Rahul and His Muddied Mission

It was supposed to be about a new youth wave that would leave caste, religion and thuggery behind. Alas, it is turning out to be politics as usual
CLOUTOCRACY
REALPOLITIK In the election grind, Rahul has quietly abandoned his idealism in favour of the exigencies of electoral politics  he had once scoffed at (Photo: RAUL IRANI)
IN HER FATHER’S SHADOW Vasu Yadav with strongman father Kunwar Devendra Singh Yadav at the end of a day of campaigning in Patiyali (Photo: ISHAN TANKHA)
LOYALTY DIVIDEND Abdul Hafiz Gandhi, who has put in years for the Congress, was dumped when it mattered (Photo: ASHISH SHARMA)

KANSHIRAM NAGAR, UP ~ “In some states, our organisation is not working effectively. People give many reasons for this failure. They blame communal and religion-based [and] regional parties. I absolutely disagree with this assessment. My thinking on this issue is: we have failed only in those areas where we have stopped fighting for the needs and problems of voters. We failed because we could not meet the expectations of the people. We failed because we have lost the ability to promote the true workers of the party… Out of all the political parties today, we have the largest number of young leaders; out of all the political parties today, [India’s] young are looking towards us. Out of all the political parties today, we have the youngest and most modern thinking. We must embrace the young of our country; we must use this organisation of ours to unleash immense energy to build a better India”—Rahul Gandhi, Member of Parliament from Amethi, 23 January 2006, at the 82nd Plenary of the All India Congress Committee, Gachibowli Stadium, Hyderabad

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Vasu Yadav says she is barely 28. This is her first Vidhan Sabha election. And, as the youngest candidate to contest the Patiyali seat in Kanshiram Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh, she may seem part of the youth wave that Rahul Gandhi has been talking about. Only, she is not a youth leader of the Congress. Nor is she a party worker. She joined the party directly as a candidate for this constituency, and she had this privilege because she is a politician’s daughter. How an outsider got the ticket has left not just ordinary Congress workers in Patiyali confused, but also those at the party’s headquarters. So befuddled were they that Vasu Yadav’s name was mis-spelt [as Basu Yadav] on the party list of candidates.

For nearly eight years now, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, who has led the party’s UP campaign practically as its top leader, has claimed to stand against dynastic politics. This has been his refrain ever since he stepped into politics. At one rally after another, he has spoken against caste and religion based politics and the need to keep criminals out.

Now, all those lofty ideals have been cast in doubt by the party’s conduct. A case in point is that of Vasu Yadav. She was inducted into the Congress from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) barely a few days before the UP polls got underway in the first week of February. She joins as part of a package deal.

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In his hurried effort to get crutches for the grand old party in UP, Rahul Gandhi brought in a number of leaders from other parties because they bring with them local clout and followings. Vasu Yadav’s father Kunwar Devendra Singh Yadav is one such leader. He brings with him not just money and muscle power—there are two criminal cases pending against him—but also the desired caste catchment. Vasu Yadav is of a caste that has long been aligned with the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the state, and also the richest candidate in the fray with declared assets of over Rs 11 crore. When her father had fought the 2009 Lok Sabha election (on a BSP ticket and lost), he had declared assets worth over Rs 20 crore.

Once a confidant of SP Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, Devendra Singh Yadav has been in every party that has ever ruled UP. Before he entered politics over four decades ago, he was a small-time businessman selling his wares on a bicycle. Now he moves around in a red Mitsubishi Pajero on the bone-rattling roads that link settlements in the area. Either way, the man seems to know the tricks of the trade, and appears to have convinced Rahul Gandhi that his local supporters are always ready to shift loyalties to whichever party he joins.

He may even be right. Twice has he been an MP from this region and twice has he won Assembly elections. And he has been with four parties so far. “I contested the Lok Sabha four times and won twice. Before that, I contested the Vidhan Sabha polls and won twice,” he proudly proclaims, sitting in the Congress office at Ganjdundwara in Patiyali after a gruelling last day before the poll. With such faith in his abilities, it would be a surprise if he didn’t micro-manage his daughter’s campaign, as indeed he did, right from day one. If there is a call for Vasu on her mobile, it is her father’s secretary who takes it, and passes it on to him. “I only carry a Delhi number,” Vasu later explains, “The number listed on the UP Congress list is my father’s. He is managing everything.”

