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Uttar Pradesh's Renouncer King

While Rahul Gandhi's attempt to reach out to the masses in Uttar Pradesh through a series of well-planned visits, dine-ins and stay-overs in its villages has often been derided, a visit to some of these villages indicates that the politics of an image makeover may be yielding some results for the Congress. Will this be enough to make a difference to the upcoming elections in the state?

FROM THE STATES
Uttar Pradesh’s Renouncer King Badri Narayan Pasi, Dhanuk, Tatwa, Rangrej and so on. They believe him to be an honest and good leader and feel that all leaders should be like him since he comes straight to them without the police or politicians mediat-

While Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to reach out to the masses in Uttar Pradesh through a series of well-planned visits, dine-ins and stay-overs in its villages has often been derided, a visit to some of these villages indicates that the politics of an image makeover may be yielding some results for the Congress. Will this be enough to make a difference to the upcoming elections in the state?

Badri Narayan (badrinarayan.gbpssi@gmail. com) is with the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute of the University of Allahabad.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 11, 2012

I
f there is one political leader who has been in the news in Uttar Pradesh (UP) for his unconventional behaviour of mingling with the common people, sharing meals and interacting with them without many security guards, it is Rahul Gandhi. However, most journalists as well as scholars whom I spoke to in Delhi and Lucknow insist that Rahul Gandhi’s travels to dalit villages will have a negligible effect on the dalit electorate. Mayawati too had said that Rahul Gandhi’s nautanki (drama) will be wasted on the dalits. On the other hand, observations during my visits to various villages of central and eastern UP to study popular politics and the working of democracy suggest otherwise. It does appear that in the villages which Rahul Gandhi visited, the villagers, across castes, have developed a visible sense of affiliation with and attraction to him. Interestingly, in recent weeks some opinion among journalists and scholars too has started echoing this indication that there might be a strong emergence of the Congress in UP. What effect it has in the forthcoming elections and how much this emergence will convert into seats remain doubtful. Let me share a few observations from some of the villages we, a team of researchers, visited in UP. Two days after Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Mallipur and Harsingpur villages of Mirzapur,1 we visited these villages to conduct an impact analysis. We met an old woman belonging to a middle caste who told us that there was once a king who became a yogi after observing the sorrow of the people and wandered from village to v illage. In the same manner “Sonia’s bitwa” (Rahul Gandhi) is now wandering among us like a yogi, she said. Not only was a sense of trust in Rahul G andhi visible among the upper castes of the village, but also among those who belonged to several lower and marginalised castes like the Kurmi, Bharbhuja, Kol, Bansor,

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ing between them. He speaks directly with them and shares their joys and sorrows. We were often told that there is no one else to share their lives with since no other politician comes “down to their level”. Among these villagers a person who shares their joys and sorrows is their well-wisher, their relative and their own kith and kin.

Another Muslim woman whose son had recently drowned in a river in the Chilh village of Mirzapur told us that Rahul Gandhi visited them and shared her sorrow for nearly 10 minutes, adding that he now has a home in their hearts forever. When we visited another settlement adjacent to the Ravidas temple in Varanasi known as Ravidasia basti Kshirgoverdhanpur immediately after Rahul Gandhi’s visit, we met a man belonging to the Ravidasia Chamar caste, a solid support base of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who told us that in the past they were all Congress voters. Later the BSP came and they shifted allegiance, but now that Rahul Gandhi has once again come to them they are renewing their earlier ties with the Congress. Another young man standing nearby remarked that Rahul Gandhi is a “wonderful leader”. He comes straight to us and drinks tea in a kulhar (clay cup) with us. “Is there any other leader today who does this? The others cite security reasons but doesn’t Rahul Gandhi have to fear a security breach? He went straight to the Ravidas temple without informing anyone, stayed there for one hour, interacted with the people there and then went away”. An old woman who was also present said they might vote for the BSP this time, but they will press the “button” [of the electronic voting machine] for Rahul Gandhi in the “Delhi elections” [Parliamentary polls]. It thus seems that slowly yet steadily, the forging of ties with people at the level of the village and basti, and sharing their joys and sorrows seems to be having some effect.

