Big hoardings congratulating Priyanka Gandhi on behalf of district Congress leaders, some wearing sunglasses, have sprung up near the Feroze Gandhi College in Rae Bareli, the parliamentary constituency of former Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Under their gaze, teenagers with new-age haircuts go about speeding on their bikes, honking obsessively. Last week, the Congress leadership appointed Priyanka Gandhi the party in-charge for eastern Uttar Pradesh.
At the national level, her elevation to the position has provided much grist to media mills, triggering questions like will she boost the Congress’s electoral prospects in the forthcoming general elections, will she take up some of PM Narendra Modi’s media space, will she contest from Rae Bareli and so on. In her family’s traditional constituency, she delivered a spontaneous and effortlessly confident speech to much applause. But how does the eastern UP terrain look for her and the Congress beyond the loyalist crowd in front of the podium?
“People here don’t see anybody beyond the Gandhis in the general elections. Whether it’s Sonia or Priyanka, it’s a sureshot win for the Congress,” says Sukhendra Pratap Singh, a contractor, who is getting his bike repaired at a shop near the college, adding that Priyanka’s formal entry into politics doesn’t change anything in the constituency.
“Earlier, Muslims used to vote for both BSP and SP, but now their votes will land in one place,” says Asif Ishaq.
Near Rae Bareli is village Barkhapur, with broken roads flanked by bare-brick houses and cattle. There we meet Shyam Bihari Awasthi, who has been a Congress loyalist all his life. “If people in the world know about Rae Bareli, it is because of the Congress. Even if someone threatens to shoot me, I’ll vote for the Gandhis,” says Awasthi, wearing a weather-beaten coat and a beanie. Asked about the poor civic amenities in the village, he says, “This is Barkhapur. Iski kaaya-kalp nahin badelgi. Chaahe Priyanka aa jaye ya Priyanka ka baap utar ke aa jaye. (The destiny of this village won’t change, no matter who comes—Priyanka or her father from the other world.)”
Others lament loss of livelihood with the factories opened by Indira Gandhi, who represented Rae Bareli in the Lok Sabha during the 1960s-80s, gradually closing shop. The young are more vocal in their criticism of the Congress. “The BJP government gave houses to the people (referring to houses allotted under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana). What did the Congress do all these years?” asks Sandeep Trivedi, a 25-year-old preparing for competitive exams since doing his MCom. “But the old don’t want to think. They’ll get all emotional, go ‘bitiya aa gayi (our daughter has come),’ and vote Congress. But the BJP has changed the thinking of the young. Now we think about the country. We think twice before throwing garbage on the road.”
The residents of Barkhapur also voice what has become a big concern in the past couple of years—stray cattle ravaging their fields. In village after village, people recount stories of bovine-related misery. The number of stray cattle shot up after the Yogi Adityanath government ensured strict enforcement of laws against cattle slaughter. In Barwaripur, Darshan Yadav, 80, holds the Modi and Yogi governments responsible for the menace. “You can’t even sell them now. If you are taking them for sale, you get killed on the way. They (Modi and Yogi) keep laughing in the photos, while the public suffers,” he says. His neighbour, 68-year-old Mahadev, an avowed Congress supporter, feels the cattle problem will cause the BJP’s defeat in the general elections. “In Rae Bareli, nobody can stop the Congress. Here we don’t know who Modi is,” he says, adding that Priyanka’s appointment will bring new hope to people of the region.
(Clockwise) a Varanasi street; at the Ganga ghat in Varanasi; ‘Rahul for PM’ on a hoarding in Amethi
An hour’s drive from Rae Bareli is Amethi, which Rahul Gandhi represents in the Lok Sabha. The refrain of the cattle menace rings at a teastall in Amethi’s Fursatganj village too, while others bemoan the allegedly erratic electronic PDS (Public Distribution System) machines introduced by the BJP government. “One day it recognises the fingerprint, the next day it doesn’t,” says Shivaji Patel, 38, who owns the stall. “We then ask the dealer to give whatever he can. Modiji has not done anything for us, but he has worked for the nation. He has made the country strong and enhanced its image in the world.”
In Dinapur village of Amethi, 45-year-old Kalavati Jayaswal is happy that Priyanka is going to lead the party in these parts. “This place is theirs (the Gandhi family’s). It’s even better now that Priyanka too has taken up the mantle,” she says, arranging smouldering dung cakes in a pot, while her kids circle around it. One of her kids, no more than six or seven years old, quips, “Modi haar jayega. Saand sabka dhaan gehun noch liye. (Modi will lose as stray cattle have destroyed the wheat crop),” much to everybody’s amusement.
Dheerendra Tripathi, 37, from Khajuri village, is working with a bunch of youngsters to level a volleyball court. He has been a Congress voter all his life, but his loyalty has been eroded. “Aaj bhi aankh mein aansu aa jate hain agar Congress se hat ke baat karte hain (My eyes go moist even today when I think of supporting any party other than the Congress),” he says. “I would have voted for Rahulji, but what have he done? If he wanted, Amethi could have been paradise. But, I’ll still say, we owe this volleyball court to him.”
