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.
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.