Election in Pincodes: Hearts, minds collide in a fraying Congress stronghold | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election in Pincodes: Hearts, minds collide in a fraying Congress stronghold

May 14, 2024 08:20 AM IST

HT looks at some key constituencies across the country that encapsulate the issues shaping the ongoing Lok Sabha electoral contest

One morning in late February, Rahul Upadhyaya, in a crisp white shirt and grey trousers, a saffron gamcha around his neck, and six other men, each on a bike with a fluttering Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag attached to the handlebar -- an entry pass to just about anywhere in this part of the country -- are going house to house, shop to shop.

BJP’s Smriti Irani and Congress’s Kishori Lal Sharma during roadshows in Amethi. (ANI & PTI)
BJP’s Smriti Irani and Congress’s Kishori Lal Sharma during roadshows in Amethi. (ANI & PTI)

The reason for this frenetic public outreach: “headquarters” has asked for a report on whether the mood in Amethi has shifted since Rahul Gandhi and his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra passed through town. Upadhyaya points to the posters of the Congress scion that line the streets. “This is the difference. They have posters on inanimate objects. Our campaign is built on people like us, and the dirt on our feet,” he says.

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The same day, the only person at the Congress office at Amethi -- a low one-floor L-shaped building in a compound shorn of grass, a stone plaque proclaiming that it was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 -- is the caretaker, leaning back in a metal chair, his eyes transfixed on his phone, its charger plugged into the wall. He starts at any interruption; it may be three months before a crucial Lok Sabha election and he is not expecting visitors.

“Let the BJP say what they want. Elections in Amethi and Rae Bareli are not fought just on the ground. They are fought from the heart, and the Gandhi’s are in our hearts,” he says.

Those elections are now near (less than a week away; May 20), and somewhere between these two emotions, and world views, that the battle will be fought in Amethi, once considered a pocket borough of the Congress. and one that the party has now trusted to a loyal worker to win back from senior BJP leader and Union minister Smriti Irani. In a state where the party is struggling to regain a toehold, the seat represents both the possibility and the challenge of re-establishing a fading dominance in what is undoubtedly among India’s highest-profile constituencies

The stronghold

India has been free for 77 years, and has had parliamentary elections, the largest such exercise anywhere in the world, for 72 of these. Since 1952, political leaders have built legacies and then slipped precipitously; elections have been won and lost; governments have come and gone. And yet, there has always been one constant in India’s polity – that the path to national glory passes through Uttar Pradesh.

For the Nehru-Gandhi family, early dominance came from its stranglehold on UP – a fact demonstrated by the high-profile seat of Allahabad even before independence.

UB Singh, head of sociology at the Feroze Gandhi College in Rae Bareli, said that by 1952, the Congress was hunting for other constituencies that the family could fight from. “Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru were closely connected to Rae Bareli because they had taken part in the farmer agitation in the early 1920s,” he said.

Rae Bareli — then a combination of Pratapgarh(West) and Rae Bareli(East) – was picked as the seat for Feroze Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s husband and the prime minister’s son-in-law. He won that election, and then again in 1957. Indira Gandhi took over the seat in 1967.

But in 1980, the Congress began another hunt, this time for seats for the next generation of Gandhis, and landed on Amethi, the neighbouring constituency that was once part of Rae Bareli district.

“Sanjay Gandhi won the seat in 1980, and Rajiv Gandhi won the by-poll in 1981 following his brother’s death,” Singh said. Since then, Amethi was a fortress save a brief blip between 1998 and 1999, sending Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to the Lok Sabha.

Until it wasn’t.

In 2014, the BJP fielded Smriti Irani, once a famed television actress but now one of their most aggressive national faces, against Rahul Gandhi. She lost that election, but did not go away, nurturing the constituency. Five years later, she was back and pulled off the once unthinkable by beating Rahul Gandhi.

On May 2, with the clock running down on the last date of nominations, the Congress’ Amethi compound, deserted on February 21, is packed . There are party workers milling around, their noses buried in their smartphones. There are media vans and television journalists, announcing one thing authoritatively and then another. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra from Rae Bareli, they say with certitude, and Rahul Gandhi from Amethi. Both have refused to contest, they also say; then, 10 minutes later, that both have been convinced to fight. Rumours swirl, declarations are made, but nobody really knows anything.

KL Sharma, the short, fair, moustachioed man who is the Gandhi family’s loyal representative, supervises a meeting of Congress workers in Rae Bareli that night, and then rushes the 60 kilometres to Amethi, to hold another. In both places, what the workers want is clear. There is a chance in both seats, they claim; they can win; didi and bhaiya (sister and brother) must fight.

As morning dawns on May 3, the Congress choices became clear. Only one Gandhi sibling is fighting the elections from Uttar Pradesh — Rahul Gandhi will attempt to defend the citadel of Rae Bareli. For Amethi, there is no Gandhi; KL Sharma, the man most synonymous with the family’s campaigns, is to be given the opportunity.

That morning, Priyanka Gandhi first arrives in Amethi to speak to a crowd of party workers’ that doesn’t quite know what to think. They wanted Rahul or Priyanka, but if it is to be someone else, Sharma is the closest to the family, they say. “You all have known KL Sharma for the past 40 years. He knows every street, village, Congress worker and problem. I hope you will fight the election in the same manner and ensure his victory,”Priyanka Gandhi reiterates.