In Amethi town, a taxi driver says Modi may be a good man, but the people of Amethi are indebted to Rajiv Gandhi—“aur Amethi PM chunti hai (and Amethi elects the PM)”. In another part of town, a group of men with mixed political leanings stands around a bonfire exchanging barbs. “Smriti Irani didn’t win at the peak of the the Modi wave, what are her chances now,” says one, referring to Irani’s drubbing in the 2014 election for the Amethi seat, which Rahul won. “Priyanka campaigned last year too. Result? Two seats!” retorts another. A third one quips: “Modi and Yogi will bring down the BJP, you’ll see.”
Stray cattle eating crops is not the only concern for village folks—sometimes, they also face bovine attacks. In Diha Jahania village of Jaunpur, some 130 km from Amethi, 35-year-old Shiv Poojan Gaun, was attacked from behind by a bull when he was rearing goats. As he tried to get up, the bull attacked him again, rupturing his abdomen. He lifts his shirt to show a long incision mark on his belly.
“Even if someone threatens to shoot me, I’ll vote for the Gandhis,” says Rae Bareli’s Shyam Bihari Awasthi.
The concerns of Manikant, a law student at the government college in Jaunpur, take on a more social dimension when it comes to electoral politics. “We’ll vote for the party that can ensure a life of dignity for us. A Dalit man was beaten by people from the privileged castes in Khakhopur, but the police refused to even register an FIR. The perpetrators have been threatening the victims ever since,” he says, adding that when the BSP was in power, the officials worked as per the law. The Modi government’s recent decision to give 10 per cent reservation to economically weaker sections from the general category has also not gone down well with him. “It’s wrong,” he says. “The privileged castes are already strong.”
In Jaunpur, three school teachers are sipping tea near the bus depot. Sanjay Singh, 46, says that even though the Congress works for the interests of employees, he’ll vote BJP in the national interest. “The Congress is not even in the race in most of eastern UP. Priyanka’s entry will not make a difference,” says Sanjay, district secretary of the UP primary teachers association. Asked about Priyanka’s entry, a fish trader laughs and says, “Hamare Jaunpur se to unko zero number dijiye (She will draw a blank in Jaunpur).” He adds that the BJP will go down a few notches, while the SP-BSP alliance emerges strong in this year’s elections.
In Muslim-dominated Atala Masjid area of the town, the concerns are different. Some say the chasm between Muslims and Hindus grows when the BJP runs the government. The SP-BSP alliance has made a section of them hopeful and they feel that it will be able to halt the BJP bandwagon. “The BJP has only 30 per cent voteshare. The rest are all secular votes,” says Asif Ishaq, a 47-year-old engaged in the construction business. Earlier, Muslims used to vote for both the BSP and the SP. Now their votes will land in one place.” As for Priyanka’s elevation, they say let her address the people first.
In Varanasi, Modi’s parliamentary constituency, his popularity appears to have held on. People who visit Varanasi after a long time talk about how the city has been revamped with new roads and corridors. In Godowliya, 68-year-old Panchanand Sahu, who owns a shop that sells tea leaves, strongly feels Modi will win as he has no real competition. “While there has been tremendous development, this government has killed the maximum number of militants as well,” says Sahu, adding that while the Congress might bag some of the BJP’s votes in rural areas if Priyanka campaigns well, it would make little difference in the city. Others too affirm their support for Modi and their hopes for his victory. Boatmen at the ghats, however, rue the deployment of motorboats on the Ganga.
In Naipura Kalan village of Varanasi, Jai Singh Yadav, 45, a lawyer, recounts how he became a BJP supporter despite a history as an SP loyalist. “I come from Sir Gobardhan, where there are 9,000 Yadavs. Before 2014, the BJP couldn’t find a polling agent there. But inspired by Modiji’s vision, I took on the role and got them 2,300 more,” says Jai, whose brother serves in the Indian Army. However, Jai is disappointed with the BJP for its failure to remove Article 370 of the Constitution, which gives autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. He is also unhappy with how Yogi Adityanath is running the UP government. “I admit that Akhilesh Yadav favours his caste. But why is this man, who wears a monk’s robes, doing caste-based politics? Why has he appointed only Thakurs as station in-charges of the police?” he fumes.
In neighbouring Dalit-majority Narottampur, a few residents express fondness for Modi. “I like Modi because of his Hindutva. The surgical strike was also a great thing. And then there was demonetisation, which ended the funding of terrorists,” says Mintu Kumar, 26, while admitting that his village elders want to vote BSP despite all this.
Priyanka’s appeal seems to be largely missing in areas beyond the Congress strongholds of Amethi and Rae Bareli. However, she is yet to begin her campaign and get into combative mode to wrest eastern UP for her party.
Dinkar Tripathi, who teaches political science at Feroze Gandhi College, says a strengthened Congress may bag votes, but will find it difficult to secure seats in these parts. “However, Priyanka is quite gifted when it comes to striking a chord with the people,” he says. “During the campaign, she might just stop at a field, break a twig from a plant and chew it. These things instantly establish a connect with the masses. Besides, it remains to be seen whether she would contest from Rae Bareli or choose another seat, or whether she will contest at all or choose to just oversee the campaign.”