MENTION RAHUL Gandhi in this predominantly Yadav belt some 30 kilometres off Moradabad and people contemptuously say: "Amethi-Rai Bareli ke chashme se Uttar Pradesh ko dekhoge to muh ki khaoge (if you view UP from the tinted glasses of Amethi-Rae Bareli, you'll fall flat on your face)." But speak to Congressmen here and they chorus: "Rahul bina koi nahin (no one except Rahul)." For them, Rahul is the answer to their prayers, the one who can bring light to a party groping in the dark.
But drum-beating loyalists and talk of Rahul coming of age notwithstanding, there are enough warning signs to show that having the Amethi MP at the helm of affairs before the UP elections next year won't change the Congress' fortunes in the state overnight, as it so desperately hopes.
Simply put, this means: UP isn't ready for the Congress and Rahul can do precious little to change that. The state is caste-driven and the carrot of development won't change this overnight. Rahul's roadshows will attract crowds, not votes. Congress credibility in the state is at an all-time low and the entire Gandhi clan put together can't change this.
What's more, the move might do more damage than good. Even if chest-thumping Congressmen manage to push Rahul into trying to set the UP house in order, he will end up in a cesspool that will cancel the recently achieved "gains" in Rae Bareli. So, the sensible thing to do would be to "wait" rather than "commit suicide", particularly in places like Sambhal where development and caste go hand in hand. Represented by Mulayam Singh Yadav's brother, Sambhal gets electricity 20 hours a day and has good roads. "We grew up getting car suspensions changed every two years and using refrigerators as cupboards but now things have improved," says Mian Sarai's Hakim Sahib, who feels cutting into the Samajwadi Party votebank will be an uphill task.
In areas where the SP is on the wane, the Mayawati-led BSP is the party in waiting.
So Rahul or no Rahul, round one is as good as lost for the Congress. However, a few years down the line, he could tilt the balance in his party's favour, something most agree will be "a long haul".
It is in this context that Rahul's roadshows and public contact is being seen as an "exercise exciting only the Congress". For political dividends, visibility needs to be backed by sustained effort and a clear message that the Congress means business and intends to deliver. As of now, it is a "nowhere party" and Rahul's persona may not be enough to alter existing caste equations.
As for the hullabaloo over the Rae Bareli victory, the ground reality is that the party has failed to bag any of the assembly seats in a constituency the Congress would wish to tout as a "Gandhi stronghold". The picture could have been perceptibly different if Mayawati had put up a candidate to oppose Sonia Gandhi or if the SP had fielded Jaya Bachchan.