Monthly Archives: February 2012

An ineffective & illegal attempt to fix Indian counter-terrorism

The postponement of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre is another embarrassment for a government that seems incapable of involving others in decision-making. Its secretive way of working ensures that all objections arrive at once and publicly when an initiative finally reaches the light of day – which is a major reason why so many recent reforms have been scuttled.

In the case of the NCTC – which was little more than an attempt by the Home Ministry to build up its power base – this has not been a great loss. As I argue in my article below for The National, it was probably illegal and unlikely to make any real difference to India’s counter-terrorism capabilities. Or, as I wrote in Jane’s Intelligence Weekly:

Without dramatic improvements in human resources, equipment and organisation at the local level, there is little reason to believe that the NCTC would have been any more successful in establishing a national information database and intelligence network for terrorism and insurgency than previous attempts. An existing department, the Multi-Agency Centre, had already been created within the IB immediately after the Mumbai attacks with these core functions in mind, but a report by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management last week found that it “has still not been able to construct even a skeleton of this core.”

The National, Feb. 29 2012

NEW DELHI // The formation of India’s new counter-terrorism agency, meant to fix the major failings exposed by the Mumbai attacks of 2008, has been shelved just days before it was to be launched, in yet another embarrassing climbdown for the government.

The commando-style attacks on the business capital in November 2008 by Pakistan-based militants were a major embarrassment for the Indian security forces.

It took almost 10 hours for India’s premier rapid response unit, the National Security Guards, to reach the scene. For several hours, they were stranded at a Delhi airport without a plane.

Police and paramilitaries in Mumbai were so ill-prepared for an extended attack that many refused to engage the insurgents who targeted several locations across the city and began a three-day stand-off in the historic waterfront Taj hotel.

Officers were given bulletproof vests that could not withstand shots from an AK-47 or AK-56 assault rifles, leading to the death of Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare when a bullet from one of the attackers pierced his vest.

A chaotic response from the government meant there was no coordination between agencies and uncontrolled press announcements added to the panic and gave away valuable information to the attackers.

All this was supposed to be solved by the creation of a National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), announced by home minister P Chidambaram a year after the attacks.

Its role, he said, would “include preventing a terrorist attack, containing a terrorist attack should one take place, and responding to a terrorist attack by inflicting pain upon the perpetrators”.

But state governments have vigorously protested the lack of consultation. Fourteen state chief ministers wrote to the government complaining that the NCTC’s powers of arrest and seizure would infringe on their rights to manage issues of law and order.

Just three days before the NCTC was due to start, Mr Chidambaram announced on Monday the project was being postponed.

In his letter to the home ministry, Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, summed up their position.

“Where is the need … to create new centres like NCTC with provisions which arbitrarily trample upon the existing constitutional safeguards to protect the highly delicate balance of power between the centre and the states?” he asked.

In India, there are no federal crimes. The federal government is only allowed to intervene in security situations when it is invited by state governments.

There is a political edge to the dispute. Recent weeks have seen increased talk in the local press of a “third front” being formed by regional chieftains, including Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu. They are unlikely to seriously challenge the two leading parties at the centre – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a general election.

But the powerful grip they hold over their states is in stark contrast to the dithering, graft-ridden image of the federal government, and they are increasingly willing to challenge New Delhi.

They have helped block several key reforms, including a proposed anti-corruption watchdog and plans to introduce foreign investment in retail.

Despite their political motives, experts say opposition to the new counter-terrorism agency is well-founded.

“Constitutional rules cannot be renegotiated in this informal way,” said Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi think-tank

“You may have the best of intentions in giving increased powers to the central government to deal with terrorism, but tomorrow you may have a nasty regime in the centre which wants to abuse these powers and start arresting whoever it wants, and it will have the legal cover to do so.”

It is also far from clear the NCTC would have brought any significant improvement in counter-terrorism. “Nothing you do at the top level will help unless you have enough ground intelligence. There is a much more pressing need to improve the quality of local forces,” said Wilson John, a terrorism analyst with the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi.

The powers of the NCTC had already been significantly diluted since it was first put forward, thanks to a bitter turf war between the home ministry and other security agencies.

Pressure from the Intelligence Bureau, India’s domestic secret service, meant the original plans to have the NCTC as a stand-alone agency had to be scrapped. The version that emerged in January was no more than a department within the IB.

