Rahul Pays Tribute To Rajiv Gandhi Ahead Of Bharat Jodo Yatra

Ahead of starting the much-hyped ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday attended a prayer meeting at the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial in Sriperumbudur on Wednesday.

Rahul Gandhi paid floral tribute at his father’s memorial. Sriperumbudur is where his father Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in a bomb blast on May 21, 1991, while campaigning for the Lok Sabha polls.

Local Congress leaders including Karnataka state party chief DK Shivakumar were present at the prayer meeting.

After the prayer meet, Rahul Gandhi left for Kanyakumari where Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin will present him the Tricolour. The Congress leader will address a rally while officially kickstarting the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

In what is being seen as a Congress’ “masterstroke” to take on the Narendra Modi government in the upcoming 2024 elections, the party is launching the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ today in which Rahul Gandhi will start the 3,570 km journey lasting about 150 days from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.

As the party begins the nationwide yatra, some pertinent questions arise about the lodging and flooding of Rahul Gandhi. However, the party has made it clear that he will not stay in any hotel but rather will complete the entire journey in a simple manner.

Rahul Gandhi is going to stay in the container for the next 150 days. Sleeping beds, toilets and AC are also installed in some of the containers. During the journey, the temperature and environment will differ in many areas. The arrangements have been made keeping in view the intense heat and humidity with the change of places.

“About 60 such containers have been prepared and sent to Kanyakumari where a village has been set up in which all these containers have been placed. The container will be parked in a new place every day in the shape of a village for night rest. Full-time Yatris who stay with Rahul Gandhi will eat together and stay close,” said the sources.

The sources further said that Rahul Gandhi considers the Bharat Jodo Yatra journey as a way to connect with the common people.

“So he wants to complete this entire journey in a simple way away from the glitz and glamour. Rahul Gandhi calls it a journey but political analysts consider it a preparation for 2024,” the sources added.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress party’s general secretary, on Tuesday asserted that through the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ people will be united on issues like inflation, and unemployment among other matters of public importance.

“We are starting a positive politics. We want to hear from you, we want to solve your problems. We want to unite our beloved country. Let’s unite India together,” Priyanka said in a Facebook video.

Politics today has turned a blind eye towards people and their issues, she added.

“Political discussion today isn’t focusing on the people of the country, it has taken a different turn altogether. Politics today has turned a blind eye towards people and their issues. Through this ‘yatra’ we want to bring out the problems and concerns of the common man,” Priyanka said.

The senior Congress party leader urged people to join the ‘yatra,’ adding that people should unite to make the country prosperous.

The yatra will proceed mainly through 12 states, including Himachal Pradesh, where Assembly polls are due later this year. (ANI)

Elections And Yo-Yoing Popularity Of Modi

If you looked at a comprehensive list of festivals in India it could seem staggering. India is often known as the country of festivals. With its range of diverse cultures, languages, costumes, number of religions, number of gods or avatars of god that are worshipped, and different ethnic backgrounds that is not surprising. But there is one type of festival that is different from the others and, possibly, unique to India. These are elections.

In any other democracy, elections are only a necessity, a periodic group decision-making process through which citizens choose individuals to public office: a mere means to an end. But in India, elections, especially when they are for electing MPs or MLAs become supercharged events that can rival the most popular festivals in the country.

In roughly two months from now will begin a series of elections to state assemblies. The elections covering seven states (eight, if Jammu & Kashmir, where there is President’s Rule, also goes to the polls) will begin in February and go on till the end of 2022. And because these state assembly elections can have a bearing on what happens in the parliamentary elections in 2024, the entire political apparatus of the country will be obsessed with them.

Among the states that will hold elections are important ones. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India (pop: >204 million) where the BJP has been in power since 2017 is one. Many believe that what happens in the UP elections often determines the outcome of parliamentary elections. Gujarat, a stronghold of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state where he was chief minister for over a dozen years, is another. Then there are other small but significant elections. In Goa, where the BJP is in power, and where the contest has usually been between the BJP and the Congress, there is an aggressive new challenger–Mamata Banerjee’s All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC).

