It was a small platform for a man working on the biggest political stage of his life.
Indian Member of Parliament Rahul Gandhi, the country’s political pin-up and a man who might one day lead the world’s largest democracy, sat last week on a plastic chair on a slightly cramped podium in the dusty town of Sitapur in northern Uttar Pradesh (UP) State.
The deeply impoverished region heads to the polls next week to elect a new state assembly and Gandhi has led the campaigning for Congress, the party headed by his family that has dominated post-independence India.
Success will energize those clamoring for him to take on the prime minister’s job; failure will feed the doubters — and there are many — as well as interest in his sister Priyanka, whom some Gandhi loyalists still prefer.
Standing in his path is Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, a 56-year-old low-caste populist with a fetish for handbags and statues, making the multi-stage Uttar Pradesh poll one of the most politically important and fascinating Indian contests in years.
After introductions from the local candidates, 41-year-old Gandhi tip-toed around the chairs on the stage, wearing running shoes with his traditional white shirt and pajamas, and grasped both sides of the lectern.
His speaking style is confident nowadays, in contrast to his nervy entry into politics in 2004, although he struggled to fire up a fairly docile crowd of about 5,000.
For 22 years — the time Congress has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh — the state has lost out because of corruption and mismanagement, which has worsened under Mayawati, said Gandhi, his party’s general-secretary and youth leader.
“I get angry when I see UP lagging behind the rest of the country,” he declared, referring to a state with some of the worst indicators -country-wide for child mortality, life expectancy, literacy and malnutrition.
It has a population of about 200 million and poverty as bad as anything found in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party party champions the rights of those at the bottom of India’s social ladder, had lost touch, Rahul said. He, expensively educated and the son of a prime minister, could feel their pain.
“Yes, I studied in England and later in the United States, but what I have learned from you over these last seven years is unparalleled,” he said.
A day later and a short distance up the road, Mayawati began her own campaign.
A packed crowd of up to 50,000, many transported in on free buses by local candidates, squabbled and gossiped before she arrived by helicopter, which drew gasps and applause.
The majority of supporters were low-caste farm laborers, who earn about 100 rupees (US$2) for a grueling day’s work out in the field. Mayawati had transformed their relations with the higher castes, some said, helping to ease the plight of the Dalits, a class of people once called “untouchables.” The state has a legacy of mismanagement and corruption as woeful as anywhere in India, but the success of neighboring Bihar State — once a byword for human misery — has shown what can be achieved by forceful leadership.
Under Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Bihar has shed its reputation as a lawless backwater, leading to surging economic growth and the sort of development yearned for by Uttar Pradesh’s poor. Which party the people of Uttar Pradesh yearn to lead them will be realized on March 6, when results are announced.