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'Next PM' Gandhi vows to protect farmers' rights

July 09, 2011

India's Congress party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi walks out of the Kasna police station on his release, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, early Tuesday, May 12, 2011. Police freed Gandhi, the son of the ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, after briefly detaining him for joining a protest by farmers over inadequate compensation from a state government for land bought to build a highway on the outskirts of the Indian capital. – AP Photo

NEW DELHI: Rahul Gandhi, tipped as a future Indian premier, vowed at the weekend to protect farmers' rights against greedy land developers as he ended a march through the nation's dusty countryside.

Gandhi, who has pitched himself as champion of the India's poor, told a rally Saturday that the ruling Congress party to which he belongs, was committed to ensuring farmers receive fair compensation for their land.

“Farmers say if a rich person's land is taken, he is given the market rate, but when it comes to a poor farmer, he is fired upon and beaten,” Gandhi, 41, told the gathering of thousands of farmers in Aligarh in northern India.

The rally capped a four-day trek by Gandhi, scion of the famed Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, and his supporters through a western region of the pivotal opposition-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh which is India's most populous.

Crucial assembly elections are set to be held next year in the state that will serve as a dress rehearsal for national elections due in 2014.

Stepping up his fight against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, Gandhi accused her government of acquiring farmers' lands for golf courses.

“Farmers are not against development or making roads. But this land is being taken away from farmers to make golf courses, housing colonies and race tracks and that is why they are angry,” he said in the televised speech.

Analysts say how well the Congress party performs in the state polls will be viewed as a major test of Gandhi's potential national electoral appeal and for his prospects of being prime minister.

Gandhi is son of national Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.

Embattled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Gandhi loyalist picked by Sonia to lead the government which has been reeling from a string of graft scandals, is seen by analysts as keeping the premier's seat warm for Rahul.

Rahul Gandhi, who is managing the party's campaign in Uttar Pradesh, promised the rally that a land acquisition bill expected to be presented by Congress in the next parliamentary session would protect farmers' rights.

The legislation is intended to guarantee farmers market rates for their land.

Gandhi's promise to protect farmers came after India's Supreme Court earlier in the week struck down the acquisition of 390 acres of land as illegal in Uttar Pradesh in a satellite city of the Indian capital.

“The authority has to act in the public interest,” the Supreme Court said.

“You don't understand the psyche of a farmer. Land is his mother.” Bitter and often violent disputes over land acquisition regularly hold up industrial projects. Smoothing the process is seen as one of the biggest challenges for India as it seeks to achieve rapid economic development.