Meanwhile, a string of bombings, including attacks on Mumbai and Delhi last year, remain unsolved.

The bombing this month of an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi, suspected to be the work of Iranian agents, reinforced the impression that India is a soft touch for terrorists.

“Nothing the government has done is addressing the emerging threats within the country or from the neighbourhood,” said Mr John.

Mr Chidambaram says the NCTC is not dead yet. He will meet chief ministers and police heads from on March 10 in a bid to convince them about the proposal.

Follow The National’s South Asia coverage here.

In the city they strike for politics, in the countryside for basic rights

The National, Feb 28, 2012

NEW DELHI // Millions of government workers are set to strike today in one of the biggest industrial actions in Indian history.

All 11 of India’s central trade unions – each with at least 400,000 members – will take part.

They will be joined by about 5,000 local unions, after last-minute appeals for talks with the government were rejected over the weekend.

The strikes will hit every sector of the government, including state-run banks, energy and telecom companies and the civil service, but will not include the railways.

The unions say they are protesting against rising prices, privatisation of state-run companies and the widespread violation of workers’ rights.

“The policies of liberalisation over the past 20 years have made workers poorer in real terms and led to extreme disparities of wealth,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “The workers are creating all the profit but are treated like beasts. There is a resentment and anger churning at the ground level that has created the atmosphere for these strikes.”

The display of unity among the unions – whose affiliations stretch across the political spectrum – reflects their desire to regain the power they held during the years of militant labour activity in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The traditional trade unions in this country came out of the manufacturing sector,” said Bibek Debroy, an economist with the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank.

“Their membership is quite old and losing relevance compared with local unions in the services and rural sector. They are looking for a peg to re-establish their identity and influence.”

Many question how relevant the unions can be in a country where nine out of 10 workers are in the informal sector, with no job security or possibility of union representation.

“It’s laughable for these unions to say they represent the poor,” said Samir Saran, the vice president of the Observer Research Foundation, another Delhi think tank. “Members of trade unions have formal jobs. They are far better looked after than the majority of workers in this country.

“The reality is they represent a very organised political force from the past that wants to reassert itself.”

The strike offers a chance for some of the country’s most oppressed workers to protest very real issues.

In a developing state such as Chhattisgarh, for instance, which has seen a huge influx of energy companies, mines and manufacturing plants in recent years, small unions are struggling for the most basic rights.

“Workers here are attacked by thugs or thrown in jail on false charges if they try to set up a union,” said Bansi Sahu, of the Chhattisgarh Engineering Workers Union. “Land is taken from farmers to build a power plant and then the jobs are given to people from other states because the owners don’t want local communities protesting against the low wages and terrible safety conditions.”

In India, desperate levels of poverty often force workers into a grudging acceptance of exploitative labour practices.

The one-day stoppage comes at a difficult time for the government, which has been rocked by corruption scandals and has struggled to contain inflation, which was more than 9 per cent for the first 11 months of 2011 and only recently moderated to about 6.5 per cent.

“The danger for the government is not the strike itself, but whether it becomes fashionable,” said Mr Saran. “Like we saw with the anti-corruption movement last year, these agitations can have a spiralling effect.

“The unions smell blood. If even one of their demands resonates in one or two of the provinces and gets taken up by opposition parties, then suddenly the government could have a serious problem on its hands.”

A Gandhian college that brings solar light to the world

The National, Feb 24, 2012

TILONIA, INDIA // It’s not a sight you would normally expect in a remote Indian village, deep in the Rajasthani plains.

But walk in from the quiet, sun-blasted courtyard among old colonial buildings in Tilonia and you discover yourself among 30 African women working away at electrical circuits and soldering wires into solar panels.

These are the latest students learning to be solar technicians with the Barefoot College, a landmark charity built around Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and sustainable development. The women in this workshop have come from South Sudan, Liberia and Malawi, learning to install solar lighting in their homes with skills they can pass on to their neighbours.

“When I first came here, I didn’t even know the name of these materials,” said Asumta Achan, 35, a mother of two from a village in South Sudan. “Now I have many skills I never thought I would learn, and I can bring electricity to my village, which we have never had.”

Since the programme began in 2004, there have been more than 250 graduates from 28 countries, including Peru, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Barefoot pays for their transportation and stay.

