In between hectic campaigning averaging three-four election rallies daily in various states, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the recipient of phone calls from the Abu Dhabi crown prince with an unusual request. They wanted him to do the shilaanyas, or the laying of the foundation stone, for a big Hindu temple there. The proposal of this temple was finalised in 2018 when Modi visited the UAE. At the time, reports of Muslims there shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ had gone viral. South Block gossip is that Modi politely declined the invitation and that is unsurprising. With the General Election at the doorstep, he does not have time to be anywhere except in India where BJP candidates from every state are sending email appeals for him to come to their constituency. Some top party leaders thought that Modi performing the shilaanyas of a Ram temple in Abu Dhabi would be good footage for the campaign. An opposing point of view was the opposition could complain to the Election Commission about the Model Code of Conduct being flouted. Modi, however, was said to be clear that his focus would be rural India.
In an organisation known for its rusticity and rough edges, Akhilesh Yadav is trying to bring the Samajwadi Party up to speed with modern times. He has built a team of loyalists to carry this out. One of them is Abhisek Mishra, a 42-year-old former IIM Ahmedabad professor, who has been put in charge of strategy and innovation. Ashish Yadav, 41, a childhood friend of Akhilesh, has been tasked with media management. The focus of both these advisors is to do an image makeover of the party, dissociate it from goondagardi and identify them with development politics, not very easy in UP. But Akhilesh’s main advisor continues to be his wife, Dimple. She is his sounding board when he envisages schemes like distribution of pressure cookers to poor housewives.
A Historic Turn
Any idea what Amit Shah is reading now? Apparently, the history of Bengal and Odisha. It is not common knowledge that Shah has an interest in books on history. In his drawing room, there are two photos. One is of Chanakya’s and the other, Veer Savarkar’s. Chanakya’s tome on politics, Arthashastra, and Savarkar’s biography written in Gujarati are also two of his favourite books. But now, in the midst of a hectic election schedule, he is reading historian RC Majumdar’s book on Bengal’s past, possibly because the state is on Shah’s list to turn into a saffron stronghold.
Rahul Gandhi announced the Congress manifesto this week and indicated that while the BJP might focus on national security after Pulwama and Balakot, he will try to construct a counter-narrative around poverty alleviation and social security. A Bengali economist, Abhijit Binayak Banerjee, who specialises in development economics and poverty solutions, is said to be advising him in formulating policies around issues like farmers’ distress, joblessness and a minimum income programme. Originally from Kolkata, Banerjee studied in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Harvard. He is now an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The buzz in the Congress is that if Rahul becomes prime minister, then Banerjee could be his chief economic advisor.
When Priyanka Gandhi was made the Congress in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, there was also the footnote of Jyotiraditya Scindia being the one to lead the party in the state’s western region. While we see Priyanka going about her territory with relish, Scindia is missing in UP action. His campaigning seems to be entirely within the borders of Madhya Pradesh, mostly Bhopal and Gwalior. Sachin Pilot, another key insider of the Congress leadership who led the party to power in Rajasthan, is also sticking to his own state. At the national level, the party seems to be wanting the spotlight to be on Rahul and Priyanka. But even here there is some dissonance. The Congress’ IT and social media group gives Rahul’s programme schedules to the media, but not Priyanka’s, which is handled by another group. At the All India Congress Committee headquarters Priyanka does not have a separate room. When required, she uses Scindia’s office there.
Calling on the Old Guard
The Congress is said to be keen to field senior leaders in different regions of the country, like Digvijaya Singh from Bhopal. Rahul Gandhi apparently is also keen on Bhupinder Singh Hooda contesting from Haryana and Meira Kumar from Bihar. Now that the alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party is not coming through, there is also a proposal for Sheila Dikshit to stand in Delhi. The party is even considering Ahmed Patel’s name in Bharuch. The Congress Working Committee thinks the strategy will provide some much-needed ballast to the campaign. The only problem: unlike Digvijaya Singh, all the other old guards are not enthusiastic about the idea.
Didi Does Care
Few leaders in India are as good as Mamata Banerjee when it comes to election rally management. From the time she makes the announcement, the party machinery functions like clockwork. TMC supporters come to the truck, bus or tempo at 8 am in the morning to start for the venue. They each get one banana, one boiled egg and one piece of buttered bread. Even for massive rallies held in Kolkata’s Brigade Parade ground, lunch is arranged for the crowd, usually rice and fish curry cooked at the side of the venue under a canopy. The CPM started the practice of rallies for the poor to participate in. For villagers it was akin to being a paid tourist. They got free transport, free meals, and when the rally was over, could visit local attractions like the Kalighat temple, museum and Kolkata zoo. With the decline of the CPM, Mamata took over the tradition. In Bengal, the BJP is far behind in this aspect. Even when Modi visited Kolkata and Siliguri, people flocked to listen to him but organisational management was missing.