ALSO READ: Nuts & Bolts Of Mamata’s Not So Nutty Plan For Goa

What happens in Punjab would also be interesting to watch. Although the Congress is in power in the state, a few months back the state’s former chief minister and veteran Congressman Amarinder Singh resigned because of internal discord in the party. Singh has now announced the formation of his own party and that may be a force to contend with. In Punjab, it has traditionally been a two-sided battle between the Akali Dal and its alliances and the Congress and its alliances. If the former chief minister forms a new party and enters the fray, the shape of the contest could change dramatically.

In the meantime, there are mixed perceptions about the popularity of Mr. Modi and his party, which won the parliamentary elections convincingly (the National Democratic Alliance, which the BJP leads, has 334 of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha) in 2019. That clearly meant Mr Modi and his party were in top form when it came to popularity. But in August this year, when India Today magazine did its Mood of the Nation survey, polling 14,600 respondents, just 24% of them said they considered Modi best suited to be India’s Prime Minister.

Mr Modi’s plummeting popularity may have quite a bit to do with the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has hit India hard and while infections, hospitalization, and deaths have soared, it is the economic impact of the pandemic that has hit Indians hard. As many as 70% of the respondents in the poll said their incomes had fallen during the pandemic, and a third of them charged his government with inability to rein in price rises across the board–beginning with petrol and diesel prices that have soared.

How accurate are such surveys? It’s difficult to say. Because, in October, barely two months after the Mood of the Nation survey, another survey by YouGov, an international Internet-based market research and data analytics firm, found that Mr Modi’s approval ratings had bounced back. Based on YouGov’s methodology, his popularity among urban Indians had increased from 53% in August to 59% in October.

Part of the problem with such surveys is their sample size of respondents. India’s population is in excess of 1.3 billion. Even if we consider the urban proportion of that, it is more than 480 million people. The Mood of the Nation survey had 14,600 respondents. And, YouGov’s survey had 5,095. These are very small sample numbers relative to the universe that they try to find a proxy for and the accuracy of opinion polls based on such samples in a very diverse country can be questioned. For the record, the YouGov survey found that there was a North-South divide in Mr Modi’s approval ratings: he enjoyed a 63% approval rating among residents of Northern India, but 36% of those residing in Southern India disapproved of him.

There are, however, some fun facts in other survey-based research that YouGov has done. In YouGov America’s survey of The Most Popular Foreign Politicians, carried out among US citizens in the third quarter of 2021, Mr Modi ranks at No. 13, just below Russia’s Vladimir Putin (No. 12) and just above Mexico’s former president, Enrique Pena Nieto. And just in case, you are wondering who was on top on that list, here it is: at No.1 it was Angela Merkel, the former chancellor of Germany; at second spot, it was Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and at the third position, it was France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

Expect No Miracle But Priyanka Makes polls Exciting

As political parties in India get ready for the mother-of-all electoral battles, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has emerged as the X-factor in the forthcoming contest.

Her formal entry into politics nearly two months ago as Congress general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh created a buzz in political circles. For starters, Priyanka succeeded in galvanizing an otherwise frustrated and dejected party cadre. 

Always seen as a natural and instinctive politician unlike her brother Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Congress workers had been clamouring for years that Priyanka is given a larger role in the party. Her resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi, her easy connect with people and her ability to give speeches in flawless Hindi had convinced the party rank and file that Priyanka indeed possesses the Midas touch to turnaround the  Congress’s fortunes, not just in Uttar Pradesh but across the country.

However, Priyanka is a mystery for the Congress party’s political opponents. The Bharatiya Janata Party was, of course, quick to attack the Congress for promoting dynastic politics when Priyanka was appointed party general secretary. The BJP followed it up by highlighting her husband Robert Vadra’s involvement in dubious land deals. At the same time, the Modi government fast-tracked pending inquiries against Vadra soon after Priyanka’s plunge into politics. Her decision to back her husband and her public declaration that she “stands by her family” baffled the BJP as it did not know how it should react to Priyanka the politician. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, which left the Congress out of their seat-sharing arrangement in Uttar Pradesh, is also wary about the impact Priyanka could make in this electorally-crucial state which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha.

After its initial acerbic comments on Priyanka, the BJP decided to ignore the new Gandhi in the field. On her part, Priyanka also went underground after making a splash with a roadshow in Lucknow. The Pulwama attack and India’s retaliatory air strike against Pakistan sent the Congress into a tailspin and forced it to put its political activities on a temporary hold. Priyanka’s much-awaited press conference was called off while her tour programme was deferred. With the BJP riding high on its nationalist agenda, it appeared that the euphoria over Priyanka’s political debut had waned.