Vasu’s father is not contesting this election, but hopes to win a seat in the next Lok Sabha on a Congress ticket. Of course, in his scheme of things, it could possibly be on any party’s ticket. He has joined the Congress only recently, with Rahul Gandhi welcoming him at a public rally in Kasganj, the neighbouring constituency, on 24 January. The Yadavs belong to Kasganj and not Patiyali, which makes them outsiders twice over—not just in the Congress but also in the constituency. Yet, within days of Yadav senior’s joining the Congress, the party declared his daughter’s candidacy.

Kasganj was already taken by Saeed Mustfa Shervani, the younger brother of Congress leader Saleem Iqbal Shervani, who has been a turncoat himself. In the 1990s, the elder Shervani had left the Congress for the SP, only to return after being denied an SP ticket in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls; he stood from neighbouring Badaun on a Congress ticket but lost. Perhaps Devendra Singh Yadav’s sway with Yadavs could help him do better the next time round.

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Back in his cycle-pedalling days, Devendra Singh Yadav began his career as a village chief in Alipur Barwana. He fought his first Vidhan Sabha election as a Congress candidate in 1989 and won. He has no hesitation in admitting that he joined the BJP soon after that, when he saw the Ayodhya temple movement turn voters in the saffron party’s favour, but he lost the next election. In 1996, he returned to the state’s Vidhan Sabha as an SP candidate. Soon after, he graduated to Lok Sabha politics, and won himself a seat twice as an SP politician. But when the SP denied Yadav his sought-after ticket, giving it to former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh instead, Yadav knew it was time to move on.

Devendra Yadav promptly approached Mayawati to trade his credentials as a Yadav votecatcher and one-time Mulayam confidant for a BSP ticket in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. He lost.

After three years with the BSP, Devendra Yadav now proclaims loyalty to India’s grand old party. “The small parties are just sucking the state dry,” he says, “There is no development and no agenda. They have no goals. Both parties have no principles. Look at the SP, it is just parivaarvaad (dynastic rule) and nothing else.” These are not new thoughts, as he’d like us to believe. “Rahul Gandhi started talking to me when I was contesting the 2009 Lok Sabha election,” he claims. It just happened that he chose to leave the BSP, put off by its “complete lack of inner party democracy”, just days before the 2012 Vidhan Sabha election.

Murmurs of Devendra Yadav’s move began in December 2011. What he wanted in return for the favour of transferring local Yadav votes to the Congress kitty, as these whispers went, was a ticket for his daughter from any constituency in Etah or Kanshiram Nagar. Once Vasu Yadav pipped Abdul Hafiz Gandhi to the seat overnight, it was clear to party members what had happened.

Gandhi, the Indian Youth Congress’ nominee and lead contender for the ticket, had plenty going for him. An Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) topper, law post-graduate and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) research scholar who grew up in Patiyali and had been recommended by the IYC to the party screening committee, Gandhi had been working in the constituency for nearly four years. In fact, he’d taken up the task in earnest soon after the Congress’ disastrous performance in the 2007 state polls, in which it got only 22 out of the Vidhan Sabha’s 403 seats. Gandhi was working on what can be called ‘The Rahul Plan’: go to the people, identify their problems and fight for them. “For four years, someone else canvassed in Patiyali for the party,” muses Rajesh Kumar Aggarwal, a trader in Ganjdundwara, “but now someone else is the candidate.”

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Abdul Hafiz Gandhi is originally from Mou village in Patiyali, where his father is a marginal farmer with less than five bighas of land. After his matriculation, Gandhi got admission to AMU, where the intellectually charged campus atmosphere—in stark contrast with the dullness of his village—aroused in him an interest in politics. While pursuing his five-year Bachelor’s degree in law, he led a students’ agitation to have student body elections restarted on AMU’s campus. He even petitioned the Supreme Court to get the AMU Students’ Union re-activated. He withdrew his petition once the university authorities yielded to the demand, and the movement’s popularity catapulted him to presidentship of the reactivated union.

