Sonia Gandhi could not have asked for a better start to her party’s full-fledged campaign in the Gujarat polls. A massive crowd of thousands, many of the women carrying their babies, turned up to hear Sonia Mai empathise with their problems and exhort them to vote her party to power.
The venue was a tribal village in Navsari district of southern Gujarat, barely 30 km from Maharashtra and nearly 400 km from Ahmedabad. But people, an overwhelming majority of them tribals, also came from the neighbouring districts of Valsad, Surat and Dangs underscoring that the Congress still has a strong following in this tribal dominated stretch.
They came in hundreds of vehicles, people who wanted to hear Sonia affirm their tribal rights. At the end of her speech, they would not have been disappointed.
The Congress president and her helicopter reached the venue, silhouetted against the Satpura range, to a thunderous applause and the remix of a hit Hindi film song being used as the party’s slogan for Gujarat, Chak de Congress.
Without specifically mentioning the 2002 post-Godhra riots, Sonia, in her 20-minute speech, called the BJP “merchants of death” and Gujarat a state where only criminals were happy because the authorities protected them.
She recalled that it was during the NDA regime that terror had struck Akshardham temple, Raghunath temple and Parliament. “It was their External Affairs Minister who released terrorists,” she said, referring to the hijack of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in 1999.
She reminded her audience about the sacrifices made by her family and the Congress party for the country.
“Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi gave their lives (for the country). Not only they, the entire party has always fought for the people,” Sonia said.
The Congress president took a dig at the BJP's campaign strategy, saying that a state’s development is achieved only through hard work and not by releasing advertisements.
Sonia severely criticised the saffron party for its handling of tribal and farmers’ issues in the state. “I want to ask the BJP if it is a pro-tribal party, why didn't they back the Bill,” she said, referring to Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, which seeks to recognise the rights of tribal communities over their ancestral land.
“In 1994, the Congress had regularised 40,000 hectares of land, which was to be handed over to the tribals. But after the BJP came to power they were not interested. Not even half the land demarcated has reached them.”
Sonia said the farming sector had developed in the state only when the Congress was in power. She said the BJP had not only reduced power supply to farmers but also cut down on irrigation projects.
At the national level, she said that the Centre had been helping the state in many ways and crores of rupees have been earmarked for it. “The Congress does not discriminate against opposition ruled states,” she said.
Sonia concluded by saying that Gujarat now needed a sensitive state, which would bind the people of the state, not divide them.