India elections: Rahul Gandhi does his party piece – but does he really want the job?
Pleasant and well-meaning in private, the Congress leader often seems awkward or uncomfortable on the campaign trail
Twenty minutes from the town of Mohanganj, Rahul Gandhi’s convoy of vehicles came to a halt and the politician stopped to eat lunch.
The man heading the Congress Party’s campaign to form India’s next government had arrived a couple of hours earlier from Delhi in a privately chartered plane and delivered a 20-minute speech at a modestly attended rally.
But if he was keen to press on to the next engagement or use his limited time to interact with more potential voters, he did not show it; as his police bodyguards kept both the media and public at bay, a cool-box was lifted from the rear of Mr Gandhi’s white SUV and for 20 minutes or so he paused under the shade of a sprawling tree. He declined to respond to questions shouted at him by reporters across the oven-baked air.
As India enters the fifth week of a six week long process to elect a new government, the 43-year-old Mr Gandhi is battling to fend off both a national onslaught from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and to hold on to his own constituency, Amethi, located in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Most observers believe the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has seized the momentum in the campaign, repeatedly attacking Congress as the party of dynasty and mocking Mr Gandhi as a “prince”. Mr Gandhi has responded by saying Mr Modi will do nothing less than destroy the inclusive and secular vision for India that was conceived by his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, and others.
“Every five years, people from different parties come, they abuse you, they abuse us, and then they go back,” Mr Gandhi had declared at the rally in Mohanganj on Saturday morning. “I am here and I will give my life for the people.”
The constituency of Amethi has been held by the Gandhi family in an almost unbroken chain since 1980. It was first won by Sanjay Gandhi, one of the sons of Indira Gandhi. It was then secured by his brother Rajiv. After Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, it was occupied by a family friend, Satish Sharma. Mr Sharma gave up the seat for Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi. It was then won her son Rahul, who was first elected in 2004.
Yet the so-called VIP constituency appears to have earned little from its long association with the Gandhis. Mr Gandhi’s rivals claim it has some of the worst development indicators in India and the area is beset by pot-holed roads and an electricity supply of between just five to eight hours a day.
A recent report by an Indian TV channel suggested Mr Gandhi was one of the poorest performing constituency politicians and had only spent 54 per cent of the development funds passed to MPs by the central government.
The Congress party claims Amethi has received big ticket items pushed through by the Gandhis but has suffered because the state government of Uttar Pradesh has failed to deliver on basic development. They say this even though the current state government is run by an ally of the Congress.
Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, 42 who has been campaigning in Amethi’s dusty villages, told The Independent last week that locals had complained to her about a shortage electricity and poor roads.
Asked whether the corruption scandals that have mired the Congress government’s two terms were an election issue, Ms Gandhi – whose husband Robert Vadra has been the subject of allegations over land deals - said: “Actually, no-one here has spoken to me about it.”
Ms Gandhi’s energising presence on the election trail and the frenzied media attention she and her well-tailored Indian wardrobe have received, has reopened discussions about Mr Gandhi’s relative skills as a campaigner.
Pleasant and well-meaning in private, the Congress leader often seems awkward or uncomfortable on the campaign trail. Many are unsure whether or not Mr Gandhi truly wants the job he is supposedly campaigning for.
“He has a good heart but he is not a natural politician,” one Congress figure, who asked not to be named, said in the town of Rae Bareli. “He also does not listen to advice. Priyanka is a natural.”
Several weeks ago there were reports that Ms Gandhi had been considering competing in the elections herself and challenging Mr Modi directly in the historic city of Varanasi. She denied this but a senior Congress leader in Delhi, who also asked not to be named, said a decision had been taken to limit her presence on the campaign trail as not to overshadow her brother.
Yet whether it given in a natural or an awkward manner, the message delivered by both brother and sister to the constituents of Amethi has been largely similar. Whatever the area has got, they have said, is because of the Gandhi family.
“You asked for a hospital. I gave you a 320-bed hospital,” Mr Gandhi said in Mohanganj. “You asked for schools, we provided you with schools.”
This paternalistic aspect of campaign has been in contrast to the speeches delivered by Mr Modi, who has talked about helping people help themselves, and Arvind Kejriwal, of the Common Man party (AAP), who has vowed to end corruption and nepotism.
Indeed, while many voters in Amethi said they intended to vote for the Congress, enthusiasm was often muted. “Rahul Gandhi never comes here. This is the first time he has come here,” said Ram Wati, a 30-year-old woman with four children, who attended Mr Gandhi’s rally.
Mr Gandhi was reelected in 2009, securing almost 72 per cent of the vote, and the Congress believes he will win again. But his rivals think there is an opportunity for a major upset.
The BJP has put up a former television actress, Smriti Irani, to challenge Mr Gandhi and her campaign will be hugely boosted today when Mr Modi holds a rally in Amethi. His presence will break a political convention that previously stopped party leaders personally campaigning in the constituencies of rival leaders.
“The BJP has put its heart and soul into the campaign,” said BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad. “We have a very good chance.”
Yet Mr Kejriwal’s AAP insists it is ready to play giant killer and has high expectations from its candidate, Kumar Vishwas, a Hindi poet and literature professor.
The party’s election head for Amethi, Pankaj Shukla, said Mr Gandhi’s two victories had come with very low voter turnout. He said if his 25,000-strong team of volunteers could persuade more people to cast their ballot on Wednesday, there was a large anti-incumbency sentiment to tap into. “We are trying to change politics and show people how politics is done,” he said.
After he finished his lunch on Saturday, Mr Gandhi drove on to the town of Parsadepur and spoke at another rally. His performance was more enthusiastic than earlier in the day and the crowd of around 5,000 was a little livelier.
“They bash me, they abuse me, they use foul language for and my family,” Mr Gandhi, the sleeves of his long, traditional shirt rolled up, told the crowd. “But they will not break my relationship with you.”
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