In the Gandhi political bastion, rural poor eye Narendra Modi's promise
Friday, Nov 29, 2013, 8:22 IST | Agency: Reuters:: If Sonia Gandhi and her Congress party need evidence that their policies of subsidies and safety nets for India's poor may no longer be enough to keep their support, they need look no further than her own constituency of Rai Bareli.
In the family borough in the northern heartland, which has been loyal to India's most powerful dynasty from the days of first Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru, voters want electricity, hospitals and roads, more than the cheap food on offer. Such a change of heart threatens to upend the Congress party's central calculation to win next year's election: that poor rural voters who make up the backbone of support will stay loyal because of the big welfare programmes it promotes, including a flagship $21 billion food subsidy scheme. Instead, even in such a bastion of Congress support as Rai Bareli district, opposition leader Narendra Modi's message of growth and investment is gaining ground, despite critics' misgivings about his hardline Hindu nationalist roots and a perceived bias against the nation's minority Muslims.
"We don't need subsidised food ... It's a donation and we don't want that charity," said Arjun Rewal, a farmer in the Rai Bareli hamlet of Shivgarh in the centre of India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. "We need hospitals with doctors, we need roads, we need electricity supply and we need someone who can tackle inflation," the 52-year-old said, emphasising his point with a stab of his earth-brown finger. Rewal and the farmers with him, who meet one evening a week in the grounds of an old palace, see Modi as the person who can deliver. "In this area, for the first time, people are talking about another political leader and that is Narendra Modi," he said. Modi has promised quick reforms and an end to a prolonged period of policy paralysis, pointing to the double-digit pace of expansion in the western state of Gujarat that he has governed for three terms.
Uttar Pradesh sends 80 members of parliament to New Delhi, more than any other state. In the last election in 2009, Congress won 21 seats and Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 10. According to a recent opinion poll by AC Nielsen for the Economic Times, the BJP could win 27 seats in Uttar Pradesh in the next election, due by May, with Congress winning just 12. Rahul Gandi, Nehru's great grandson, looks likely to lead the Congress into the election, but he was generally seen as lacklustre at state election rallies in Uttar Pradesh in 2012.