The programme has proved such a success that the government of Sierra Leone recently agreed to set up its own version of the college, with 12 women who trained in Rajasthan leading the way.

“These women come from very simple backgrounds, but when they return, they will be leaders in their community,” said Bata Bhurji, one of Barefoot College’s full-time staff.

Around the corner, women from the surrounding Rajasthani villages were demonstrating their own skills, building large solar-powered cookers.

The disc-shaped mirrors reflect sunlight down towards a small stove, concentrating enough heat to set paper alight in only a few seconds, while a clockwork mechanism rotates the device to keep it automatically in line with the sun.

“In summer, a village can save up to 10 gas cylinders every month by using one of these,” said Norti Devi, a 40-year-old from Kakalwadi village.

In a bright red sari, she hardly looks like a master welder and machine-tool operative. But after six years on the job, her years of raising children and herding goats are long behind her.

“I love this work. I never thought I would find myself doing this kind of job,” she said.

Read the rest here…

Stressed villagers in battle to crush Aravalli Hills ‘mining mafia’

Plants caked with dust near the stone-crushing unit on Dabla mountain (Pic: Panini Anand)

From The National, Feb 23, 2012

NEEM KA THANA, INDIA // One of India’s most stunning mountain ranges is under threat from an illegal stone-mining “mafia”, residents say.

Gulla Ram, a 70-year-old farmer in the village of Biharipur on Dabla mountain, is driven to tears as he describes how stressful his life has become.

“We have 100 trucks coming through our village every day. It is like a living hell,” he said.

Sure enough, a truck came hurtling through the narrow dirt-track in the centre of the village just seconds after he spoke – a thundering behemoth shattering the peaceful evening in the remote mountain village.

When it is not trucks, it is explosions. Often dozens at a time. They can come at any moment of the day or night.

“We are waiting for the explosion that kills us,” said Lali, a 50-year-old resident, as she showed the cracks that have appeared in the walls of her home over the past two years.

The villages on the mountain have become the main focus of resistance to what locals refer to as the “mining mafia”. They accuse local politicians and police of conspiring with quarry owners to ignore regulations.

The Aravalli mountain range, which includes Dabla, stretches deep into central India, but is rarely as arresting as in Rajasthan – breaking out in majestic, other-worldly formations from a rugged landscape of yellow scrubland and rocky desert. But these days, the mountains have become valuable for more than their natural beauty as India’s booming construction industry is in a desperate search for marble and elements, such as clay and sand, to make cement.

Dabla is one of the last parts of the Aravalli Range still open to mining after the Supreme Court, concerned about reports of environmental devastation, banned miners from operating in the neighbouring state of Haryana in 2009.

Miners flocked instead to Rajasthan, where local officials have allowed the mushrooming of quarries and stone-crushing units through the hills and valleys.

“Mining is the need of the hour,” said Praveen Khandelwal, assistant to the local legislative assembly member, his father, Rajesh Khandelwal. “If every rule was followed, not a single mine would be operating.”

Quarry after quarry sits alongside water bodies or next to roads in direct breach of court orders.

Two stone-crushing sites on the main highway, just minutes apart, have dumped huge piles of rubble and dirt directly in front of schools.

“These mines and crushers are destroying rivers, destroying crops, destroying villages,” said Kailash Meena, the local representative of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who has been spearheading the anti-mining campaign.

“Every government officer knows these mines are illegal but no one is taking any action.”

The miners, knowing the illegality of their work, often are seen running away at the sight of outsiders, abandoning their blasting equipment on the mountain side.

Villagers complain the quarries are encroaching on communal grazing land and protected forest reserves, and drying up water supplies they need for crops and animals.

Government documents obtained by activists last summer showed that 49 mining leases had already been granted for Dabla mountain alone, of which a third were already in operation, along with 22 sand-silting operations and five stone-crushing sites.

Last June, a local resident, Samil Ram, who led protests against the miners, was arrested on charges of inciting violence. He says police tortured him by shoving chillies into his anus. Repeated attempts to contact the local police superintendent were unsuccessful.

Read the rest here…

Delhi Bombing “Unlikely To Be Iran, Unlikely To Derail Relations”

The point of the article below is not to suggest that Iran was categorically not involved in Monday’s bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi, but that it would be an unlikely choice for the Iranian government to sanction and coordinate such an attack. There is an important distinction between an attack organised officially by the government, and one organised by elements within the Iranian military, or loosely affiliated militant networks. While the Iranian government may be ultimately responsible – in the sense of failing to control sub-national groups, for instance – it may also find itself a victim of this episode if, as we are already seeing, this leads to a further escalation of demonising rhetoric from the West and Israel.

