In February 2012, as Uttar Pradesh was in the middle of an electoral battle for the state assembly, the then Congress MP from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi, was on a whirlwind tour of the state addressing electoral rallies. On one such day, as he flew from one assembly constituency to another in eastern Uttar Pradesh, his last stoppage was scheduled in Tamkuhi Raj, a Vidhan Sabha seat in Kushinagar district.
The Congress candidate from the seat was Ajay Kumar Lallu, a 32-year-old leader who had joined the party just a couple of months ago. Many among the bigwigs of the Congress didn’t know him, and even a fewer believed he could ever win. Guided by this opinion, a senior leader accompanying Rahul Gandhi that evening advised him to skip the Tamkuhi Raj rally as it was already getting late.
THE DARK HORSE
Rahul Gandhi overlooked the advice and decided to keep a promise to Lallu, a nervous young leader whose only claim to Congress ticket was that he, as an independent, had polled more votes than the Congress’s candidate in the 2007 elections. The reason why Rahul Gandhi didn’t pay heed to his aide’s advice was because he had inputs that Lallu could spring a surprise.
And Lallu did spring a surprise. When the results came, he emerged as the dark horse. The man who had polled just around 3,500 votes in 2007 had now won the seat, defeating the much-known BJP and SP candidates. The man from the backward community, who had neither a strong caste base nor the deep pockets to fuel the polls, had polled over 53,000 votes.
Rahul Gandhi was perfect in his talent hunt. Ajay Kumar Lallu was in stark contrast to everything that Congress leaders over the past few decades had become symbol of. He had no pedigree, no riches and no godfather in politics. His only investment in politics was his relentless struggle for his people and his only gain was the support and respect he had earned from them.
As Lallu became one of the 28 Congressmen in the Vidhan Sabha, the next few years were of limited spotlight on the man, who still tried to keep pace with “Congress way of politics”. He had no significant position in the organisation and no major say among more vocal and more media-savvy colleagues of his in the legislative assembly.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Though late, but winds of change did come in 2017. Amidst the Saffron Tsunami of the BJP, all the sitting Congress MLAs, except Lallu and Aradhna Mishra Mona, lost the Vidhan Sabha elections. While Lallu was entirely a self-made success story, Mona’s victory could also be attributed to his father Pramod Tiwari’s immense political stature.
Soon after, he was appointed as the leader of the now just seven-member Congress party in the Vidhan Sabha. Though Priyanka Gandhi was yet to be officially appointed as the general secretary in-charge of the UP Congress, Lallu’s elevation as CLP Leader was seen as her choice.
TEAM PRIYANKA-LALLU GETS WINGS
In early 2019, just before the Lok Sabha polls, it was time for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to take the plunge in politics. She was appointed as the Congress national general secretary and given responsibility as in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
MLA from Tamkuhi Raj, Ajay Lallu, was the man continuously spotted along with her on the uncharted territory of the region. From Priyanka’s “boat yatra” on River Ganga to rallies across East UP, Lallu was seen as a man busy in the political struggle with his leader. It was the time of increasing trust on Lallu’s image as a grounded political activist. Bonding with Priyanka Gandhi was further cemented.
However, Priyanka and her team comprising of new faces both from organisation and drawn out of university campuses like the JNU failed to write a success story as Congress faced the second-worst electoral humiliation in general elections in Uttar Pradesh. The party could just win one seat of Rai Bareilly. Despite the loss, Priyanka Gandhi’s faith in her team had gained more roots.
WITH NEW RESPONSIBILITY, LALLU SETS IN THE CHANGE
By the end of 2019, riding on the trust of the Gandhis and the top leadership, with a willingness to usher in a new vigour in the party, Lallu was elevated as the party’s state president. The two-term MLA seems to be matching the hopes of his leader. The party, which was not known for hitting the roads and staging street protests, is now confronting the government in a new avatar.
Lallu is leading the change from the front. From the issue of migrant labourers during the lockdown to continued political attack against the BJP on issues of law and order, he has been the most visible face of resistance on the roads. No surprise then that he has been slapped with dozens of FIRs over the past few months, taken in police custody on more than 30 occasions and spent at least a month in jail after being arrested following the “buses for migrant labourers” controversy earlier in June.
UNWAVERING AND UNCONQUERED
It’s rare in Congress history that the Gandhis have so openly stood by and endorsed any of their leaders. So when Priyanka Gandhi wrote an open letter of support for Lallu after he was arrested, it came as a surprise to many. Priyanka Gandhi described her leader as ‘adig aur ajay “lallu” meaning “unwavering and unconquered”. As she went on to shower praise on her state president, the larger message to the Congress’s old lot was clear. The letter was a signal to party’s rank and file about the sort of organisation and politics the Gandhis now cherish.
CHALLENGES AND ROAD AHEAD
Recently, when asked by News18 about his style of politics, Lallu had said he is humbled by the appreciation he gets from his top leadership but “I put myself in the front because I feel it is my responsibility to lead my workers from the front”. “Gone are the days of arm chair-drawing room politics, especially when people are suffering so much because of BJP’s policies,” he had added.
However, amid his new style of political activism, a persisting challenge before him and his team is to win over the older lot. Many from the old school of politics within the party are not comfortable with the changes. In the run-up to 2022 assembly elections, it is an issue that needs to be resolved at the earliest.