PLAYING COUNTRY TUNES
M TARIQ KHAN
December 16, 2011
COMING OF AGE AS RAHUL GANDHI HOLDS IMPROMPTU INTERACTIONS ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, HIS DIMPLED SMILE HIDES A FIERCE DETERMINATION TO RESTORE THE CONGRESS' GLORY IN THE STATE, PERHAPS EVEN BY PUTTING HIS OWN POLITICAL REPUTATION AT STAKE. NEVERTHELESS, HE SEEMS TO RELISH EVERY BIT OF HIS FORAY INTO THE HINDI HEARTLAND
Dhanwariya is a tiny hamlet in the backwaters of Pechpedwa village in Balrampur district. Ram Rati, 51, runs a makeshift tea stall on the wayside. It's 3.40pm and the dusk has just begun to set in when suddenly a white SUV followed by a battery of gun-toting commandos, party workers and a busload of media persons pull up at her stall.
The cavalcade on the dusty road used only by villagers on foot barely attracts Ram Rati's attention leave alone the young, fair complexioned man with a two-day stubble on his face, dressed in a crumpled but spotless white khadi-kurta-pyjama, who steps out of the vehicle. He peers into the earthen-furnace in which a villager is frying something. "What is it?" he asks. "It's 'chura' (rice snack), sir," replies one of his aides as the youth settles down on a wooden bench, orders tea and the desi snack.
By now, a curious crowd comprising village urchins and elders has started collecting as the dust raised by the vehicles begins to subside. "It's Rahul Gandhi," an excited gasp goes out drawing people in droves to the cramped space as security personnel jostle and try to keep them at an arms length. Two shy kids in the group catch Rahul's attention. He beckons them.
"What's your name?"
Pat comes the reply, "Ramu."
"Umar," says the other one grinning from ear-to-ear. "Do you go to school?" asks state Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi standing next to Rahul with a plastic cup in her hand as the Amethi MP looks at the kids and teasingly ruffles the hair of Ramu when he replies in the negative.
"Kanishk, can I have some sweets for them," he calls out to his Man Friday as he urges mediapersons, especially lensmen, to leave them alone.
The tea-break over, the Gandhi scion is getting into his vehicle with a half-open packet of biscuits in his hand when he spots a thin villager with pangs of hunger and poverty written all over his face standing nearby with folded hands. He hands over the biscuits to him. The cavalcade speeds towards Utraula. Such unscheduled, sporadic stopovers, impromptu interactions and sleepovers in dalit villages have now become de rigueur for the Congress general secretary's poll campaign.
So how do people view these mass contact programmes, termed as gimmicks or 'nautanki' by the Congress MP's detractors?
"He comes across as a genuine person. He is trying to gauge the people's pulse. But I don't think such interactions are going to help the party in the long run," says Satyinder, owner of Sardar Fertiliser in Tulsipur. Unmindful of such reservations and the fallout of his public interactions, the 41-year-old Rahul seems to be relishing every bit of his foray into the Hindi heartland.
Sitting next to the driver in the front seat, with one-arm resting on the window sill (he refuses to roll up the window even on the most dusty trails), he is taking both bouquets and brickbats from disgruntled party workers, who have been denied tickets, with aplomb.
Enthusiastic party workers and onlookers wait eagerly for his convoy. Some break into a jig to the tune being played out by a hurriedly assembled local orchestra, no sooner do they spot the VVIP cavalcade, while a couple of more daring types leap at his vehicle dodging jittery Special Protection Group (SPG) men in a frantic attempt to garland him.
He eats and travels light. Lunch often comprises a couple of sandwiches, éclairs, Good Day biscuits, and the meal can be had anywhere, even in his SUV. Or, for instance, even under a mango tree on a lonely roadside stretch along Gaura Dhanauli village en route to Nanpara.
"On certain occasions, he takes his decision impulsively leaving even senior party leaders guessing as to what he may do next," says a young party worker, also a fellow traveller. Union steel minister Beni Prasad Verma accompanying him on the campaign trail is made to cool his heels on the dais for over an hour at Nanpara as Rahul spends time interacting with the students of Awadh Bihari Memorial School on the outskirts.
"He wanted to come to our house also, but his security personnel advised him not to go any further," says a disappointed Harnam Singh of an adjoining village dominated by Sikhs. At Nanpara, he takes on his critics, "My political rivals say that I am doing this 'natak' (drama) for publicity. I will not let them down on this count and continue to do so."
"I want to eat, live and breathe the same air as you do," he tells the gathering. One of his close aides recounts how he had to suffer once because of this fixation to experience and discover the 'real India.'
"Rahul saw this man carrying a wooden case on his bicycle shouting 'kulfi le lo.' Curious to try this desi delicacy, he went ahead and bought one ignoring our warnings. He was laid up with an upset stomach for a day," he says with a grin.
Rahul may lack the firebrand, oratorical skills to hold the people in raptures. But charisma, he certainly possesses, as the crowd at his public meetings indicates. On the flip side, the Nehru-Gandhi legacy does not always play to his advantage. For instance, in spite of his sweet dimpled smile, he doesn't look like a 'son of the soil'. In spite of his humble ways and simple dress, for many he remains what he is -- a prince on a visit to his subjects. "Bahut gora hai (he is very fair)," gushes an 18-something Rumaila as his father Ibrahim standing next to her at Ramaidya village near Tulsipur nods most understandingly. "Muskrata hua chehra hai," (He has an amiable disposition) is his candid observation.
The flag carrier of the Congress campaign, however, sounds a warning to his political detractors who dismiss him saying he is still wet behind the ears. "I have spent seven rigorous years learning the ropes and am no longer a 'bachcha'," he counters the charge. And as if to prove that he has come of age, the Congress general secretary launches a broadside at both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati at his speech at Sadat Inter College in Nanpara.
"There was a time when both Mulayam and Mayawati mingled with the people, understood their problems and shared a very strong bond with the voters at the grass root level. Not anymore. Power has now gone to their head and they have become insensitive and cut off from the general masses," he tells.
The party's war cry: utho, jago aur badlo (arise, awake and change), however, has failed to evoke the desired response from the people. "How can he talk of corruption when some of the ministers in his own government are languishing in Tihar jail on corruption charges?" asks Wasi Haider Hashmi, a lawyer. The Central government's image, he points out, is at an all-time low. All parties are corrupt, he says in disgust. Agrees Shailendra Singh, a trader in Bargawan, "the Congress has failed to check inflation. Rahul is mistaken, if he thinks he can mobilise opinion and garner people's support simply by indulging in rhetoric."
The middle class, he says, is peeved about interest rates hikes that has put on hold their plans to buy homes and cars.
Indeed, despite the Congress general secretary's blitzkrieg, senior leaders are sceptical about party's prospects. "We had asked Rahulji not to put his own reputation at stake for reviving the party's political fortune in the state," confides a senior party functionary. The Gandhi scion, however, brushes aside the advice, saying come what may he is not going to rest till he sees the Congress in power in the state, whether it takes this election or the next one.