Across town, Irani is smiling broadly: “Rahul Gandhi has fled Amethi even before the vote,” she tells news channels.

 

Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and Smriti Irani during the ‘Jan Vishwas Yatra’ in Amethi. (PTI File Photo)
Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and Smriti Irani during the ‘Jan Vishwas Yatra’ in Amethi. (PTI File Photo)

On the ground

Four men sit under the shade of a banyan tree in the bylanes of Munshiganj playing cards, a canopy of saffron “Ram” flags stretching out in front of them. All four grew up together; all four are in their fifties; all of them once loyal Congress voters. In 2014, Ram Prasad Sharma broke ranks, voting for Irani in 2014. Five years later, two others, Prahlad Singh and Nischay Kumar did the once unthinkable too; voting for the BJP. “Only I have always remained loyal to the Gandhis. My loyalty cannot be bought or sold. It will exist for a lifetime,” says Govind Kumar, thumping his chest.

This conversation around loyalty is a common theme across family bastions this time – Baramati, Saifai, Kolkata Dakshin – but it is particularly visceral here. Ram Prasad Sharma, for instance, first voted for the BJP, not just because of his growing faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but out of a sense of hurt. “If Amethi is your home, treat it like that. He would come, stay in the Amethi guest house, and leave. How long can love be one-sided?” Sharma says of Rahul Gandhi.

In comparison, he adds, Irani has shown heart, and a quantifiable loyalty to Amethi. She came to be a giant-killer, he says, but did not leave when she lost. “She stayed for five years and kept coming. Then in 2019, she beat him, and now has made Amethi her home. Have you seen her house in Gauriganj? Even her vote is here. Who says she is not more loyal to us than Rahul Gandhi?”

It follows that Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to return to Amethi is now the central argument of the BJP campaign. The framing is clear. Irani is backed by Modi; she has improved roads; but most importantly, she has stayed and fought.

“KL Sharma has no recognition as a leader and the Congress does not have any presence in the constituency. It has no MLAs or MLCs in Amethi and has only two of 16 block chiefs . Against them, Irani takes no election lightly, canvasses every day and Sharma is not even a challenge. Everywhere we go, we tell people that by Rahul Gandhi leaving, Congress has already conceded defeat,” says BJP leader Uma Shankar Pandey.

Disgruntled voters often point to the dilapidated roads and public facilities in Amethi, unthinkable for a so-called VIP constituency. “Development has lagged. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did not visit the constituencies as much as they should have. Even if they were in opposition, they did not use their offices to bring about development,” says professor SK Dwivedi, former head of the political science department at Lucknow University

But there is also an opposing current. In Munshiganj, their legs crossed on a torn blue tarpaulin sheet, Prahlad Singh and Nischay Kumar speak of the political flux that is likely at the core of the Congress dithering on candidates. The two men have not yet decided that they will return to the Congress fold; there is no hatred for Modi or the BJP. But Kumar says he is disappointed with Irani. “She has been present, yes. But I thought more big things would have happened for Amethi. No large industry has come here. We are where we were five years ago,” he says.

Next to him, Prahlad Singh is clearer. For five years, he says, the decision to vote for the BJP has made him uncomfortable; a constant rumbling within. “I did it, but I feel uncomfortable. Like I have been cheating in a relationship. Whatever they are, the Gandhis are our family,” he says.

He looks up and points to the fluttering “Shri Ram” flags. “Even Ram tells us to stay loyal. And that is what I will do. I will repent,” he says.

The Congress plan

Congress candidate from Amethi seat Kishori Lal Sharma. (ANI)
Congress candidate from Amethi seat Kishori Lal Sharma. (ANI)

For the Congress, Rahul Gandhi may not be fighting Amethi, but the messaging is clear: this is still a family bastion; KL Sharma is a member of that family; and this is a battle for pride. In his stead, Priyanka Gandhi has parked herself here since May 6.

Since nomination day, she has criss-crossed the constituency, addressed small gatherings in villages and large public rallies, visited homes and clambered on cars to speak to constituents. She has invoked her father, grandmother, and great-grandfather, even evoking memories of a loss to drive home her point. “This constituency always sends the right message to the country. When your message was not in our favour(in 1977), you awakened us. Whatever message you send to the country will be discussed across the world,” she says in one meeting.

On Irani, she is unequivocal; the minister came to Amethi not for Amethi, but to fight Rahul Gandhi. “She came here to defeat Rahul Gandhi. Lies were spread that we did nothing, and some people got distracted. But our relationship will never end.”

In Amethi’s central chowk, at the Rajiv Kirana store, Motilal Verma is poring over a Hindi newspaper. He is surrounded by politics. To the left is a lone Aam Aadmi Party office, nearly always empty. . On top of him is a BJP banner, replete with Ram temple imagery. But in front of him, is the statue of Rajiv Gandhi, garlanded so many times that municipal workers have given up cleaning the dried petals that collect every day. “In Amethi, whether they win or lose, whether they fight or not, the elections are always decided by what people feel for the Gandhis,” he says.

For the Congress, in that feeling, either warmth or derision, love or betrayal, there is both opportunity and jeopardy.

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