"You have to learn to fight for your rights… learn the paperwork (involved in government functioning)… catch hold of the officials… learn to fight for what is your rightful due…" That is Congress leader Rahul Gandhi exhorting women — mostly Dalits — in the Babina block of Jhansi district on his recent visit to Uttar Pradesh's (UP's) Bundelkhand region.
The rather aggressive statements are part of Rahul's latest strategy to galvanise the poor, oppressed and largely illiterate Bundeli women for the Congress' 'mission Bundelkhand' to counter the BSP's influence in the region.
The BSP, which too had begun its winning streak in UP from this region dominated by Dalits and backward castes, has a major presence in Bundelkhand.
The redoubtable network of women self-help groups (SHGs) created by Rahul in Amethi and Rae Bareli has formed the backbone of the party's support structure in the two constituencies. The SHG formula had also been used to great effect in Andhra Pradesh, before it was brought to Bundelkhand.
The Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust is providing financial support to these SHGs. The trust already has its presence in all seven Bundelkhand districts. More than 300 SHGs are functional in Jhansi alone, and in the Babina block of the district, a woman from every second family in an SHG member. The portion of Bundelkhand falling in Madhya Pradesh would be taken up for a similar exercise in the next phase, a Congress worker told DNA.
Rahul's strategy could work wonders, Congress leaders felt. "The SHGs have nothing to do with the party or elections. But Rahulji is doing a wonderful job for the Bundeli women who have been oppressed and exploited for ages," Vivek Singh, an MLA from Banda and chairman of the UP Congress media division, said.
However, Bundelkhand Mukti Morcha president and actor Raja Bundela is sceptical.
"Bundelkhand is a God-forsaken place. There is no employment, no industry. Rahul's initiatives are welcome but they have their limitations," he says. "What Bundelkhand needs is a huge dose of development… that's possible only when we do away with symbolic measures and vote-bank politics," he adds.
Congress spokesman Akhilesh Pratap Singh counters, saying: "UP has a BSP government and Madhya Pradesh has a BJP regime. We can't release funds, we can't make the policies. We have to work within limitations… Rahulji is setting an example that politicians can do ground work without votebank politics."