But now that the Lok Sabha election is round the corner and the country is in the grip of feverish political activity, Priyanka has come out of her shell. This will force the Congress party’s political rivals to reassess Priyanka’s political role.

After keeping a low-profile for the past two months, the new Congress general secretary finally addressed her first public meeting and, that too, in Ahmedabad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf. Her brief, understated speech referred to the Modi government’s failure to deliver on its promise to create more jobs while drawing attention to farmers’ woes and the issue of women’s security but without naming the Prime Minister.

At the same time, Priyanka has embarked on her first tour in Uttar Pradesh including a boat ride down the Ganga, from Prayagraj to Varanasi. Modi’s Parliamentary constituency. Undoubtedly, Priyanka is familiar with Uttar Pradesh. She has been managing both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituencies, Amethi and Rae Bareli, for several years now. But so far, she confined her activities to the two Nehru-Gandhi bastions. She is now stepping out of this safety zone and in a new role. Her public foray will be monitored closely by her own party and its rivals as each one seeks to assess how people are reacting to her and whether she can live up to her reputation as the Congress party’s trump card.

But Priyanka has a tough job at hand. The Congress has been reduced to a bit player in Uttar Pradesh, having lost its traditional support base of Brahmins, Dalits, and minorities to the BJP and the two regional forces, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. With a defunct party organisation and no social base, Priyanka requires more time to get the Congress back in shape. She was given charge of Eastern Uttar Pradesh barely three months before the election which certainly does not give her sufficient time to build a cadre and carve out a social base for the Congress.

As it is, Priyanka has to contend with a resurgent BJP, which got an impressive 42 percent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, the area under her charge. At the same time, the SP-BSP combine, which brings together the social forces of Dalits, Yadavs, and minorities, also poses a tough challenge as it has an equally strong presence in this region.

The Congress is hoping that Priyanka will succeed in disturbing the BJP’s Brahmin vote and reach out to Dalits and minorities, particularly women, youth and workers. It is a tall order but in the process of rebuilding and strengthening the Congress, the party may end up helping the BJP as her outreach has the potential of dividing the anti-BJP vote. It is unlikely that Priyanka’s presence will work instant miracles.

The Congress rank and file will possibly have to wait till the 2022 assembly election to find out if Priyanka has what it takes to pull the party out of oblivion. After all, Rahul Gandhi did say that Priyanka is here for a long haul.

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Indo-Pak Skirmish And Its Inevitable Political Fallout

In the early 2000s, not long after the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, which took hundreds, if not thousands of lives, but in which India claimed a decisive victory, we invited a hawkish Indian defence analyst and expert over to the magazine that I was then editing. The idea was to get his opinion on India’s preparedness for armed conflict in the region, particularly with the prevailing hostile relations with Pakistan and a potentially hostile and powerful neighbour like China. The expert (who will have to remain unnamed for now) was good. His knowledge was vast and insightful but being a hawk, his lecture and the subsequent discussions were burnished with aggressive posturing with the key point being that India was certainly in a stronger position vis-à-vis Pakistan and with greater political will it could teach an errant neighbour some hard home truths.

It was an invigorating discussion that opened up our fairly young editorial team’s minds to issues of strategy, defence, and armed conflict. But, following the talk, it was the afterglow that seemed take hold of many of my colleagues I remember vividly. Otherwise rational and perfectly reasonable young men and women strutted about the newsroom with aggressive posturing, some loudly lamenting that the Indian government was shying away from confronting Pakistan and that our armed forces should initiate military action against that nation and teach it a sound lesson.

That sort of sentiment seems to be swirling around in India now in the aftermath of the recent skirmish with Pakistan. Last month terrorists believed to be based in Pakistan suicide-bombed an Indian convoy in Kashmir and killed at least 40 security personnel. India retaliated by sending in warplanes to bomb what it claims to be a large terrorist training centre and camp in Pakistan. This was followed by an airstrike by Pakistan and dogfights in which one Indian plane was downed and a pilot captured. The pilot was released by Pakistan, which refuted India’s claims of decimating the terrorist hideout and took the high moral ground by offering peace dialogues with India over the disputed region of Kashmir.