Of course, as RUSI fellow Shashank Joshi says below, the Iranian state is not above such ill-considered and impolitic decisions. If US reports that Iran was involved in an attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to America are true, that would be an even more reckless and controversial act.

One could also argue that India’s close relationship with Iran cuts both ways: their ties might make an Iranian attack on Indian soil unlikely, but they also guarantee that India will not retaliate.

It is, as Will Hartley from Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre said to me, “about as murky as it gets”.

Below is an un-edited version of the article that appeared in The National, Feb.15.

NEW DELHI // Experts have cast doubt on claims that Iran was behind Monday’s bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi, because India is one of the few countries that can relieve the pressure on Iran from crippling western sanctions.

Indian investigators were yesterday searching for the motorcycle assailant who attached a bomb to the diplomatic car in the heart of the capital, injuring the wife of Israel’s defence attaché along with three others.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to blame the attack, along with a foiled bombing in Georgia, on “Iran and its protégé Hizbollah”.

The attacks appeared to mirror the recent killings of Iranian nuclear scientists that Tehran blamed on Israel.

But the theory that they were revenge attacks by Iran has met with considerable scepticism among experts in India.

“It would be a strange choice for Iran,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

“At a critical time when the West is trying to pressure India to cease imports from Iran, why would they choose this moment when there has been no instance of Iranian terrorism in India in the past?”

India has emerged as a possible lifeline for Iran as American and European antinuclear sanctions threaten to derail its economy.

Last week, India’s commerce ministry announced that a large trade delegation would visit Tehran within the next few weeks to explore expanded trade opportunities.

The announcement coincided awkwardly with a visit by EU president Herman Van Rompuy to New Delhi, aimed at convincing the Indian government to press Iran to give up its nuclear programme.

“It is unclear why Iran would attempt an attack on Israeli interests in India, which has been broadly supportive of Iran during the recent sanctions debate, and is one of its most important trade partners,” said Will Hartley, editor of IHS Jane‘s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre in London.

“The attacks in India and Georgia appear relatively amateurish, and lack the sophistication that would be expected from an operation executed by Hizbullah or Quds Force personnel.”

Despite the doubts, pressure is likely to mount on India to participate more fully in Western sanctions in the wake of the attacks.

But India’s economic and strategic priorities make it highly unlikely that it will play ball.

Between 10 and 12 percent of India’s oil imports come from Iran – valued at about $12 billion per year. India recently overtook China to become Iran’s biggest customer – purchasing 550,000 barrels per day in January.

Even if India was willing to curb its oil imports from Iran, and make up for them with increased purchases from other sources such as Saudi Arabia, technical obstacles stand in the way.

“Only modern refineries can switch to a different type of crude oil easily,” said Lydia Powell, an energy analyst with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

“The refineries that import from Iran are state-owned and quite old. They are designed only to refine certain types of crude oil, and they operate on razor-thin margins that make them reliant on the long-term cost discounts they get from Iran.

“This idea of shifting to another source is very easy to say, but economically it’s very difficult.”

Then there are the wider strategic concerns about isolating Iran, particularly when it comes to stabilising Afghanistan in the wake of a possible US withdrawal in 2014.

“All of our development aid into Afghanistan comes through Iran’s Chabahar port since we are unable to use entry points in Pakistan,” said Ramesh Chopra, a former head of military intelligence for the Indian Army.

“We are not going to have peace in Afghanistan without having peace with Iran.”

Despite the deep ties, analysts say Iran’s involvement cannot be entirely ruled out, particularly after Thai authorities said yesterday that a man, possibly of Iranian origin, blew his legs off while carrying a bomb through Bangkok.

“It’s not beyond the Iranians to take such political risk,” said Shashank Joshi, a fellow with the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“It’s also possible that India was one of the few countries where they found a sufficiently permissive environment and willing local proxies to conduct such an attack.”

It is possible that a low-level member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards could have exceeded his authority in sanctioning such a politically sensitive operation, he added.

“We should also remain open to the idea that this was a local or Pakistani group, acting autonomously or perhaps to garner international attention and patronage.”

