India’s Rahul Gandhi led a large farmers rally on Sunday that focused rural anger toward Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies, in the first public appearance in months for the elusive scion of the country’s most famous political family.
In what seemed like a stage-managed appearance, the opposition leader spoke to thousands of villagers brought to New Delhi on special trains and buses, vowing to block Modi’s plan to make it easier for business to forcibly acquire farm land.
“Modiji wants to give your land to industrialist friends,” said a hoarse-voiced Gandhi, addressing some 70,000 farmers in the large ‘Ram Lila’ ground.
Anger at the land bill, bad weather and low commodity prices have dented Modi’s popularity in the countryside, his first major political challenge since taking office last year.
Gandhi, 44, landed in India on Friday after a mysterious eight-week foreign break that led to rebellious grumbling from party colleagues that the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister was a part-timer with dulled political instincts.
The rally was Gandhi’s attempt to regain momentum and put the government on the defensive about its support for farmers suffering after bad weather damaged crop.
Modi’s government is determined to push through amendments to a land acquisition law passed when the Gandhis were last in power, saying the law has made it almost impossible to buy land for industrial development.
Flanked on stage by his mother, party president Sonia Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Gandhi said Modi was undemocratic in using a decree to implement the new land rules. The government must now pass the amendments in parliament, which convenes on Monday.
“We are not against the land acquisition, but this should happen with the consent of farmers at a good price” said Muktar Singh, a 66-year old farmer who came from Jhajjar district of Haryana, about 65 kilometers away from the capital city.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hit back, with Ravi Shankar Prasad, communication and telecom minister at the Modi-led government, saying the new land rules were pro-poor.
The government hopes the opposition Congress Party will agree to a middle path, but the Gandhis vowed on Sunday to stand their ground, setting the stage for a bruising showdown in parliament that could slow the passage of a major tax reform bill also slated for this session.