On Sunday morning, all roads leading to the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi were blocked. As I made my way to grounds via metro, a group of khadi-clad men and women, who boarded from Jor Bagh station and identified themselves to me as All India Congress Committee (AICC) members, declared the fact cheerfully. “Buses won’t take us anywhere today,” one of them said with a grin. “We will have to walk from the New Delhi station.” The stalling of public transport, along with roadblocks and litter, is a reliable metric of a political rally’s success, and the Congress was determined to make Rahul Gandhi’s return a grand spectacle.
After a leave of fifty-six days for “personal reasons,” the Congress vice president has come back when the party is pressing a specific, pro-poor agenda: opposition to the proposed changes in the Land Acquisition Bill. Yesterday, behind barricades, barbed wires and tin shade, he met delegations of farmers—duly delivered by party leaders in air-conditioned cars—at his residence on Tughlak Lane. “I received a message from Ashok Tanwar—president of the Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee—we had a meeting before coming here,” Surendra Dahiya, a farmer who came from Haryana, told me. Others had similar stories to tell, not many were sure if they would have come on their own.
However the famers duly made their appearance, and in large numbers . On Thursday, when PC Chako, former member of Parliament from Kerala, stated during the press interaction after a conference that was held at the AICC office that the party was expecting one lakh farmers to attend the rally, he was met with sniggers from journalists. Whatever the truth of the reported number of 80,000 attendees, Ramlila Maidan was packed. Manmohan Singh was present on the stage, so was Sonia Gandhi, but this was clearly an event to commemorate Rahul’s return. Singh kept his speech short, and made way for Rahul, whom he referred to as, “the heartbeat of the young India.”
Rahul’s speech was peppered with rhetoric, and he delivered it convincingly. “Before the rise of Information Technology and before the rise of industries, the foundation of this country was built by the farmer,” he asserted. He reminded the crowd of all the programs the United Progressive Alliance had introduced for the poor, and how the new government has forgotten about them. He talked of his visits to Vidarbha, Bundelkhand and Bhatta Parsaul and made personal attacks on Narendra Modi.
“To win the elections, he took loans worth thousands of crore from industrialists and he is going to pay them back with your land,” Rahul declared to a responsive crowd. “Make in India is a dream that will never come true. You will lose your land and there will be no jobs.” He concluded by saying that that Modi was trying to paint a building while destroying its foundation—the farmers. “That is the Gujarat Model,” he said. Rahul appeared to have touched the right notes with the crowd as he assured them that he would fight their fight.
The anticipation started to dissipate soon after Sonia started speaking. Although she got around fifteen to twenty minutes to make her speech, there was little she said that had not been said before. The Congress seems to have picked its fight; Rahul’s return is timely, and the leadership is doing everything it can for him to find his tune. The rally was less about the farmers and more about Rahul’s revival after a long absence from the political sphere. This was a start, another one, and he played his part, but telltale signs of the competitive sycophancy that played a major role in the fall of the Congress were still visible on the stage. The revival of the party is just as crucial and is going to be just as difficult as that of Rahul Gandhi.
Back in the metro, New Delhi station was indistinguishable from the New Delhi railway station. There was confusion, policemen were using megaphones to get the crowd to form queues. People sat—and slept—everywhere, and I saw someone smoking a bidi in one part of the station. Amidst this chaos, the calls “Rahul Gandhi Zindabaad!” were barely audible.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.