Rahul fends neglect charge by promising to focus on UP

New Delhi,May 29: Reestablishing Congress’s primacy in Uttar Pradesh remains top priority for party general secretary Rahul Gandhi who feels the heartland state is tired of being buffetted by caste and religion based politics and is ready for a vision that focuses on development.

Faced with a barrage of questions about the dichotomy between his “mission UP” and the lack of ministerial representation to the state, the leader sought to bat away the googlies by arguing that “It is not about how many Lok Sabha seats or ministerships we win. It is about bringing development (back on agenda).”

In a bid to sound reassuring that UP had not fallen off the map and to address anticipated sniper shots from Congress’s political rivals, Rahul Gandhi signalled his decision to abjure a cabinet berth meant that his attention on UP would remain undiluted.

“For 20 years UP has been offered caste and religion. It is time to create an offering that improves the future,” he said.

Unlike when the first round of Cabinet ministers were sworn-in last Friday, Rahul Gandhi seemed more than prepared to express his views. He spoke of his aim to bringing in the youth vote, a task Congress chief Sonia Gandhi seems to have in mind for him as well and she noted “he had a big responsibility to bring in young people.”

Fending off the charge of UP being downsized in the new government, in a half-jocular manner she pointed to Rahul Gandhi to say, “Here is the reason. He is refusing to become a minister.

He wants to work for the party.” But the jesting note was also damage control. Sonia then endorsed Rahul Gandhi’s choice to sit out of the Cabinet saying “It was his decision. I left it to him” but adding “he is doing more than sitting at a cabinet meeting.”

Rahul Gandhi sees UP as central to the project to place Congress at the centre of national politics and his aim to cut through the thicket of caste that the state now appears is not too dissimilar from JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar’s efforts in neighbouring Bihar.

Though caste has hardly vanished from Bihar’s landscape, the chief minister seems to have injected development into the state’s political mainstream.

While Rahul Gandhi’s praise of Kumar’s politics ahead of the poll results may have been to soften-up a potential ally if UPA had to scramble for numbers, the prescription for UP is, in a theoretical sense, not too different. But while the JD(U) chief has slogged it out for more than a decade before getting the better of RJD’s Lalu Prasad, Rahul has some distance to go, something he seemed to acknowledge when he said, “There is a lot of work to do in UP.”

While ready to hold forth on UP and Congress’s youth wings, he was reticent on whether his go-it-alone model could apply to Maharashtra as well where assembly elections are due in September-October.

He merely said, “You will have to ask the Congress president”, pointing in Sonia’s direction. Yet, some may choose to read a bit in his refusal to straightaway affirm Congress’s alliance with NCP boss Sharad Pawar, of whose prime ministerial ambitions he has been openly dismissive.

Rahul Gandhi rounded off by saying, “What we have done is a big step. I did not expect this result.” If he does indeed keep his nose to the grindstone, he would have done more than dozens of reports on plans for Congress’s “revival” in UP stashed away in cupboards at the AICC.