Gandhi earns spurs in by-election

When India’s most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi, scored a resounding by-election victory in Rae Bareli last Thursday, the real winner was her son Rahul, representing the fourth generation of a remarkable political dynasty. The Italian-born Sonia claimed 474,891 of the 590,026 votes polled, in the best ever win for the dynasty in this constituency in the heart of Uttar Pradesh state — bettering the record even of her formidable mother-in-law, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi.

But credit for that record margin goes to Rahul, 35, who acted as Sonia’s election manager in a major assignment designed to groom him into a larger role within the nationally-ruling Congress party, of which his mother is president. Rahul is a member of parliament having won, in the 2004 elections, the adjacent Amethi constituency, once held by his father, the charismatic Rajiv Gandhi, who was felled by a suicide bomber in 1991.

But the real task ahead for Rahul is to regain for the Congress party the sprawling state of Uttar Pradesh in which Amethi and Rae Bareli fall. The state, which has a population of 170 million, is also where Allahabad town, the seat of the Nehru-Gandhi family, is located. Uttar Pradesh, considered the crucible of Indian politics, has been the stronghold of the Congress party a whole century, from the time it led India’s independence movement against British colonial rule until the early 1980s when the state was driven by caste and religious rivalry.

In terms of actual popularity in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has slumped from its once unassailable position, well behind the regional Samajwadi Party, which currently rules the state, the Bahujan Samaj Party that represents the interests of Dalits or so-called untouchables and pro-Hindu, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which leads the national opposition. The Congress party fell from grace in Uttar Pradesh because of its inability to prevent supporters and allies of the BJP from demolishing, in December 1992, the mediaeval Babri mosque. That event tore at India’s universally acknowledged secular fabric and spawned the growth of Hindu fundamentalism to the benefit of the BJP while eclipsing the hold of the Congress party.

Political analyst Neerja Chowdhary points out that while a popularity survey in Uttar Pradesh conducted in February indicated a ground-level shift in favour of Rahul, everything would depend on what kind of a role the party assigns him between now and the provincial elections next year. Right now, the best image of Rahul can project is that of a bright, fresh-faced young man campaigning in the 44 degree Celsius heat, pushing his way into the crowds, unmindful that there could be assassins out there.

Rahul has already trodden on influential toes by being non-committal on some currently contentious issue like hiking reservations in elite technical, managerial and medical institutions. Rahul and Sonia’s propensity to stick to their constituencies has stunted the party’s growth in the state. Political pundits say this is typical of the Congress party’s confused strategy in a complex state like Uttar Pradesh. While Rahul’s entrance on the stage makes for good TV footage, the fact is that both he and the venerable Congress are out of ideas on how to win back India’s political heartland. — IPS