It was September 1999. The country was in the midst of a midterm election for the Lok Sabha, after the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the vote of confidence in Parliament. Sonia Gandhi was contesting her first election as the Congress candidate from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. Vajpayee was scheduled to address a rally in the constituency, accompanied by Narendra Modi, then a general secretary of the BJP. The venue was Gauriganj. The event, however, had to be cancelled because of heavy rains.
Fifteen years later, Modi returned to Gauriganj as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and addressed a mammoth rally. Nearly 3 lakh people listened to him in rapt attention as he stormed the bastion of the first family of the Congress with his no-holds-barred speech, targeting what he called the “raj parivar” of the grand old party. Holding the Gandhis squarely responsible for the underdevelopment of Amethi — the poor state of infrastructure and everyday deprivations faced by the people — his repeated reference to their “arrogance” drew thunderous applause from the crowd.
Modi’s aggressive campaigning has deepened the uncertainty over the electoral fate of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who is contesting from Amethi. Locals say that never before in the nearly four-decade-long association of the Nehru-Gandhi family with the constituency was such a big turnout seen at a rival party’s rally.
Modi is the first national leader to address a hugely successful rally against the Gandhis in Amethi. He spoke for more than 50 minutes, perhaps the longest speech so far in the election campaign in Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s rally has made Amethi the second most important constituency to watch out for after Varanasi, where the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is in the fray.
The Nehru-Gandhi family’s association with the constituency began in 1977, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi contested the seat and lost amid the Janata Party “wave” following the Emergency. But in the next General Election three years later, when the Congress was voted back to power, Sanjay won the seat. He died in a plane crash in June 1980, and the following year, his younger brother Rajiv Gandhi won the seat. Since then, the Congress has had an unbroken string of victories from Amethi, barring the 1998 polls, when Satish Sharma was defeated by the scion of the Amethi royal family, Sanjay Singh, then the BJP candidate from the constituency.
While Modi’s barbs directed at the Gandhis has enthused the cadres of the BJP, his blistering speech on the home turf of the Nehru- Gandhi family has left the Congress jittery.
Responding to the charge that he indulges in the “politics of anger”, Modi referred to an incident involving Rajiv Gandhi, when he was “only a Congress general secretary” and had gone to Andhra Pradesh. “The then Andhra chief minister had come to receive him. However, Rajiv Gandhi got annoyed over something and reprimanded the chief minister who was double his age, in full public view much to his humiliation. Is this not the politics of anger?” asked Modi.
Within hours of Modi finishing his speech at Gauriganj, the Congress coined a new slogan: “Rajiv Gandhi ka apmaan nahi sahega haath nishaan (The hand symbol will not tolerate the insult of Rajiv Gandhi).” Articulating the Congress’ anger over Modi’s reference to her father Rajiv, Priyanka said, “He has insulted my martyred father on Amethi’s soil. The people of Amethi will never forgive him for this. My booth-level workers in Amethi will give a fitting reply to his low-level politics.”
Taken aback by Modi’s onslaught on its first family, the Congress has decided to aggressively campaigning against him in Varanasi. Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul will join the campaign in the holy city, which ends on 10 May, while Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has been asked to supervise it.
“In a democratic political order, we should preserve some traditions and courtesy. For Modi, the election appears to be a war and so he campaigned in Amethi,” said Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid. “We welcome it and are ready for the war.” In a war of words, the BJP retorted, “Modi broke no law by campaigning in Amethi. It’s the Congress that has violated all democratic conventions and traditions, and we can provide a long list of such violations.”
In her campaign, Priyanka has frequently invoked the old ties of her family with Amethi and sought to emphasise Rahul’s indispensability for the constituency. She targeted BJP candidate Smriti Irani and Aam Aadmi Party candidate Kumar Vishwas as “outsiders”, saying that “new faces” come up in every election, while Rahul has a lifelong relationship with the constituency. Modi, though, dismissed Priyanka’s contentions as “emotional blackmail” by a cornered Congress.
With little improvement in their daily lives in the past decade, coupled with growing unemployment, potholed roads and erratic power supply even in the industrial town of Jagdishpur on the Lucknow-Varanasi national highway, large sections of Amethi’s electorate are disappointed with Rahul, who they had elected in the past two Lok Sabha elections. There are few takers for the explanation offered by Rahul that the state government is to blame for the poor state of roads, health services and power supply. The anger against Rahul persists despite Priyanka’s hectic campaign.
Political analysts and the people of Amethi are wondering if Modi’s rally has significantly improved Irani’s chances of winning from the constituency. And whether Amethi stands to gain anything by severing the long relationship with the Gandhi family.
“No doubt, Amethi’s sole claim to fame is the Gandhi family. Rajiv did a lot for the constituency but the Congress lost steam in the past 10 years,” says Rajesh Agrahari, president of the Amethi Udyog Vypaar Mandal, a traders’ organisation. “During his visits to Amethi, Rahul was always surrounded by a coterie of local cronies, so he was never accessible to the locals. This time, though the people are yet to decide who to vote for, they will surely convey a message to the Congress that their support cannot forever be taken for granted.”
Even state Congress leaders admit that Rahul will only manage to scrape through in the election with a thin margin. There is little chance of Rahul repeating his 2009 performance, when he had bagged over 4.64 lakh votes and won by a margin of around 3.7 lakh votes.
So, is Rahul paying the price for being “arrogant”, or has he failed to imbibe the lessons of electoral politics even after the people of Amethi elected him twice to represent them in Parliament? Perhaps, it is his disconnect with the ground reality in the constituency that was manifested in the pent-up frustration of the huge crowd that turned up at Modi’s rally. Local Congress leaders find flaws in Rahul’s attempts to reach out to the voters directly by bypassing the cadres.
“Rahul took little interest in the young Congress cadres in Amethi,” says Yagyanarayan Upadhaya, former secretary to Rananjay Singh of the Amethi royal family, and witness to the political upheavals in the region in the past five decades. “In this era of rapid social changes and growing aspirations, the young cadres are no longer interested is carrying the burden of the Gandhis’ contribution to Amethi’s development in the past. They want quick results and rewards instead.”
One silver lining for the Congress after Modi’s Amethi rally is the hope that it could lead to a counter-polarisation of Muslim votes in its favour. Muslims constitute a sizeable 16 percent of the 14 lakh voters in Amethi. It was believed earlier that the Muslims were drifting towards AAP, but with Modi targeting Rahul and the Gandhi family, the Congress now hopes to harvest the minority vote. “Just like the previous elections, the minorities will back the Congress, besides the Dalits, OBCs and a section of the upper castes,” says Rudrapur MLA Akhilesh Pratap Singh, who is a confidant of the Gandhis, and is camping in Amethi.
Modi has also alleged that the Congress will lure Amethi’s voters with cash. “After my election rally, the price (of voters) has skyrocketed from 5,000 to 25,000… I am confident that the voters of Amethi are self-respecting people and their votes cannot be purchased. Now, it’s for the Election Commission to ensure free and fair polls in Amethi,” said Modi.
Responding to the allegation, local Congress leader Jagdish Piyush said, “The people of Amethi will give a fitting reply to Modi’s allegation in the polling booths. Why do we need to pay money to the people for their votes? Amethi’s sole claim to fame is its association with the Gandhi family. After all, whatever the locals have got in the past decades is because of the development work done by Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi.”
Clearly, on the Gandhis’ home turf, the battle is between an invocation of past fealty and a call for rebellion against it, aggressively articulated by Modi.