Has the Congress party virtually given up on the urban middle-class voter?
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The trajectory followed by the Congress since its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election shows that the grand old party remains convinced that its most ardent supporters live in rural India even as the urban middle class remains smitten by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charms.

Consequently, the party is persisting with the agenda it followed during the 10 years when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power, taking up issues and programmes that impact farmers and marginalised sections like the Dalits, scheduled tribes, women and rural poor.

Having steered the UPA government’s “aam admi” agenda for a decade, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has passed on the baton to her son and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi who is now leading this campaign.

Suit boot ki sarkar

He started by espousing the cause of farmers with his high-pitched campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s move to amend the land acquisition act.

Positioning the Congress as “pro-poor”, Rahul Gandhi kick-started his campaign against the Modi government last year by taking up the issue of the controversial land acquisition bill. He succeeded in painting the Modi government as “anti-famer and pro-corporate” and his description of the ruling dispensation as a “suit boot ki sarkar” hit the bull’s eye. The Congress was vindicated when the NDA government backtracked in the face of stiff opposition and put the amended land acquisition bill on hold.

After its success on the land bill, the Congress was emboldened enough to continue on this track when the BJP was routed in last year’s crucial Bihar assembly elections. While there is no denying that the Janata Dal (United)- Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance was helped by caste arithmetic, the three partners were also able to convince Bihar’s largely rural electorate that the BJP only cared for rich industrialists. The alliance consolidated the Dalit and Other Backward Classes vote in its favour when Rashtriya Swamaymsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat declared that he favoured a review of the reservation policy for marginalised communities.

The Congress resolve was further strengthened when the party started winning local body elections in the rural areas of Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Rahul Gandhi has since followed it up by attempting to woo the scheduled castes by making two trips to Hyderabad University last month to support the students protesting the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. At the same time, Gandhi is also working on a special Dalit agenda to win back the support of the scheduled castes that had once constituted the Congress party’s core constituency.

The Congress vice president is now preparing to reach out to the scheduled tribes with a proposed year-long campaign to put the Modi government in the dock for diluting the UPA government’s Forest Rights Act to deny forest rights to tribals.

Employment guarantee scheme

On Tuesday, the entire Congress machinery was galvanised to claim ownership of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on the 10th anniversary of the UPA government’s flagship programme and to showcase its commitment to welfare of the rural poor.

The party also chose to use this occasion to hit out at the the NDA government for suddenly discovering the virtues of MNREGA after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had initially mocked the programme, describing it as a “living monument” of the failures of the previous government. The Congress put out exhaustive details to dispute the Modi government’s claims that it had further strengthened MNREGA and to underline that the ruling alliance had actually destroyed the programme.

Rahul Gandhi specially travelled to Bandlapalli village of Andhra Pradesh’s Anantpur district from where Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had launched MGNREGA in 2006. He was accompanied by the former prime minister and a galaxy of senior leaders including Ambika Soni, Digvijaya Singh and Mukul Wasnik. At the same time, the party’s state units held special conventions to spread the word that this pro-poor scheme was the brainchild of the Congress. Rahul Gandhi will review the implementation of the programme with all state unit chiefs in Delhi on Friday.

Consolidation first

Congress leaders maintain that since the urban middle class remains favourably inclined to the BJP, it makes political sense to strengthen and consolidate its support in the rural hinterland where people are still willing to give it another chance though they too had turned their back on it in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. “The middle class is, by nature, fickle,” said a senior Congress leader. “It was the biggest beneficiary of economic reforms but it lost no time in shifting its loyalties to the BJP.”

The same urban middle class, which is today mesmerised by Modi magic, had come out in overwhelming support of the Congress in 2009, enabling the UPA government to have a second term. The party notched up big victories in semi-urban centres and cities, thanks largely to Manmohan Singh who had then emerged as a middle class icon, just like Modi is at present.

Although there is overwhelming support in the party for its move to concentrate on the rural hinterland, there is also a growing view in the Congress that it cannot afford to ignore the urban middle class, especially when Rahul Gandhi is making a concerted effort to win over young people.

The vocal urban voter and the country’s growing young population, they emphasise, play a critical role as opinion makers and this vital fact cannot be overlooked. The young voter played a critical role in fashioning Modi’s 2014 victory, just was an important factor in ensuring Aam Admi Party’s successful debut in Delhi.

Rahul Gandhi’s supporters, however, maintain that the Congress has always stepped in to voice the concerns of the people both in rural and urban areas. Former ministers Jitin Prasad and RPN Singh insist that the party vice-president has highlighted issues which are urban-centric and that he is making a serious effort to connect with the youth with his periodic visits to colleges and universities. “He has taken up the issueof net neutrality, intolerance and freedom of speech which concern the youth,” Singh pointed out.