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Girl marathons a big draw, Congress bets on their buzz in poll race

🔴 The Congress has so far held these 5-km marathons in Meerut (December 19), Jhansi (December 26), Lucknow (28 December) and Bareilly (January 4), with the Jhansi and Lucknow events reportedly drawing over 10,000 runners.

Written by Maulshree Seth , Manoj C G | Lucknow, New Delhi |
Updated: January 5, 2022 7:14:51 am
Hundreds of girls seen participating in "Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon" Marathon organised by the Uttar Pradesh Congress in Lucknow. (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

Last week, Pooja Patel travelled alone from her village in Allahabad to Lucknow to participate in a marathon organised by the Congress. The BA first-year student ended up winning a scooter as the first prize, and despite a minor hurdle — she doesn’t know how to ride and has arranged for the vehicle to be taken back to her village — is thrilled.

“The scooter will make my family proud,” said the 18-year-old who hopes to vote in her first election this year.

The Lucknow marathon is part of a series of such events that the Congress, led by its general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, has been holding across the state as part of its ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon (I am a girl, and I can fight)’ campaign ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections.

On Tuesday, one such marathon at Bareilly saw a near-stampede situation as the eager girls broke into a run. While no one was injured, such impressive turnouts have been a steady feature of these marathons.

Despite the Bareilly incident and questions being raised about the wisdom of holding mass events such as these amid rising Covid numbers, the Congress is pleased at what is says is the “momentum” these marathons have generated. While rival parties have said these are unlikely to translate into any kind of electoral support, the party is hopeful: Never in the recent past have its events generated the kind of buzz these marathons have managed.

The Congress has so far held these 5-km marathons in Meerut (December 19), Jhansi (December 26), Lucknow (28 December) and Bareilly (January 4), with the Jhansi and Lucknow events reportedly drawing over 10,000 runners.

Rahul Richhariya, the Congress co-ordinator for the Jhansi event, said the response was so overwhelming that the organisers had to reduce the age-limit to accommodate more participants. “We had said only those aged 18 and above can participate, but (at Jhansi) there were over 500 girls who were less than 18, so we brought down the limit to 15 years. There were also about 400 women above 40, even a 59-year-old,” he said.

Each of the registered participants gets a certificate, a T-shirt and a pink wristband with the “Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” slogan.

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra participating in the “Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” campaign at Bareilly. (Photo: Twitter/@priyankagandhi)

Richhariya said that while the original plan was to give away one scooter, three smartphones and nine fitness bands to the marathon winners in the first, second and third prize categories, at the Lucknow event, they gave away three scooters, 25 smartphones, 100 fitness bands and 1,000 medals.

Congress sources said the party now plans to take the event to as many districts as possible, with Azamgarh in eastern UP likely to be the next destination.

Prem Prakash, national spokesperson of the BJP who is camping in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the elections, said, “It should be seen merely as a sports event that’s attracting crowds of youngsters hoping to participate in it. If someone is fantasising that they can politicise a sports event for their vote gain, what can we say? Never in 70 years of the country’s electoral history has any political party won elections through sports events.”

The Congress’s rivals point to its strength on the ground, or lack of it, to insist that not too much should be read into the numbers at these marathons. The party, which has been in political wilderness in UP for more than three decades, managed to win only seven of the 114 seats it contested in 2017. Its overall vote share in that election, when it entered into an alliance with the SP, had dropped to 6.25 per cent.

On Monday, speaking in Lucknow, BJP national president J P Nadda too hit out at the Congress over its “Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” slogan, saying that the party while in power never thought of the safety of women and their basic needs like toilets.

Congress leaders, however, insist that the marathons are pressing the right buttons.

Hundreds of girls seen participating in “Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” Marathon organised by the Uttar Pradesh Congress in Lucknow. (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

A Congress office-bearer involved in organising the marathons called the response “overwhelming”, but admitted that it wasn’t clear how these would translate into votes. “It is a fact that the stone thrown by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Indian politics has started creating ripples. Let’s wait and watch how things progress,” he said.

The marathons also echo the theme of the party’s manifesto geared towards women. Launching it in Lucknow last month, Priyanka had pledged to field 40 per cent women candidates. At her rallies across the state, she has been exhorting women to start thinking about their issues while rising above caste and religion.

“She is trying to create a vote bank above caste and religion. It is an experiment in Indian politics,” the office bearer said. Asked about the turnout, he said the prizes announced by the party are surely a huge draw.

Another leader in Delhi said that while the party has been spreading the word on the marathons, the turnout is largely “organic”.

“We have a database of mobile numbers…We also reach out through WhatsApp messages and Facebook. We have also been distributing pamphlets in colleges and coaching institutes. In some urban centres, workers of the Mahila Congress having been carrying out house-to-house campaigns,” the leader said, insisting that the girls “have been coming on their own”.

“Have you seen buses ferrying them to the marathon venues? Young girls want to show that they can do something. In fact, these marathons are seen as apolitical events by many of the participants… In most places, there are no slogans or speeches. We are trying to create a narrative. So far, the response has been good,” a leader said.

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