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At a nondescript turn of a dirt-track leading from Ambarpur village to Purey Kushaal village, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, canvassing for her brother and two-time MP from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi, arrives at perhaps the defining moment of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It’s nearing 5 in the evening and Priyanka is on her way to another meeting after winding up a session with a motley group from the Congress’s self-help group (SHG) scheme for women. A group of village folk from Purey Kushaal village near Mishrauli station in Badlapur block are hanging by the roadside, taking a break from daily chores before the sun sets. They had noticeably skipped Priyanka’s address under a tattered shamiana in a school, just a few metres away from where they are standing.
Dressed in a crisp dark green sari, matching blouse and flat chappals, Priyanka alights alone from her campaign vehicle, an SUV, a white Toyota Fortuner, its roof piled with marigold garlands given to her through the day, for some chit-chat. Behind Priyanka, a huge imposing wall of a village building is plastered with a life-size poster of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. From the billboard, the BJP’s poster boy for 2014, dressed in a maroon jacket and beige kurta, stares piercingly straight ahead. The caption, ‘Abki baar Modi sarkar’, asserts itself below. Priyanka moves to the crowd and addresses 50-year-old Mithilesh Kumari: “Kaisa chehra lagta hai inka? Daraavana lagta hai? (What do you think of the face? Is it scary?)” referring to the picture on the wall. Kumari, a mukhiya of her village, lets out a ringing laugh and shoots back, “Buland chehra lagta hai. Hindustani dikhta hai humko. Bahut achche hain. (It is a strong face. An Indian face. He’s very good.)” Ironically, Kumari resonates what Modi has been saying about himself all along. Priyanka lingers on for a bit, chatting some more, before moving on to her next destination.
The truth of the 2014 elections in Amethi couldn’t have been elucidated better than in this exchange between Priyanka and Kumari. The Gandhi bastion is showing signs of a breach. In Amethi, even Priyanka, the Congress’s star campaigner and her family’s best PR tool, is struggling against the mounting (and now open) anti-Rahul sentiment. The Gandhi surname doesn’t seem to be a magic mantra anymore, with crowds even at Priyanka’s local chaupal baithaks thinning compared to previous years. Clearly, even a magnet like Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is getting diminishing returns. The Congress’s first family must begin to worry. At meeting after meeting Priyanka brings out a laundry list of Rahul’s special schemes for Amethi and the development work done by him and yet the VVIP constituency is busy articulating its disillusionment with the Congress vice-president. The story in Amethi then is not about Rahul Gandhi turning the family pocketborough into a model constituency but about him failing to connect with the people. In many ways then, it is also a story about how the Congress and Rahul Gandhi are losing their grip on their core constituency.
With Priyanka’s departure, Kumari turns to us and says, “Dekha dol gayin (Look she left),” quickly adding, “what has Rahul Gandhi done for us? He comes here, waves at us from his car in a roadshow and goes away. Someone ask him how many hours do we get electricity? It comes 12 times a day and goes off another 15. Does he know that?” Poorkhin Devi, 65, from Thenga village is more scathing in her attack. “They come here only when elections happen. There are no jobs here, no employment, no roads and no water.” Poorkhin’s neighbour Shivkumari Devi adds, “Mehangaayi dekhi? Rahul Gandhi ko kya pata? (Have you seen the prices rising? What would Rahul Gandhi know about that?)” The list of woes here are basic and they find resonance in other pockets of the constituency. Simply because, after years of being a VVIP constituency that stood behind the Gandhis, electing them to Parliament election after election, Amethi still battles its days through basic issues of sadak, bijli, paani. It is this that has now become the rallying point against Rahul Gandhi for the electorate here. Mithilesh Kumari’s gumption at responding patly to Priyanka’s impromptu query is representative of the underlying anger that the Gandhi family is now facing in Amethi and Rae Bareli.
Increasingly, both Rahul and Priyanka are being accused of what locals here call the “hello, ta-ta, bye bye” culture. Ikkat Ram, 45, a chai shop owner in Jagatpur, explains, “They come only during elections, wave to us from their cars, stop for a minute and talk and then even forget our names and faces,” adding, “even when they stop to talk it’s impossible to get close to them because of the security.” Almost on cue, Priyanka in the distance scolds the SPG personnel around her, directing them not to push people wanting to come closer to her. For the SPG, though, it looks like business as usual. Pramod Kumar, a 20-year-old, sums up his disappointment, “Priyankaji dekhne ki cheez hain, toh chalo dekh liya. Ab wapas ghar jaayenge, dekhein Modiji kya keh rahey hain aaj. (She is worth looking at so we did that. Now let’s go home and see what Modi has to say today.)” On television, that is.
It’s the same sentiment at chai stops dotting the 140-km stretch between Lucknow and Amethi, where Modi has become a reference point for all election-related conversations. At roadside eateries offering modest fare of dal roti and pudina chutney to passers-by, poll conversations revolve mostly around Rahul Gandhi’s absentee status and Modi’s message of hope. Away from the highway, deep in the hinterland, forty-year-old Pawan Kumar Maurya’s family is a representative of Rahul Gandhi’s core constituency. His family of six, OBC farmers in Jagjotpur village with two bighas of farming land, meets Outlook in the fields working late after sundown. Pawan points towards his 20-year-old daughter Gunjan, a BSc second year student during daytime and worker on her family fields by evening, “I just want a good education for them so that they can find a job. But there are no jobs here. All hopes are gone. The UPA government was all about corruption and that ate up any chance of development...it has stopped our life from changing.” For Gunjan, meanwhile, Rahul’s promises of empowerment remain just that: promises with no guarantees.