But the main fallout of last month’s conflict was the chest-beating brand of patriotism that it spawned and the political capital that the current regime led by Mr Narendra Modi is drawing out of it. Mr Modi, his colleagues, and supporters have been proudly proclaiming the decisiveness of the Indian attack (never mind that the actual damage may have been much less than the claims that hundreds of terrorists had perished during the attack). Otherwise reasonable people in civil society as well as India’s noisy and colourful media have earned a sort of bragging rights over the skirmish, and some of them have even been baying for Pakistan’s blood. With less than a month left before millions of Indians head towards polling booths to cast their votes in the national elections, this mood is significant.

It is significant because Mr Modi, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its allies are quite resolved to making the newest incidence of tension between India and Pakistan into an election issue. Dipstick surveys will likely show that the electorate’s faith in Mr Modi has strengthened as a consequence of the conflict. But what may be more important is the impact (or rather the lack of it) on those who politically oppose Mr Modi. In the past few months opposition leaders, including those of the Congress party and a host of other regional groupings, have been trying to forge an alliance aimed at ousting Mr Modi and his party during the coming elections. Several fault-lines, however, have emerged in that endeavour: there is no clear leader of the opposition alliance that can command support of the motley assemblage of parties; the political ambitions of several regional leaders are seen to be colliding against each other; and there is no clear-cut common electoral strategy that seems to have emerged.

More seriously, the opposition appears to be more than just a bit stumped by the wave of nationalistic fervour that Mr Modi and his alliance have drummed up. In the prevailing environment of patriotic pride and hawkishness towards Pakistan expressing any criticism (or even mild differences of opinion) is fraught with the risks of being labelled “anti-national”, which, with elections around the corner, can prove to be disastrous for anyone with political ambitions. Even mild questioning by some Congress leaders of BJP president Amit Shah’s claim that more than 250 terrorists had died in India’s bombing of a site in Pakistan led to counter-attacks by the BJP that labelled the Congress as being anti-India.

The problem for the opposition parties is compounded by the fact that little has emerged from their side in the form of a cogent, coherent strategy that can be part of their electoral campaign. In spite of a plethora of issues that have plagued the Modi regime—lack of jobs; distress in the farm sector; irregularities in a major arms deal such as the one for acquiring Rafale fighter jets from France; and growing insecurity among India’s minorities—besides criticism, the opposition parties haven’t been seen proffering their solutions for such problems. The Congress’ president, Mr Rahul Gandhi, is visibly more active politically than he has ever been. In Uttar Pradesh, a state which accounts for the largest number of seats in India’s Parliament and which will play a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the elections, the Congress has a new team—Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, and a relatively young leader, Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia—to spearhead its campaign but thus far their impact has been limited.

Part of the problem for leaders in the opposition, specifically in the Congress, is that when Mr Modi changed the rules of contesting elections, they were taken a bit by surprise. Mr Modi fought and won the 2014 elections by aggressive promotion of himself as the prime ministerial candidate; and by making specific promises about progress, development and improvement in the lives of Indians. It was like a presidential election where candidates project their personalities and their individual strengths to garner votes. In contrast, the Congress fought (and lost badly) the 2014 elections without even a declared candidate for the prime ministerial post. Mr Gandhi’s rallies were pale compared to Mr Modi’s thunderous ones. The leaders of the Congress, which is the only other national party of consequence other than the BJP, appear to contest elections the way the party did in the 1980s when it, for the large part, had no real challengers. That strategy is unlikely to work for it any longer.

The audience (read electorate) has changed. Exposure to digital and social media (which the BJP and its supporters deploy much more efficiently than other parties) have made India’s electorate a lot more aware and demanding. In such a context, the Congress’ style of using emotional appeal and the (fast fading) charisma of the Gandhi family can seem anachronistic. Many supporters of Congress point to the elevation and induction of Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, as a sort of trump card that the party could use in the coming elections but the fact is that she is quite untested in active politics—a newbie really if you discount her past activities, which have basically centred around nurturing and visiting the pocket boroughs of her family—her brother’s and her mother’s constituencies in UP.

As for the mainly regional parties that make up the so-called grand alliance of the opposition, none of their leaders enjoys a national stature that can be built or leveraged to position against Mr Modi. In such circumstances, and particularly in the aftermath of India’s skirmish with Pakistan, the advantage as Indians get ready to vote could seem to lie with Mr Modi and his allies.

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