For more than five decades, the residents of the Pratapgarh district have mostly voted for Congress party candidates for Parliament, candidates who belong to the royal family from the village of Kalakankar, where they have lived since the 17th century. The royal families here have retained power in the State for centuries, transitioning from rulers to elected leaders… Pratapgarh is also the place where Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, began his political career after leaving Allahabad…
On a recent Saturday morning, Ram Das, an elderly porter, was frantically looking for customers at the train station of Pratapgarh, a small town in the northern State of Uttar Pradesh. Flashing a toothless smile, Mr. Das admitted to charging a reporter 10 extra rupees, or 16 cents, on top of his usual 20-rupee fee because he only had until noon to make enough money for his daily groceries. After that, he was going to spend the rest of the day at a rally led by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party’s vice president, that was the start of the party’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous State. “He should be the next leader,” Mr. Das said. “Why? Because our loyalties have always been with the Congress.”
The choice of Pratapgarh for Mr. Gandhi’s rally was a logical one. It is close to Amethi, where Mr. Gandhi holds a parliamentary seat, and to Rae Bareli, where Sonia Gandhi, his mother and the party’s President, holds another. For more than five decades, the residents of the Pratapgarh district have mostly voted for Congress party candidates for Parliament, candidates who belong to the royal family from the village of Kalakankar, where they have lived since the 17th century.
The royal families here have retained power in the State for centuries, transitioning from rulers to elected leaders. Ratna Singh, 54, who holds the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, seat for the Congress party from Pratapgarh, is also the princess of Kalakankar, which is 60 kilometers, or 40 miles, west of Pratapgarh. Ms. Singh also pointed out that Pratapgarh was rich in symbolism as the place where Mr. Gandhi’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, a freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister, began his political career after leaving Allahabad.
“We have stood by through every crisis with the family at every generation,” she said. “Congress is a family to us; we don’t consider it a party.” When Indira Gandhi, Mr. Gandhi’s grandmother, was Prime Minister, she stripped India’s royal families of recognition and their allowances after the princely states were integrated into the Indian union, but the Congress party took several kings and queens into its fold by naming them as party candidates. And so deep is the hold of these rulers over their subjects that even after being stripped of their titles, they continue to rack up political victories. Though the rest of Uttar Pradesh is by no means a sure win for the Congress party, Ashutosh Misra, a political science scholar at Lucknow University, described Pratapgarh as an exception. Mr. Misra credited the consistent victories here to the good will generated by the royal family rather than the party. Dinesh Singh, Ms. Singh’s father and a former Foreign Minister, created much of this good will by developing infrastructure in the district, including roads and electricity. Introducing social welfare measures over the governing coalition’s two five-year terms has not shielded the Congress party from criticism over corruption scandals and its failure to arrest the economy’s downward spiral. But the Aam Aadmi Party and the popular Uttar Pradesh-based parties are not seen as a threat in the parliamentary elections, and the Bharatiya Janata Party has not yet fielded a candidate in Pratapgarh. “The connection between the family and people is still very strong,” Mr. Misra said.
Residents of Pratapgarh talk about the family’s involvement in the freedom struggle and its efforts to publish the first Hindi newspaper in the region and establish educational institutions. More recently, the family has been credited with improvements like increasing train service. On a recent Saturday Ms. Singh divided her time between waving at the crowd, which had gathered to witness Mr. Gandhi, 43, open the party’s election campaign, and directing the distribution of water bottles and the hanging of banners.
Joining the residents of Pratapgarh were thousands from adjoining districts who had left their homes early in the morning. Some wanted to get a place with a good view in the Ram Leela Maidan, while others arrived in buses at the urging of their local Congress leaders. As the sun beat down on the dusty town, they ended up waiting for five to six hours before Mr. Gandhi arrived in a helicopter. Spectators said that large numbers of people had also left out of fatigue from waiting, even before Mr. Gandhi arrived. But Vishnu Kumar Dubey, a farmer, who had come from the district of Jaunpur, said that he had no problem spending the day waiting to hear Mr. Gandhi speak for 20 minutes. “That is normal because a politician can arrive only after the full crowd gathers,” he said.
Mr. Dubey, 60, said that he supported the Congress party because the laws it passed were beneficial for poor people. “I liked what he said about unity making Uttar Pradesh so productive that everyone from Maharashtra to Gujarat and America and London will want to come and work here,” he said. In his speech to about 50,000 people, Mr. Gandhi highlighted the welfare programs and laws that Congress enacted during its two terms, including the rights to employment, food and information. Mr. Gandhi also had scathing words for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, accusing them of engaging in divisive politics. “They have anger in their hearts. We have love,” he said.
Though the crowd was generally supportive of Congress, some people voiced some dissatisfaction with its leaders. As Mr. Gandhi’s voice boomed over the gathering, Sursarti Devi, 60, said she voted for the Congress party, but it didn’t help create an industry for the three million people of agrarian Pratapgarh. Ms. Devi earns 100 to 200 rupees a day making hand fans. “My sons don’t have jobs. How can we survive like this?” she asked. Bagish Tiwari, 25, who is studying law, said that he would vote for Mr. Gandhi because he had talked about empowering the youth with opportunities, including in politics. “But promoting the youth is an effort of Rahul, not the Congress party,” he said.