Incidentally, it’s not as if Rahul has not done anything for Amethi. From 2004 when he was first elected as MP here, he has ensured that Amethi remained at the forefront of UPA’s largesse. Over Rs 200 crore has been spent on road connectivity alone in the area and Amethi now boasts of an fddi (Footwear Design and Development Institute), an Indira Gandhi Civil Aviation University and a Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology, among many other educational institutions. A food park, Priyanka promises, is on its way that will ensure that the produce from Amethi can be shipped immediately to bigger, international markets.
That should have made Pawan happy. Ideally, Pawan and his family is everything that Rahul Gandhi has rallied for. Rahul’s flagship programmes, subsidy for farmers, MNREGA and education and employment for youth should have helped him find die-hard support in Pawan’s family, seemingly the beneficiaries of the schemes. Yet, the disenchantment is apparent. What could be more devastating than Rahul’s failure to even capture the imagination of this section? Especially when Pawan says, “Maybe it’s time to try out another party.” Somewhere there, Modi’s slogan for change has struck a chord with the people. Voters in Amethi have never seen Modi in person. They have never been to Gujarat. Yet, many here talk about Modi’s usp, the Gujarat model of development confirming they have discovered virtues about Gujarat on TV and newspapers and are willing to give Modi a chance.
Modi, much to the Congress’s discomfort, has become a central context in conversations in Amethi. Just as much as Rahul’s status of an absentee landlord. The Gandhi charm still draws people out of their homes but they are mostly Seva Dal workers and those associated with Congress programmes. And while most people here may still not recognise Indian telly’s most popular bahu and the BJP candidate here, Smriti Irani, the BJP led by Narendra Modi has found inroads into the Gandhi bastion as a metaphor for hope. Local residents admit, albeit hesitatingly, that Rahul, much like the rest of the Congress party, has lost an opportunity to capture the people’s imagination.
So it’s left to Priyanka, the prodigal daughter. She’s returned to the soil she calls the karma bhoomi of the Gandhi family. She invokes memories of her travelling to these areas with her father when he took over the reins of the Congress party. Every step of the road, the invocation from Priyanka is that of an old family connect. At a meeting in Lohiyapur she says, “Aapne hamein pyaar diya hai. Aur pushton se diya hai. (You have given us love for generations).” She even draws comparisons between Rahul and his opponents, calling them mere opportunists who have landed in Amethi for an electoral contest not because they love the people here but because of malice—because it is “Rahulji’s constituency”.
In the blazing summer heat of 2014, Priyanka’s responses on the campaign trail are more rhetorical than substantial. But then she is saddled with the expectations of a beleaguered party and an electorate showing pervasive Gandhi charm fatigue. As it becomes clearer that a Congress victory in Amethi will have to be earned, Priyanka does everything that she has come to master. From stopping by on a padayatra to help a child wear his chappals, to jumping security cordons to sit with village women on informal daris, the Indira Gandhi ways of yore are being replicated liberally. Priyanka attempts personal touches to her campaign, telling women that “bhaag bhaag ke thak jaati hoon. Par ab badaa bhai hai toh uske liye toh bhaagna padega”. Meeting after meeting, Priyanka talks about her father Rajiv Gandhi and his vision for people, drawing similarities with Rahul’s vision for Amethi. Through as many as 49 meetings in a day, she talks about her father’s martyrdom, attempting to reclaim ground that may have been lost under the Modi blitzkrieg.
Priyanka insists the focus in the election must remain on development issues, expressing anguish over personal attacks, yet Modi and criticism of Modi remain the central theme of her campaign. In her brief interview with Outlook, through a padayatra where she answers only two questions on the run before the SPG shoves us out of hearing range, she says, “Well...I can’t pretend that it (personal attacks) doesn’t bother me but it’s part of politics. It’s a very political attack actually, in nature it’s very political...yes, I think it has hit a low in general. Instead of talking about development and what different political parties should be providing for people, they are talking about things that I think they shouldn’t be talking about.” It is impossible to get in another question, despite chasing her non-stop for the rest of the campaign for three days. “I am not doing any interviews,” she announces to us at Lohiyanagar. As we abandon the chase, Priyanka’s message to the people is replete with barbs on Modi. She tells people that May 7 is an important day when they will decide which direction the country is headed in. She dares Modi to talk about development, chiding him for his barbs against Rahul as juvenile behaviour. At one rally she tells people development requires a “dariya dil (large heart)” more than a “chhappan ki chhaati (56-inch chest)”. At another, she mocks Modi’s dil maange more comment saying Modi is never tired of seeking.
But for people in Amethi, rhetoric must now come with substance. And the Gandhis, it seems, will have to work harder to retain their sheen, considering rising aspirations are becoming hard to meet. Priyanka perhaps already has a sense of that. The metaphors at local nukkads are changing—people now discuss the margin the Congress vice-president may win with instead of the clean sweep of previous elections. Clearly, for the, the change in political metaphors in Amethi is a dangerous sign of Indian polity changing forever post-May 16, when the Lok Sabha poll results will be out.
Amethi is facing a real contest. Not because Rahul is pitted against Smriti Irani or AAP’s Kumar Vishwas but because here, in the Gandhi stronghold, the debate has shifted from personality to performance. As people question how long they will support Rahul in memory of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, it becomes a deathly reverberation of the party’s own dilemma over the Congress prince. At stake is not just a parliamentary seat but the popularity and relevance of the Gandhi parivar.