Meanwhile, the intended victim of the attack, 42-year-old Tal Yehoshua-Koren underwent surgery to remove shrapnel from near her spine and was in critical, but stable condition Tuesday morning. The other three victims received only minor injuries.

The Indian government has refrained from pinning blame on any group, saying only that the attacker was clearly “well-trained”.

A spokesman for the external affairs ministry added that India “does not support Iran’s quest for anything beyond peaceful nuclear energy”, but believes the right approach to the issue is through negotiations under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Follow The National’s South Asia coverage here.

The Driest Pond in India

A local NGO uses songs and plays to educate villagers about the importance of voting.

From The National, Feb. 12 2012:

BANDA DISTRICT, INDIA // A few years ago, in the bandit-ridden badlands of Uttar Pradesh, in India’s northern Hindi “cow belt”, local officials decided to build a pond.

It seemed like a smart idea.

This region of Bundelkhand is one of the most wretchedly undeveloped and drought-prone in the entire country.

The pond meant several weeks’ paid work for the locals and the promise of water for crops and livestock.

Unfortunately, no one in the administration had bothered to check if the ground could actually hold any water.

It couldn’t.

Nor did any water bubble up from the well dug in the centre of the pond.

They built another pond a few minutes down the road.

That didn’t hold any water, either.

Today, they are just two large holes in the ground, absurd and tragic memorials to the lack of care and interest that officials give to some of India’s poorest and most desperate.

“It’s useless,” said Daya Ram, a 42-year-old farmer staring through the locked fence that now guards one of the empty ponds.

“They should just fill it up again.”

Bundelkhand – which hopes to become a separate state soon – is a major battleground in the state elections being held this month in phases across Uttar Pradesh. It is India’s heartland state, it most populous, with more people than the UK, France and Germany combined.

Besides the empty ponds, there are more government failures to be found a few minutes further down the bumpy dirt-track, in the village of Chandpura.

Here, they have a crumbling homoeopathic hospital, built 20 years ago.

Its only occupants are a couple of emaciated bulls. Villagers say no doctor has ever visited.

In another village, Sahabhajpur, a fancy new toilet block – whose drainage system stopped working after a couple of months – is now used to store fodder for animals.

A range of parties in this month’s state elections are trying to undo the grip held by Mayawati, the “Dalit Queen” and chief minister who promised to improve the lot of India’s lowest caste and won a landslide here at the last election.

Most of the 10 million residents of Bundelkhand are farmers from the bottom of India’s rigid social hierarchy. Bullock carts still ply narrow dirt-tracks between villages without electricity.

Until last year’s monsoon, the rains had failed for eight consecutive years. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people died from hunger and disease. Many more committed suicide, triggered by crippling bank loans taken in desperation to put food on the table with little hope of repayment.

In India, one of the most common forms of suicide is drinking poison such as pesticide.

“People died of starvation – even the animals would drop dead in the road,” said Prema Devi, a 40-year-old community leader, describing the long years without rain in Chandpura village. They mostly ate roti, she said – the flat, unleavened bread made from the small amount of barley they could grow – along with dribblings of milk they were able to squeeze from their cows.

Five years of inaction from the government has left many deeply disillusioned with politicians.

In Banda district, banners supplied by a local NGO, the Vidyadham Samiti, have been put up at the entrance to villages, warning candidates: “Don’t bother entering here unless you can tell us what you have done to help us in the past and what you can really do in the future.”

Most candidates have simply stopped coming, despite efforts by the police to tear down some of the banners.

If there is any hope in a place like Banda district, it comes from people like Raja Bhaiya, who leads the Vidyadham Samiti. As well as setting up literacy classes, he organises volunteer theatre groups who travel from village to village, educating people through songs and plays about welfare schemes and how to use democracy to improve their lives.

In the village of Narsingpur last week, the volunteers were performing a play about the importance of voting.

The whole community turns out to watch. The children squeal with delight as a magician beats an arrogant and useless politician with a stick and makes him disappear.

The real magic, the magician says, is the villagers’ power to vote and choose a decent candidate.

The one achievement Mayawati can claim is that she took action against the bandits, or “dacoits”, who until recently ran rampant in these parts, extorting protection money and kidnapping anyone with a half-decent salary for ransom.

