Sujit Chakraborty is a senior journalist and author of three books. He has worked with various publications and was the first Indian to manage Bhutan’s first independent daily, Bhutan Times. He has also specialised on environmental issues
Bhatta-Parsaul is a twin-hamlet at the other end of Greater Noida. It sprang up in the national media in May 2011 due to violent clashes between farmers agitating against the acquisition of their land for constructing the Yamuna Expressway and the Uttar Pradesh police. The violence left four dead, including two policemen. The entire area had been converted by the then Mayawati government into a no-entry zone. Neither media nor politicians were allowed to enter the area lest they spread the horror stories from ground zero.
Then all hell broke loose on the scorching morning of May 11. They found then Congress’ general secretary Rahul Gandhi interacting with angry villagers. They were recounting stories of suppression and brutality.
The entire administration was shell-shocked. How did Rahul, an SPG-protected Z+ category VIP, sneak into Bhatta Parsaul? It emerged later that Rahul ditched his security guards, disguised himself with a headgear and rode pillion in a bike driven by a local Congress leader Dhirendra Singh well before dawn, at 4 am.
That is Rahul’s style. He wants to see and feel everything first hand. Quite unlike the scion of Congress’ first family that he has been portrayed by the media. Neither his father late Rajiv Gandhi ever did that nor his grandmother, late Indira Gandhi, ever displayed activism that has become the mainstay of Rahul’s personality. The only ground zero touch by Indira was Belchhi in Bihar, the epicentre of caste clashes in 1978-79. That visit undertaken by Indira was probably more arduous during incessant rains and flooded fields on an elephant but not as dangerous as Rahul’s Bhatta Parsaul visit. Both had their political significance though. Indira’s Belchhi visit infused vigour in the otherwise moribund Congress during the Janata regime. Bhatta Parsaul came to epitomise farmers’ struggle against the forced land acquisition. But it did not lead to revival of Congress’s fortunes in Uttar Pradesh as Belchhi did in Bihar and the rest of the country in 1980. That too, after then Congress government at the Centre passed a Land Acquisition Bill making land acquisition difficult even for projects for people’s welfare, while granting generous compensation for every piece of land acquired. Interestingly, at Rahul’s insistence, the Congress leadership fielded Dhirendra Singh from Jewar constituency, which comprises Bhatta Parsaul. It was pegged as the battleground between the young prince and the reigning queen (Mayawati). The contest should have been a dream win for the young Gandhi who had charmed the farmers by joining cause with them. But Singh fell short of BSP’s Vedram Bhati by 9,500 votes. Vedram got 67,524, Singh 58,024 followed by Samajwadi Party’s Bijendra Singh Bhati at 35,166. Locals recall that the game changed in the last three days when caste equations underwent a metamorphosis. Realising that Dhirendra, a Jat, had almost pocketed the seat, the Gujjars decided to go with the BSP candidate, a fellow Gujjar. The logic behind going with Vedram Bhati is that given BSP’s assured Jatav vote, Vedram was a safer bet for the Gujjars to get the winning numbers. Almost 80 percent of the Gujjar vote shifted from SP’s Bijendra to Vedram’s account. Clearly, caste is a bigger factor in UP and Bihar than mere tweaking a law or putting some money in farmers’ accounts. This was a big lesson for young Rahul. Interestingly, among the 16 other candidates who contested from Jewar, was Manveer Singh Tevatia, the man who led the three-month-long farmers’ agitation against Mayawati government’s land acquisition policy. Tellingly, Bhatta gave Manveer Singh 564 votes while the Congress candidate bagged 454 votes. Farmers also attribute the result to Rahul’s lack of tenacity, consistency and perseverance. “He gave the patient the injection, but he didn’t stay long enough to find out if the patient survived. It was a political game for the Congress,” says a farmer who was injured during police firing. “The farmers’ agitation was going for more than three months. Why didn’t the Congress support us then? They only came after the police had fired on us,” he added.
