Will Smriti Irani upset Rahul Gandhi in Amethi?

Will Smriti Irani upset Rahul Gandhi in Amethi?
Union Minister and BJP candidate for Amethi Smriti Irani, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. Photo: PTI
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When 51 Lok Sabha constituencies went to the polls on May 6, all eyes were on Amethi in UP, where Congress president Rahul Gandhi was pitted against Union Minister Smriti Irani of the BJP.

Gandhi, however, did not make an appearance, and Irani once again mocked him, saying the ‘missing MP’ had betrayed the people of his constituency.

Only twice has Amethi chosen non-Congress MPs. In most elections, the Congress faced little challenge, as rival parties either refrained from contesting or put up symbolic fights. In 2014, however, the gloves were off when the BJP sent a spirited Irani to take on Gandhi, who had kept winning Amethi since 2004. Gandhi emerged victorious, but his winning margin plummeted to 1.07 lakh votes from an impressive 3.7 lakh votes in 2009. In contrast, the BJP increased its tally by 2.63 lakh votes. To make matters worse for the Congress, in the 2017 assembly elections, it lost all its four seats in Amethi; three of them to the BJP.

Will Smriti Irani upset Rahul Gandhi in Amethi?
Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka campaiging in Amethi. Photo: PTI

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“I used to be a Congress man, but now I am firmly behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” said Parmanand Tiwari, 87, from Fattepur village in Amethi. “My entire village stands with him.” A retired naib subedar, Tiwari had served in the India-Pakistan War of 1965. On February 26, when India conducted airstrikes in Balakot in Pakistan—in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Pulwama in Kashmir on February 14—Tiwari said his village was filled with chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.

Irani has held an aggressive campaign. “Till when will we vote for just a name?” asked an Amethi resident, Santosh Srivastava, 51, referring to Gandhi. “How can you have a people’s representative who is always surrounded by security?” He said Irani had financially helped a neighbour who was suffering from cancer, and another villager whose house had caught fire. “Her people are here to listen to us,” he said.

Through party workers, Irani has made inroads into the villages of Amethi. In her speeches, she reminds people of her sustained engagement with the district, despite her defeat in 2014. This claim is buttressed by anecdotes about her approachability and assistance given to villagers.

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When the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana scheme was launched in 2014, Irani had convinced then defence minister Manohar Parrikar to adopt two villages in Amethi. Recently, while campaigning in Baraulia—one of the two villages—which neither she nor Parrikar had visited since 2014, Irani deftly turned her no-show to her advantage. “The people of Baraulia had asked me to visit so many times, but I said that it was enough they had given me the opportunity to serve them. Now, I have come back to pay tribute to Parrikarji,” she said, punctuating her speech with emotional pauses when referring to the recently deceased leader. Muted applause followed from a group of women; they admitted they did not know who Irani was talking about.

With Gandhi busy campaigning across the country, his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was left in charge to campaign for him in Amethi. She has made frequent visits and many speeches in the past two months, and a recorded telephonic message from her reminds voters that “every member of my family loves Amethi more than life itself.”

At the Congress office in Amethi, party workers dismissed questions about Gandhi’s infrequent visits, preferring instead to talk about the money he had spent on the constituency. All inadequacies were blamed on the state government (the Congress has not been in power since 1989) or on the paltry funds released by the Central government.

The BJP’s top brass has campaigned furiously for Irani. Will her rising visibility be enough to sever Amethi’s bond with the Gandhis?

Mohammad Hussain, who owns a provision shop, said that usually during elections, a Congress flag was displayed atop his shop. “It was put up by party workers, not me,” said Hussain. This time, however, there is no flag. “The best that we have got in all these years is uninterrupted electricity. Perhaps it is time to choose someone who will go beyond that.” Then, he adds: “But, maybe, one more chance is in order.”  

(This story first appeared in The Week)

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