For months, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have been accused of Work From Home politics and of preferring to tweet from the safety of their homes rather than hitting the streets. Which is why their decision to travel to Hathras to commiserate with the family of the rape victim who was surreptitiously cremated in the dead of night by the state administration was bound evoke both curiosity and controversy. And by stopping and then arresting the Gandhis, the UP police has given the Congress a much-needed talking point in UP and beyond.
The UP police displayed great alacrity in not just preventing but detaining Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka. The promptness and the robustness on display by the UP Police on the Noida Expressway was in sharp contrast to the callous manner in which it approached and dealt with the rape case in Hathras. Given carte blanche by the state government, the high-handedness of the state police has laid itself open to the charge of serving a partisan agenda.
The police not only prevented the Gandhis from proceeding to Hathras but also banned the media from doing so, citing Corona preventive measures and the imposition of Section 144. In doing so, they inadvertently allowed the Congress leaders far more traction than their visit may have attracted under normal circumstances. For once, the Congress found the spotlight on itself in a state where it has been struggling to retain a foothold since it lost power in 1990.
The Congress is desperate to regain the ground it lost so dramatically 30 years ago. UP was till 1990 considered the pocket borough of the Congress: almost all its Prime Ministers barring P V Narasimha Rao and later Dr Manmohan Singh were from the state. However, the party found itself squeezed out with the advent of the politics of Mandal vs Kamandal and has since really struggled to remain relevant in the state.
Ever since Priyanka Gandhi took over as the General Secretary in charge of the state, she has been striving to revamp the party organisation and transform the party into agitational mode. We first saw evidence of it when she refused to allow the UP police to prevent her from meeting with the family of an anti-CAA protestor in Lucknow. She also kept raising the demand for Dr Kafeel Khan’s release from jail and was instrumental in helping him shift to Jaipur to avoid further trouble at the hands of the UP police.
While Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have been conspicuous by their absence (though the Samajwadi Party did make a belated attempt to protest today), Priyanka Gandhi has been in regular touch with the Hathras victim’s family, besides posting regular updates on social media. George Fernandes, one of the heroes of the movement against the Emergency, once remarked that the real test of a opposition leader depends on the number of lathi blows that he has received. Visuals of Congress workers breaking the police cordon and specially of Rahul Gandhi being manhandled and pushed to the ground will have done more to burnish both his and his party’s credentials than their countless tweets and interventions on social media.
The Congress leadership has been at the receiving end of criticism from both its opponents as well as from within the party for limiting to social media their opposition to the present dispensation. Their decision to hit the road stands out especially at a time when both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have been lukewarm in their response. It also suggests that the Congress now realises that the road to political redemption lies in protesting on the streets and amongst the people. This however is not the first time that Rahul Gandhi has protested in such a dramatic fashion. He did so in 2011 at Bhatta Parsaul against the Mayawati government’s land acquisition policy.
Both Rahul Gandhi and his sister have displayed gumption and courage in confronting the Yogi administration, and their decision to lead from the front is bound to fire up their workers and supporters. The dramatic scenes at the Noida Expressway and their subsequent detention have earned their party a lot of points. But the road to political redemption does not lie through one-off protests. The pushback has to be on a consistent basis and on issues that resonate with the people.
The UP Chief Minister’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with issues, coupled with his administration’s attempt to stifle dissent and prevent the media from discharging its duties, exemplified by the Hathras District Magistrate’s warning to the victim’s family today that the “media will leave, we will always be here”, is certainly not endearing the state administration to the people. It needs a vibrant opposition to capitalise on it.
The Congress traditionally has been a party of governance and has never been comfortable in the role of an opposition party. In leading from the front, both Rahul and Priyanka have not only displayed the right political instincts and courage, but also demonstrated a willingness to put in the hard yards. The challenge for them will be to do this on a consistent basis.
(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst.)
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