Smriti Irani could make Rahul Gandhi work hard
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]methi, bastion of the Nehru-Gandhi family in heartland politics and a particularly well-known parliamentary constituency in central Uttar Pradesh, is set for a riveting contest. Rahul Gandhi has been winning from here since 2004 and benefited from a rich personal legacy. Previous MPs from Amethi have included his parents, Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, and his uncle, Sanjay. The 2014 election, however, offers him his toughest challenge yet.
Ranged against Gandhi are two new faces to Amethi. Kumar Vishwas is the poet candidate from the Aam Aadmi Party. He is an articulate man, has a way with words and a certain crowd appeal. He has also been camping in Amethi for several weeks. The BJP nominee is actor-MP Smriti Irani. (BJP picks Smriti Irani to take on Rahul Gandhi in Amethi) Unlike some other television or movie stars who stray into politics, Irani has taken her new career seriously. She is seen as a rising star in the BJP, a thorough parliamentarian and an excellent campaigner. She will not be easy to shrug off.In the 2012 Uttar Pradesh state election, the Congress won just two of the five assembly segments in Amethi. When Priyanka Gandhi visited the constituency and addressed meetings there, the response was tepid. It was a contrast to earlier times, and especially to the Lok Sabha election of 2009. This led to some fears in the Congress, but the situation was quickly explained away as a reflection of local issues, and not a referendum on Rahul Gandhi as an MP. There was a point here. High-profile MPs, including Rahul Gandhi, often do better in their boroughs than the sum of their party’s strength in the segments of the constituency.
Even so, both the quantity and quality of the reception the Nehru-Gandhi family received in Amethi in 2012 indicated some work would need to be done before the parliamentary polls.
The Congress sought to achieve this by mollifying Sanjay Singh, a Thakur leader of the region and scion of the former princely family of Amethi. A veteran party hopper, Singh was negotiating with the BJP as well. The BJP wanted him to contest against Gandhi. The Congress offered the better, more secure deal: a Rajya Sabha seat from Assam.
While Sanjay Singh’s backing could be very useful to the Congress, there are some who insist he is not the force he once was. His detractors allege he was rewarded “too early” and having got a six-year Rajya Sabha term is now not pulling his weight in the constituency. That apart, the Samajwadi Party (SP) decision not to put up a candidate in Amethi is proving to be a double-edged sword for the Congress. It was expected the SP votes would be transferred to Gandhi. It appears the BJP, as part of its pan-Uttar Pradesh OBC mobilisation, is keenly looking at some of the sub-communities who have traditionally backed the SP in Amethi. As such, things are no longer clear cut.
As the final lap begins in Amethi, two things can be safely predicted. First, Kumar Vishwas’ energetic campaign has reached a plateau. The real battle is between the Congress and the BJP, with AAP in the running for the bronze medal. Second, Rahul Gandhi will have to labour hard for a victory and will need to spend more days in Amethi than he may have planned. A combination of a charismatic rival in Smriti Irani and adroit-grassroots structuring in recent months by the BJP could just keep the Congress vice-president bogged down.
The BJP has won Amethi only once, in 1998, when Sanjay Singh (who had then joined the BJP) defeated Satish Sharma. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi came back to reclaim the seat for the Congress’ First Family and handed it to her son five years later. Indeed, no Nehru-Gandhi has lost from Amethi since Sanjay Gandhi in 1977.
Given this history, conventional logic would suggest Rahul Gandhi is the overwhelming favourite and Smriti Irani the categorical underdog. Nevertheless, this is turning out to be anything but a conventional election in Uttar Pradesh.
(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living
in Delhi) Courtesy: NDTV