In a shelf at the Congress office in Raebareli is kept The Red Saree, the Hindi translation of Spanish writer Javier Moro's novelistic biography of Sonia Gandhi. When the book was originally released in Spanish, the Congress and its leaders had demanded that it be withdrawn from the bookstores. Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi had accused Moro of "distorting facts and misrepresenting details". Legal notices were issued to the author and his publishers that the book "is completely unauthorised, defamatory and salacious".
Nobody in the Congress office now knows about the controversy, and nobody can recall how the book has reached these shelves. Through the prism of this ignorance, one can read the status of the party in its president's Lok Sabha constituency. Until recently, the MP, the MLA and the Nagar Palika president from Raebareli were women leaders from one party, perhaps the only such instance in the country. Two of these Congress leaders recently defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and if the MLA wins again, the remaining one may lose her next Lok Sabha election, marking the end of the Congress’s glorious chapter in their family fort.
On Monday, Congress president Sonia Gandhi delivered her first speech for the ongoing Uttar Pradesh elections when she accused the BJP government of betraying the people of Raebareli, her Lok Sabha constituency. The choice of her virtual address was instructive. Coming on the last day of the campaigning ahead of the fourth phase of elections being held today, the speech was perhaps a lone attempt to save the last Congress bastion from total collapse. For decades, the party’s first family has dominated the neighbouring towns of Amethi and Raebareli. Raebareli LS constituency has elected Sonia Gandhi since 2004, with Feroze Gandhi and Indira Gandhi winning the seat on several occasions in the past. Amethi had been represented by Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi before BJP leader Smriti Irani trounced Rahul in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The saffron party poached two Congress MLAs falling under the Raebareli Lok Sabha constituency – Aditi Singh (Raebareli Sadar) and Rakesh Singh (Harchandpur) – just before the elections, along with the Nagar Palika president Purnima Srivastava.
Consider the Congress’s dominance here by the fact that of the seven MLAs it won in 2017, two were from Raebareli district. When the BJP swept 312 of 402 seats, Aditi Singh polled 1.28 lakh votes and won by a margin of nearly 90,000 votes with the BJP a distant third at 28, 821 votes. She was riding on her father Akhilesh Singh’s legacy, who had held the seat on either a Congress ticket or as an Independent since 1993, with her uncle Ashok Singh twice winning the seat on Janata Dal ticket. Several people display a natural allegiance to the Singh family, which was once close to the Congress.
The BJP couldn’t be unaware of the stakes. A loss in the elections may make it difficult for Sonia Gandhi in the 2024 LS elections, should she wish to contest from a battlefield that has turned into quicksand.
But a weak Congress doesn’t necessarily mean a victory for the BJP. While locals bet on the SP candidate Ram Pratap Yadav, Singh’s supporters admit that the contest is tight. In fact, Yadav’s camp pointed out that Singh had won the 2017 elections as a joint candidate of the Congress-SP alliance, with Yadav himself throwing his weight behind her.
Mayawati’s choice of the candidate from Raibareli Sadar, Mohammad Ashraf, lends credence to the perception that she is fielding candidates mostly to dampen the chances of the SP-RLD coalition. “There are nearly 75,000 SC voters here. If Mayawati had fielded a strong Dalit candidate, she could have gained a large number of these votes. But now these SCs may go to the BJP,” says Mohammad Ali, an unemployed youth who is assisting the SP in its campaign.
There’s also anger against the BJP, particularly over unemployment and cattle menace. While stray cattle destroy standing crops and cause monetary loss, the problem also led to the death of two farmer brothers, Shivram and Tulsi, in Itwa village of Raebareli in January. They were guarding their crop on a frosty night before they were found dead in the morning. Vijay Prakash Chaudhary, who runs a dhaba in Raebareli, turns outraged as he narrates the incident and asserts that “the BJP will not be able to win”.
A city turns into village
The area has been in a decline for over two decades now. People have several fond memories of the Congress reign; several educational institutions bear the name of Feroze Gandhi. The area once had Indian Telephone Industries Limited and a rail coach factory before an AIIMS was also established in the town. However, following the digital revolution telephone sets became redundant and somehow the city couldn’t match the pace of economic reforms.
“Maine shahar ko gaon bante dekha hai (I have seen a city turning into a village),” says Saurabh Sharma, who was born in Raebareli and now lives in Lucknow. Raebareli was among the richest cities of the Awadh region. “There was a time when officers from Lucknow would go to Raebareli to have chow mein. People travelling to Allahabad from Lucknow would always stop at food joints of Raebareli,” says Sharma.
The decay of the city also reflects the crisis of the state and its polity that has not been able to accommodate the changing needs of its people. Fewer houses for increased population, poor roads that are unable to meet the growing number of vehicles, and absence of jobs. As the fourth phase of 59 seats polls on Wednesday, the Congress, which has dedicated its manifesto to women, should face an embarrassment for being against a woman who was not long ago one of its star MLAs.
“The Congress had one certain seat. It has weakened its chances there as well,” says Ganesh Pratap Singh, who is supervising the installation of CCTV cameras at a booth in Raebareli.