New Delhi. Beleaguered opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is set Sunday to lead a rally of thousands of farmers in the Indian capital against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial overhaul of laws on land-buying.
Dressed all in white and waving opposition Congress party flags, busloads of farmers were gathering in New Delhi for the protest against Modi’s bill, which makes it easier for businesses to purchase farmland.
After storming to power at last year’s elections promising to reform the economy, Modi says the bill is needed to improve the efficiency of land purchases for factories, industrial corridors and other development projects.
But anger has been mounting in rural areas over the move, seen as favoring big business and compounding the misery of debt-laden farmers. Many of them have already suffered extensive unseasonal rain damage to winter crops.
Congress has mobilized thousands of supporters for the nationally televised protest, seen as a chance for the 44-year-old Gandhi to relaunch himself as a strong head of the party and eventually replace his mother.
Just hours before the rally was set to start, Modi accused the opposition of manipulating farmers and denied that his right-wing government was “anti-poor”.
“This is a government for the poor. We are dedicated to the poor,” he told a meeting of lawmakers from his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Instead, anything we say is ripped and twisted by the opposition. Can’t we speak? Is this a crime [that] we are doing?”
The ailing Congress party is hoping to harness anger against the bill after a series of electoral defeats that followed its humiliating loss in last year’s national polls.
Gandhi is to address Sunday’s rally just days after returning from a two-month sabbatical to “reflect” on his party’s defeats, which had led to ridicule of his leadership skills.
Gandhi is often seen as a reluctant and reclusive scion of the famous Gandhi family, even though his father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers.
“A whole generation is depending on him [Gandhi] to take on this Modi government and its anti-poor policies,” Congress leader Madhu Goud Yaskhi told the NDTV network from the Ramlila Maidan protest ground.
The rally comes on the eve of parliament’s reopening on Monday when Modi’s government is expected to push ahead with efforts to pass the bill despite lacking the numbers in the upper house.
‘Gandhi is our leader’
Various Congress leaders have predicted 100,000 farmers will turn out for the day-long protest. After packing into buses and trains from rural areas across a handful of northern states, farmers were gathering at the ground, chanting “Rahul Gandhi is our leader” and anti-bill slogans.
The bill exempts projects related to defense, rural housing and power, along with industrial corridors, from the current requirement that 80 percent of affected landowners must agree to a sale.
It also scraps the need for a “social impact assessment” to find out how many people would be affected by the loss of land.
Businesses argue that the current requirements hold up projects for years, and the government has defended the changes to the law as a catalyst for growth.
But its attempts so far to push the Land Acquisition Bill through parliament have been stonewalled by a united opposition.
While the government has issued a temporary order making it easier to buy land for projects, the changes need approval in parliament to be made permanent.
Gandhi met farmers’ groups at his plush home on Saturday, making his first public appearance since returning last Thursday from his sabbatical.