the Gandhi family appeal must not be undermined. After all, thirteen years back, Priyanka Gandhi had managed to turn the tide against friend-turned-foe, Arun Nehru, helping family loyalist Captain Satish Sharma win handsomely from Rae Bareilly.
In 2012, in Rae Bareilly, Priyanka, makes a case for "new politics". New politics of development, secure future and prosperity. She urges, " Utho, Jago, Badlo. (Get up, wake up, change)." Adding, "Aapney sab ko dekh liya. Itney saal agar theek rajneeti hoti toh kya aapka yeh haal hota? Aaapkey saamney chunav nahi, chunauti hai. Hum aatey, jaatey hain. Aaap yahan rehtey hain, sehtay hain, bardaashta kartey hain (You have seen everyone. Had they followed proper politics, would this have been the condition? You do not have the elections but a challenge facing you. We come and go, but you stay here, experience it, tolerate it). Blaming BSP’s state government for the state of UP, Sonia for her part, reminds people of the development work done by the Manmohan Singh government at the centre and promises that the "Congress is committed to serve, to develop despite all odds."
The Gandhis have indeed dropped anchors in Eastern UP. Through the belt, the Gandhi trio reminds people of their family ties with the area, promising that they are there to stay. At Sonia’s rally ground, a picture of Feroze Gandhi adorns the election hoarding along with her own picture. In Amethi, Rahul Gandhi says from the stage, "I don’t have a political relationship with UP. I have a family relationship with UP. Give me 400 seats, 200 seats or whatever you wish. I don’t care. But take it in writing, Rahul Gandhi is not going away from UP till there is development here, till your money comes to you and till your state can stand up on its own two feet. Till such time, Rahul Gandhi will be seen with farmers, with labourers and in the villages." Gandhi further adds, "UP is slowly becoming my home. But Amethi is my first home. I am fighting the battle for UP in Lucknow. We have not been in power for 22 years. You tried the Samajwadi party and got lawlessness. You tried the BSP and got corruption. Now try us." For good measure he adds, "I will not be able to come here too often. I have to travel across the state. Priyankaji has told me that I can leave Amethi-Rea Bareilly-Sultanpur to her. You get these 15 seats and I promise I will get development to you. "
It’s the Gandhi mojo that Priyanka is using to hold fort for her brother and the Congress party in the Hindi heartland. Stories from Priyanka’s roadshows have almost assumed folklore status through the Eastern UP countryside, alive with VIP visits in choppers and the ripe yellow mustard, aglow in the fading winter sun in the rice fields. Everyone has a little Priyanka story to tell. In Harchandpur in Rae Bareilly district, we are told "While campaigning in the village Priyanka Gandhi bumped into a jaloos of a candidate from another party and asked him to join the Congress. He told her he was fine in his own party." At yet another place, when she accidentally walked into a sabha of a rival, she apparently told the candidate, "hastey hastey haro (lose with a smile). In Gosainganj, as she hears the azaan from a neighbouring mosque, Priyanka Gandhi even stops in the middle of her speech, telling people, "azaan ho rahi hai. Thodi der mein baat kartey hain (Let's talk after the prayers)." Resuming after the azaan is over with, "toh main keh rahi thi…(so I was saying)", the charm well in place.
Close to Diyara village, in between sabhas, Priyanka stops at an ancient Shiv temple and finds her way to the adjoining Kalavati Degree College. A group of women flag down her convoy on the highway, she stops, smiles, waves and even accepts written applications. In Shahganj Chowk in Sultanpur, she throws herself in the milling crowd in the bazaar area, shakes hands, cuddles a child and gets atop her car to reach out. In Rae Bareilly, just before Priyanka takes the mike to welcome her mother, Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, the first ever public display of affection from the Gandhis in over two decades after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, is played out on stage as she affectionately pinched Sonia’s cheek. In Rahul’s rally in Amethi, while Priyanka is missing, her two children, Rihaan, 11 and Miraya, 9, are seen hanging around the stage waiting for their Uncle to arrive. In the hour and half wait, the two children eat chocolate, play hop-scotch and collect pebbles from the ground, in full view of the press and the public. Almost as if the Gandhis are throwing open their private family album for the people in the 15-Assembly seat strong Rae Bareilly-Amethi-Sultanpur belt.
All this, not without reason. The Congress is on a weak foot in its own bastion, reportedly likely to not win any seats in Sultanpur, lose most in Amethi and all four seats they had won last time in the Rae Bareilly district including Rae Bareilly Sadar. In Amethi district, sitting MLA and Gandhi loyalist Amita Singh faces a strong anti-incumbency and a stiff fight from the Samajwadi party candidate. Many in the area believe that the Rani of Amethi may even find it tough to win back her own seat and if she does end up winning it would actually be because of the Gandhi charm.
In Kadipur, in Sultanpur district, 27-year-old Satyam Upadhyay tells us, "The Gandhis are big netas. They have no time for us. We waited five hours at his rally to hear him speak. He gave us five minutes. We had lots of hopes from the Congress but all those have been dashed." The charm of the brother sister duo this time, it seems is falling short of magic.
While Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will surely help her brother up the Congress numbers in the state, whether the Gandhi family power will be able to deliver the country’s most populous state to the Congress party, is still to be seen.
Prarthna Gahilote in Amethi-Rae Bareilly-Sultanpur