As a part of our study we also did a random study of the Congress rally orga nised

FROM THE STATES

at Trivenipuram, Jhusi, Allahabad on 14 November 2011. This was officially the first rally of Congress Party for the UP state elections. Our respondents belonged to the upper, backward and scheduled castes (SCs) as well as scheduled tribes (STs). Almost half the respondents for our survey were from the backward castes. Thirty per cent belonged to upper castes (brahmins, Bhumihar) and the remaining 20% belonged to SCs and Sts. The SCs were mainly from the Pasi, Sonkar, Saroj, Chamar, Hela, Valmiki subcastes. The backward castes were mainly Patel, Kurmi, Bind and Yadav. Our survey revealed that an image of Rahul Gandhi as an honest, dedicated and conscientious leader is emerging among people of every caste and class. His speech seemed to hit the right note and many of our backward and SC respondents said that they feel an intimate relation with him.

In another survey of rallies of Rahul Gandhi in two reserved constituencies, Mehnagar2 and Lalganj3 of Azamgarh district on 10 January 2012, we found that about half the assembled crowd were those who had decided to vote for the Congress and the rest were those who were either undecided or were supporters of other parties. Among the latter, from among our sample, we found that almost 20% were planning to vote for the Congress after listening to Rahul Gandhi’s speech. Bhalchandra Yadav (35 years) a supporter of the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Lalganj said immediately after the meeting, Rahul ko sunane ke baad lagta hai ki vote unhi ko de. (After listening to Rahul, I feel that my vote should go to the Congress.) It must also be noted here that we found many people who came to the rallies just to have a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi and to listen to him speak. Apparently, the Congress general secretary has succeeded in creating a buzz about himself among the voters.

While returning from the rally we heard some people commenting that though Rahul Gandhi spoke well, caste factors will as always dominate the voting pattern in UP. But some others contradicted this view. A Rajbhar youth Vanshraj (30 years) of Srikantpur said Abki jati ka asar totega. Log Jaat pat se oob chuke hai, ab unhe ek achhi aur nayi soch chahiye jo Rahul denge (The influence of caste will break this time. People are fed up of this caste-community stuff. Now they want good and new thinking which they will get from Rahul Gandhi). We observed that Rahul Gandhi’s speech created some churn even among those who were identified as strong supporters of other parties. In our surveys we found that even among the Chamars of the dalits and Yadavs of the backward castes, who are considered the pakke pani ka vote (committed voters) for the BSP and SP, respectively, some voices of uncertainty about their commitments to these parties have emerged and there is a growing fondness for Rahul Gandhi and appreciation for the Congress. In particular, we found that there was a sense of intimacy which people seem to be developing with Rahul Gandhi’s persona and it would be due to this, among other factors, that a kind of political shift is now visible in the backward and SCs.

In the folk consciousness that exists among the villagers of UP there is a distinct image in the minds of the people of a king who is a hero and leader. In this image the ideal king is one who renounces his riches and accepts the poverty of his subjects, moves among people and shares their joys and sorrows. Kings who live lavishly, even if they do get their votes, fail to make that emotional connect and are unable to touch a moral chord with the rural masses. It appears that Rahul Gandhi has understood this psyche and is responding to it in his image makeover by repeatedly visiting villages, eating with the local people, sleeping in night shelters with the homeless and dalits, drinking water from handpumps and is seemingly spontaneous in his outreach to the people. There is also the image in the folk ballads of a Jogi raja (renouncer king) like Sorthi-Birjabhar who used to roam among people after sacrificing all his material comforts. Rahul Gandhi seems to have successfully managed to tap this folk ethos through his image makeover. It also appears that Rahul Gandhi is managing to break the stranglehold of caste in political mobilisation and support. However we have to wait and see how much this new image will garner votes for the Congress Party.

Notes

1 The combined population of these two villages duo is approximately 10,000. Mallipur has a population of 4,000 and is dominated by brahmins and Yadavs. The brahmin, Yadav, Harijan and Kurmi population are 1,800, 600, 1,000 and 400 respectively (approximately). The other smaller dalit castes in the village like Bharbhujwa, Kahar, etc, are about 200 in number. Village Harsingpur has a population of 5,000. This village is dominated by brahmins, Yadavs and Pasis with about 1,500, 800 and 1,000 people respectively. The Chamars are approximately 500 in number while the Patel population is

200. The other smaller dalit castes Bharbhujwa, Kahar Gond, etc, are about 200 in number.

2 Mehnagar is 36 km far from Azamgarh district headquarters and well connected to Varanasi and Jaunpur. Population is approximately 16,000. This town has an SC population of about 4,000, while the combined population of brahmin, Khsatriya, Muslim and Baniya is approximately 6,000. The backward castes, Yadav, Kurmi, Kahar are about 3,000.

3 Lalganj town is situated on Varanasi National highway. About a third of the population is of the Yadavs and SCs, each, while the upper castes together would constitute about 20% of the town.

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