At one point, he joined the IYC, and became a national secretary in some time. Since the 2009 Lok Sabha election that saw the Congress notch up 22 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, Gandhi has been part of the IYC’s training cell, which is crucial to Rahul Gandhi’s grand plan of not just reviving the party’s youth wings but also drawing upon them for leadership positions and a new Congress.

Even after he failed to get the Patiyali ticket, Gandhi has not stopped working for the Congress. He has been part of 10 training camps in different parts of the state during poll season, helping educate polling agents on their rights and duties in the election process. For the Congress, which had virtually been non-existent for two decades in the state, the UP election is a project aimed at reviving itself and registering its presence as a serious contender. Party bigwigs have gone about this task by focusing attention on Mayawati’s errors of omission and commission over the past five years, while also highlighting the alleged misrule of the BJP and SP before that.

Grassroot workers like Gandhi have been trying to register the Congress’ presence at every polling booth, where it matters most. Ask Gandhi about Patiyali, and he tells you the problems of his constituency: a largely agrarian region on the banks of the river Ganga that has been facing floods for two consecutive years every monsoon season. Compensation sums have been meagre, sugarcane farmers do not get their arrears in time from sugar mills (one of which the Shervanis incidentally own in the area), subsidised fertilisers end up being sold in the open market at a premium, and so on. Last year, after the floods, Gandhi sat down with locals outside the Kanshiram Nagar Deputy Commissioner’s office on a hunger strike to have local grievances addressed. In a three-week long padyatra that he undertook in the constituency, he went from door to door in every village, collecting data on residents and noting down their problems.

In contrast, Vasu Yadav knows little about the region. She now lives in Preet Vihar in Delhi with her husband. She had earlier studied at Modern School on Barakhamba Road and gained diplomas in engineering and fashion design in Delhi. “My father joined the Congress and I suddenly got this opportunity to contest the election. Rahul Gandhi thinks it will be a good example for young people,” she says. “Female literacy is very low [in this area] , I don’t have the figures, I would like to work on that.”

Ask Vasu’s father what the Congress will do for the constituency, and he parrots what Rahul Gandhi has been saying at his rallies: “We won’t make promises. If Vasu gets elected, we will [take] the problems of the people [to] the Assembly.”

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On polling day, 23 February, as voters queue up at the Pre-Middle School in Sidhpura to cast their votes, polling agents for different candidates are busy chatting in the sun. The Congress’ agent Haneef Mansoori says he has been with the party since 1982. “I am supporting Kunwar Devendra Singh Yadav’s daughter because she is the party’s candidate,” he says, “We are old Congress loyalists.” Mansoori tells his counterparts from other parties that Yadav was initially a Congressman too; then he went to the SP and BSP. One of the younger men butts in, “And the BJP too.”

Mansoori says he does not remember Yadav ever joining the BJP. The men break into a discussion.

Meanwhile in New Delhi, Abdul Hafiz Gandhi is in his JNU campus hostel room, back from polling awareness camps. Some 30 km away from Patiyali, Rahul Gandhi’s chopper descends from the skies to a ground in Chharra packed with cheering spectators. He has gained confidence since he first began campaigning in the dust and heat of UP. In the 2007 polls, he would stick to his script. On the campaign trail this time round, he has changed his style completely. His speeches seem spontaneous, and they are refreshingly interactive.

He picks out an 18-year-old tea vendor from the crowd, and engages him in a public interview. His name is Salman, it turns out. Rahul has a series of other questions. How many hours do you work? How much do you earn? Do you want to go to college? And so on. Young people like Salman are busy building India every day of their lives, the Congress leader tells the crowd, but the government in Lucknow doesn’t care for them. “I have come here,” he declares, “to help such youngsters who build India every day.”