“There is no point unless I can see the crowd on the ground,” Ranveer Singh Tomar told the police personnel manning one of the gates of Ramlila Maidan in Central Delhi on Sunday afternoon. It was a plea to be allowed into the venue where Congress President Rahul Gandhi was addressing a gathering of several thousand people. Gandhi’s event to protest the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s alleged failures had been given the name Jan Akrosh – public anger – rally, and many believed it was the launch of the Congress’ campaign for the 2019 general elections.

The policemen were not moved by Tomar’s entreaties. They firmly told the septuagenarian
that entry had been barred after Gandhi had arrived at the ground. They also said the crowd was larger than expected and it could be risky for a man of Tomar’s age to join the gathering.

But Tomar had changed two buses to travel the 12 km distance to the Ramlila Maidan from his home in North-East Delhi’s Bhajanpura area on a hot April afternoon. He said his primary objective was to see the size of the crowd for himself so that he could get a sense of the Congress’ chances of coming back to the power.

Ranveer Singh Tomar changed two buses to get to the Ramlila Maidan, but was not allowed in.

‘There is definitely anger’

“What has BJP done in these four years?” Tomar asked, finally giving up his quest for entry and retiring beneath the umbrella of a lemonade vendor. “There is inflation, there are no jobs and the worst thing is people are fighting among themselves in the name of religion and caste under the party’s rule.”

Referring to the title of Gandhi’s rally, he added, “There is definitely anger among people. But that still does not give a clear idea about the outcome of the 2019 elections.”

At around 12.30 pm – as Gandhi accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of failing to create new jobs and ensure the safety of women, among other things – a lean man in a grey kurta rushed out of the venue. Rati Mohammad, 62, had come to Delhi with a group of more than 100 people from Alwar, Rajasthan. The expenses for the trip had been borne by Rajasthan Congress leaders, he said. He worried that the driver of his bus would throw a tantrum and that the bus would leave without him.

As he looked around for the driver, Mohammad said, “We do not know who comes next but for India to develop, the BJP must be removed from power.”

Rati Mohammad came with a large group from Alwar, Rajasthan.

“Look at the way violence has happened after the BJP came to power,” said Mohammad, a small farmer from Alwar’s Ramgarh village who also sells goats. “All of Alwar district was traumatised after the Pehlu Khan incident and the bye-election results show that.”

Pehlu Khan, a 52-year-old dairy farmer from Haryana, was lynched by a mob that accused him of transporting cattle for slaughter in Alwar last April. In bye-polls held in February this year, the Congress wrested two Lok Sabha seats, including Alwar, and one Assembly constituency from the BJP.

Mohammad added, “It is time for the country to take a call now. We are here to see whether as many people from other parts of the country also support the Congress on this date.”

Women’s safety

Inside the Ramlila Maidan, the crowd cheered loudly as Gandhi accused Modi of failing to keep his promises. At each cheer, Anita Nishad, standing on the pavement outside the venue, clapped her hands.

The 32-year-old housewife had come in all the way from North-East Delhi’s Karawal Nagar area, leaving her six-year-old son with a neighbour. She had not made it in time to enter the ground but had stayed on nonetheless, to show her support for the party. “I will support the Congress and I am here to see how many persons turn up to show solidarity like me,” she said.

Anita Nishad's main concern is the safety and security of women in the country.

Nishad’s main concern is the safety and security of India’s women. “When the [Nirbhaya] gangrape happened in Delhi, BJP had taken up the matter of women’s safety,” she said. “But look at the things that have been happening under their rule – one of their MLAs has raped a minor [in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh] and many top leaders organised rallies in support of the rapists [of an eight-year-old girl] in Kathua [Jammu and Kashmir]. How can any woman feel secured under such a government?”

Like the several others at the rally, Nishad, too, is not sure about the outcome of the 2019 elections or of the Congress’ performance. But she is certain she will support the Congress all the way, she said.

‘Here because I want work’

It was 1 pm by now and Gandhi’s speech was over. His mother and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi had addressed the gathering before he did. The venue slowly emptied out as the crowd carrying banners and placards headed out and towards the roads, where numerous buses and vehicles were parked.

Like Rati Mohammad from Rajasthan, they had come from all over the country – from the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and also from faraway Assam, West Bengal and Maharashtra. Many among the crowd were Congress workers from various district, block and zonal units.

One Congress leader from Maharashtra askedd 32-year-old Tasleem Sheikh to take a quick photograph of his friends. Sheikh complied, looking a tad confused at the request. A cart-puller from Loni in Uttar Pradesh’ Ghaziabad district, Sheikh said, “I was here because I want work, I want bread for my family and that can only happen if the government changes.”

Tasleem Sheikh said the large crowd at the rally showed that people wanted change.

Asked what he thought of the Congress’ chances in 2019, Sheikh said that was why he was there at the rally. “It was indeed a huge crowd and one thing is certain; there are a lot of people who want things to change,” he explained.

Demonetisation struggles

Standing alongside Sheikh, Rajinder Gupta nodded in agreement. A resident of Patparganj in East Delhi, the 22-year-old said his reason for joining the rally was more personal – two of his relatives had lost their jobs after the demonetisation of high-value bank notes in November 2016, while a friend had struggled to arrange money for his sister’s wedding a month after that.

“We are not rich people and my family cannot take any more political blunders, which the BJP have done,” said Gupta, who dropped out of school some five years ago and works as a peon.

Rajinder Gupta said his reason for participating in the rally was personal.

“Today’s rally has given me some hope,” Gupta said, walking away with Sheikh. Having befriended Sheikh at the rally, Gupta said he had to ensure the Ghaziabad resident found his way to the bus terminus in nearby Anand Vihar from where he could catch a bus home.