When Kumar Vishwas of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cavalcaded into Amethi, raising dust and challenging Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, the local MP, it brought back memories of 1977. In that watershed year of Indian politics, Ravindra Pratap Singh, a student leader, had thrown the gauntlet at Sanjay Gandhi, Rahul’s uncle, then in a position analogous to Rahul’s. He represented Amethi then, and was the son of Indira Gandhi. Perhaps the only difference was that he had arrogated to himself—and managed to exert—far more power than Rahul can possibly imagine over party and, extra-constitutionally, over affairs of state. “You vote for me,” he’d say, “and I will convert Amethi into London.” And yet Singh, a total rookie, humiliated Sanjay in the elections, in the same way that Raj Narain defeated the all-powerful Indira that year in Rae Bareli.
But it would be wrong to read the two situations as equivalent and it’s too early to predict a similar show for Kumar Vishwas. For one, the 1977 election saw widespread expression of an anti-Indira mood, thanks to the Emergency she had shackled the country with. And the opposition had then been united in a way it never has been since. What’s more, only three years later, Sanjay won again. For three decades since then—except in 1998-99, when Sanjay Singh, the local ‘raja’, represented the seat as a BJP MP—Amethi has remained with the Congress.
Rahul’s last election, in 2009, saw him win from Amethi with a record margin of some four lakh votes. In the ten years he has represented Amethi, he hasn’t faced any real challenge. And despite the general disillusionment with the Congress, the situation in Amethi does not entirely forebode a Rahul debacle. Even so, there are worrying signals. It should have been extremely difficult for Kumar Vishwas to raise the kind of dust storm he raised on January 13. But he managed to.
Most Amethi-walas, however, want to allow more time before deciding what to make of the very voluble Kumar Vishwas. Ram Dulare, a local farmer, is not too sure about switching loyalties. “The AAP is new to the people of Amethi. We did not know about the party until the arrival of Kumar Vishwas. I’m told they are doing a good job in Delhi, but it’s early yet to decide we will give them a chance straightaway. Let’s wait and watch, let’s see if they fulfil the promises they made to the people of Delhi,” he says. Akhilesh Singh, a 20-year-old undergraduate student, concedes that Rahul hasn’t done much for Amethi, but says, “Despite all that, there’s no reason why Rahul should lose. He has deep roots here and his family is loved by the people.”
In some places, Kumar Vishwas faced black flags and booing. But he has found a house to live in Amethi and plans to stay put there.
Some, like Shashikant Mishra, a farmer, see Kumar Vishwas as a rank outsider. “Remember,” he says, “Ravindra Pratap Singh, who defeated Sanjay Gandhi, was from Amethi. Outsiders have no place here. Also, it has earned importance only due to the Gandhi family. How can we think of supporting anyone else?” Kumar Vishwas has already got a taste of that mood. On the 140 km drive from Lucknow to Amethi, his cavalcade was cheered in places—but equally, there were those who booed him, pelted stones, waved black flags. Amethi hasn’t figured out Kumar Vishwas yet—with his cheap remarks on Moharram and such like dogging him too—but that apart, the first real challenge to Rahul in the family pocketborough comes at an ideal time.
While Rahul never promised the people of Amethi a London, he has slipped somewhat in meeting their expectations. The resulting disgruntlement, it must be conceded, has created conditions where an upset is not inconceivable. “Rahul promised jobs for the local youth, but not a single industry has come up in these years,” complains Devendra Pratap, an unemployed graduate desperate to contribute to his family kitty. Even Raj Karan Singh, a former Congress MP, had drawn the party’s attention to the deplorable conditions in Amethi. “All these years,” he says, “Rahul has given nothing to Amethi. It still looks like a village.” No wonder, he says, in the 2012 assembly elections in UP, the Congress lost in all five assembly segments making up the Amethi parliamentary constituency.
At an impromptu gathering around Kumar Vishwas, complaints against Rahul were openly expressed. “We want to know what he has done for us in the years his family and party have been in power at the Centre,” asks Bansidhar Shukla, who had travelled from Jamo village to listen to Kumar Vishwas. “When our own MP, with full control at the Centre, has failed to give us our due...well, what should we expect....” And Rabbani Mian, who runs a Muslim trust in Unnao, says, “The AAP has ushered in a revolution in this country. I’m sure Muslims would be inclined to support this party in Amethi too. We all have had enough of insensitive leaders who don’t bother about the common man.”
But also on display in Amethi is a healthy scepticism of AAP, the sort Delhi’s middle-class and urban-village migrant populations, the party’s only proven constituency till now, do not seem to have displayed so far. Sonam, a 35-year-old eunuch who had shared the dais with Kumar Vishwas, had questions the very next day. Many others have also been irked by Kumar Vishwas’s grating drama and indifferent verses. “I’d thought of throwing my lot behind the AAP, but in 24 hours I realised I would be wasting my time. After all, the AAP has yet to prove what it’s capable of doing,” says Sonam. “I also disapprove of Vishwas coming here in a long motorcade, especially when he is talking about the aam aadmi.”
Some, like Pavan Kumar Srivastava, a 41-year-old sim card seller, are calculating the ‘winnability’ angle. “All that Viswhas would probably succeed in is reducing Rahul’s winning margin. Nothing more,” he says. “Perhaps it’s true that Rahul has hardly given anything to Amethi, but he has not done anything against us either.” In segments like Jagdishpur, the AAP effect seems to be negligible. Not even 100 people showed up to listen to Kumar Vishwas at the A.H. Intermediate College grounds in that industrial town. The neighbouring market was bustling with activity, but people hardly turned to take a second look at Kumar Vishwas or pay attention to his inventive slogans and couplets.
For all that, the AAP wannabe is serious of purpose. He has found himself a place to live in Amethi, where he plans to spend the time until the general elections. “I am not among those who will fly in and out of this place like a tourist,” he says. “I am here to brush shoulders with the local people and will not budge from here.” Rahul seems to have taken note of the maverick’s tenacity and seems to have made it a point to assess his show: after Kumar Vishwas announced his foray into Amethi, Rahul had postponed a visit to the constituency, perhaps to see the response Kumar Vishwas drew.
For now, Rahul doesn’t seem to be rattled by the newcomer’s little gig. But party managers are taking note for sure. Even the BJP is trying to work out what to do to counter him. Only a couple of fortnights back, it was bruited that the BJP was wooing Sanjay Singh, the Congress MP from neighbouring Sultanpur and scion of the erstwhile royal family of Amethi. While the ‘raja sahib’, who commands considerable respect in Amethi, doesn’t seem to have changed his mind, Kumar Vishwas’s performance, it might be said, has made both rival parties take note of the AAP phenomenon outside of Delhi.
By Sharat Pradhan in Amethi