Obdurate on Ordinance
Rahul again took a non-conformist route when he tore up an ordinance to negate the Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs, terming it as “complete nonsense” that should be “torn and thrown out”. It was a balmy autumn afternoon in September 2013 in the Press Club of India, a stone’s throw away from the Parliament and the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken was at pains defending the Ordinance aimed at protecting Laloo Prasad Yadav from being disqualified from Lok Sabha after being convicted in the ‘fodder scam’ cases. Suddenly, his mobile came alive. In an unusual move, Maken excused himself, got up and took the call. He returned to announce that Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi was on his way to the Club as he wanted to make an important announcement. Rahul arrived a while later and said that before coming here, he had spoken to Maken who gave him a political line about the ordinance that “everybody will give you, the Congress will give you, the BJP will give you.” “My opinion on the ordinance is that it is complete nonsense. I think it should be torn up and thrown out. That is my opinion. My personal opinion on the ordinance. I will repeat it for you. My opinion on the ordinance is that it should be torn up and thrown away.” The move was apparently aimed at helping Rahul to distance himself from the UPA government’s perceived acts of omission and commission and go to the electorate with a clean image. However, shortly after his surprise outburst Rahul sent a letter to then PM Dr Manmohan Singh, saying that his comments had been made on the spur of the moment but also that he strongly believed in what he had said. Rahul’s intervention came a day after President Pranab Mukherjee had summoned the law minister, the home minister and the parliamentary affairs minister asking them what the government would do if the Supreme Court struck the ordinance down. The ministers had come back late in the evening to discuss the matter with Sonia Gandhi and it was decided that the Cabinet should reconsider the ordinance after the Prime Minister’s return and withdraw it. Since Rahul was not part of the discussion, he wasn’t aware of it. That was why he jumped the gun but in a manner that embarrassed Singh and the entire Congress party.
Three years later, Rahul again took an unconventional step when he hopped onto the stage of ex-soldiers agitating at Jantar Mantar demanding One Rank One Pension. He accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of lying on the issue. He said when the government can waive loans worth Rs 1.10 lakh crore of just 15 defaulting businessmen and industrialists, why couldn’t he dole out a small sum of money for OROP as demanded by the soldiers, who have been putting their life at risk for the country. OROP is the right of defence personnel and the government has to grant their right to them, he said. In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Rahul was the first person to grant a full-length live interview to a TV news channel. It is another matter that the line of questioning by Arnab Goswami was absolutely hostile and Rahul flunked the acid test. But, at the same time, his rival Modi, did not take a single question from the media whether in a press conference or in an interview until last few days of campaigning that is until he became almost certain of his victory.
Discovery of India
Rahul has spent the last 15 years in experiencing rural India from close quarters. He wants to feel people’s problems first hand, whether it’s poverty, caste divide, communalism, farmers’ problems, health issues or illiteracy. His adversaries might call it rural tourism but Rahul can’t be faulted. Having been ensconced in the most highly protective security umbrella even before he was a teenager, Rahul has been cocooned in his own world. This could be the reason why he breaks the security cordon and sneaks out every now and then to see and feel things alien to the kind of life he has led so far. He has taken long to absorb things and understand the nuances of politics. He has been working very hard in every election be it Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls or the ones elsewhere in the country, but with little success. His every move is viewed with suspicion by the rivals. His decisions have sparked many a meme. His biggest problem is his lack of consistency. Every time he scores or fails to score over his rivals, he proceeds on a ‘study tour’ or ‘leave’ outside the country often to undisclosed destinations that too in the middle of parliamentary session or other such important occasions. His absence is sorely felt by the party, which finds it difficult to defend his actions every few months. But, at the same time, he is quick to sense the pulse of the people. Following a humiliating poll debacle in 2014, he was quick to recognise the importance of social media, constituting a team dedicated to it. He also tweets regularly and the numbers of his followers have been increasing rapidly. He has maintained his composure and wit. His use of his dog Pidi in his tweets was an example.
Modi Bête Noire
His decision to stitch an alliance with Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor for the Gujarat Assembly polls had nearly marred Modi’s plans to sustain BJP in power for a fifth term, a record for the state. Similarly, his decision to offer chief ministership to HD Kumaraswamy while results were still being declared, stumped Modi-Amit Shah’s plan to have a foothold in South India. That he is a quick learner is apparent from the way he visited temple after temple during the Gujarat polls and temples and Dargahs during the Karnataka elections. He doesn’t want to appease the minorities while not alienating them either. His decision to forge a national alliance against the BJP for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls is one such strategy. His strategy of ceding more space to regional parties only to stop the Modi-Shah juggernaut is a calculated risk he is taking. After all, Congress was wiped out in Uttar and Bihar after succumbing to regional parties. His efforts for course correction actually started as soon as he was elected the party’s general secretary during UPA-I. He wanted to have office bearers elected by the ground level workers. But the move was stymied by manipulative Congress leaders who started rigging the polls through fake memberships. During 10 years of UPA regime, Rahul wanted to have young leaders in the Cabinet, but the Old Guard did not cede any space. Finally, after taking over as AICC president, Rahul is slowly and gradually forming a team of young office-bearers. What makes Rahul different from other top Congress leaders is his indomitable spirit, his zeal to fight odds and ability to sustain vigour. Congress has never been out of power and in such bad shape as it is today out of power at the Centre as well as all but two states. But Rahul feels that 2019 elections are not as crucial to him as to Modi-Shah duo. He has his eyes set on 2024 polls. That means most of the old foxes in his party would be out of action and only the loyalists would survive. That also gives him ample time to learn, experiment, commit mistakes, correct them and rebuild his organisation and reputation. It remains to be seen whether he can really do that.