Many of the leading dacoits have been arrested or killed, and locals say it is much safer to travel the roads at night.

But this achievement was fatally undermined in Banda when the local legislative member from Mayawati’s party was himself arrested for raping a Dalit girl.

In any case, without development, the reduction in crime means little.

An enormous $1.4 billion (Dh5.1bn), 10-year development package was introduced in 2009 by the central government.

But a report by the charity ActionAid found barely 40 per cent of the funds so far released had been used by the local administration, and that the effects on the ground were negligible.

“Mayawati is reluctant to spend any of the money because she knows the central government will take the credit,” said Debabrat Patra, ActionAid’s regional manager in Lucknow, the state capital.

Raja Bhaiya says people are increasingly looking beyond caste for politicians with good character who can deliver results.

“In the past, criminals would give people money and alcohol to get into power. This is what we are trying to stop,” he said.

But are there any candidates of good character this year?

“Well, that’s the only sad part …”

On The Campaign Trail With Priyanka Gandhi

My article in The National:

LUCKNOW, INDIA // The microphone has stopped working, so Priyanka Gandhi hops down from the makeshift stage to get intimate with the villagers.

Moments before, she had seemed a little stilted – bored even – as she addressed her 15th crowd of the day, deep in the Uttar Pradesh countryside of north India’s “cow belt” where she and her older brother Rahul are campaigning in state elections that begin today.

But when she is forced to go acoustic, her much-vaunted charisma emerges. Commanding, self-assured, she retains a hint of Delhi glamour despite trading in her jeans for a more traditional sari – and an added warmth that comes from her frequent references to family and motherhood.

“I have two kids. I’m used to shouting,” she says when she realises the mic is broken.

And there is, of course, the uncanny resemblance to her grandmother, the former prime minister Indira Gandhi, whose flirtation with dictatorship during the Emergency of 1975-77 is now fondly remembered by Congress party supporters as forthright leadership – in contrast to the directionless drift now presided over by her Italian-born daughter-in-law, Priyanka’s mother Sonia.

“Aren’t you tired of your deplorable situation?” Priyanka demands of the crowd. “Get up! Awaken yourself!”

Priyanka, 40, is on home turf here in Amethi district. This was the parliamentary seat of her great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who led India to independence and became its first prime minister.

The seat has been handed down through the generations, from Indira to Priyanka’s father, Rajiv Gandhi – both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated – and now to her brother Rahul, 41.

Rahul is determined to prove his political credentials by leading Congress to a respectable result in India’s most populous state.

It’s also the state that sends more people to the national parliament, the Lok Sabha, than any other.

Priyanka’s last-minute involvement is restricted to the districts around this family stronghold – some snidely say to ensure she does not overshadow her brother, a less natural showman.

Her audience here is rapt, but Amethi is a drop in the ocean in a state with close to 100,000 villages and a population greater than that of the UK, France and Germany combined.

Congress has been out of power here for 22 years, and Rahul faces an uphill struggle to pull voters away from the caste-based and religious parties that emerged in the 1990s and wiped out the party’s former grip on the heartland state.

The Gandhis themselves are not standing in these state elections, but their role in building support ahead of national elections in 2014 could be vital to the fate of a stumbling Congress-led national coalition government.

The chief minister, Kumari Mayawati, has established a formidable base among the lowest caste, the Dalits – formerly known as “untouchables” – from which she comes.

Her main opponents, the Samajwadi Party, has strong support among the “other backward castes” a few rungs up from the Dalits, and a large chunk of the Muslim population.

“That the Dalit and backward castes have achieved political empowerment for the first time in history is definitely a positive thing,” said Sandeep Panday, a political activist campaigning for the Socialist Party in the state capital of Lucknow. “But people are starting to demand development.”

Voters face an unenviable choice. Corruption scandals in Delhi have damaged Congress’s reputation, while a carousel of different governments in the UP state assembly have miserably failed to deliver its citizens out of mass unemployment and grinding poverty.

A few minutes down the road from Priyanka’s rally, a backward-caste family tell of their struggle to feed themselves even once a day.

Read the rest here…

Only three members of the family have regular work, as day labourers in the wheat and mustard-seed fields that surround their picturesque but forlorn hamlet of Purai Tambam.

Between them, they earn a total of 150 (Dh11) to 300 rupees a day. They have 12 people to feed.