The Congress has rarely faced a contest here. Not this time, as the the BJP’s Smriti Irani and AAP’s Kumar Vishwas take on Rahul Gandhi. Devyani Onial visits Amethi and finds voters asking more questions of the Gandhis than ever before
The stage is set for Priyanka Vadra at Deeh in the Lok Sabha constituency of Amethi. In between, to fill in time, local Congress leaders and loyalists make enthusiastic speeches. Rafiq Warsi, popularly known as Allu mian, regales the audience with a poem that speaks of the Gandhi family’s “love” and “ties” with Amethi, before moving on to the “treachery” that’s afloat in the constituency. “Magar ab ki thoda sa badla hai mausam/Aur chunauti dene ayein hain zaalim (There is a change in the air/And the cruel have come to challenge us).’
The zaalim, he underlines, in case someone has missed the point, are those contesting against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. He has barely finished his poem when the attention of the crowd turns from him to Priyanka striding in. They crane their necks to get a better look at her and fall silent as she speaks. “Have you been waiting for long? Two hours? Aur aaj toh dhoop bhi hai (It’s a hot day). But you have waited because of your love for us,” says Priyanka, dressed in a navy blue sari.
In her speech, she talks of how Rahul is a doordarshi (visionary) like their father. She also acknowledges the villagers’ concerns about bad roads and errant electricity supply. “There are some hurdles but that’s not because we lack intent. It’s because of some state-Central issues.” She reaches out across the barricade, shaking hands with people before making an exit. Her handshakes dominate conversations long after she has left.
At a village near the Dalit-dominated Chakna Nampur, which is Priyanka’s next scheduled stop, people sporting Congress scarves and caps stand around. Congress supporters, aren’t they? “Wearing a cap doesn’t mean you are going to vote for that party. Matdan ka matlab hota hai apna mat dena (Your vote is yours),” says an elderly man sporting a Congress cap.
At another marketplace, villagers animatedly discuss the May 7 elections. “Rahul will win but his margin will be lower. Is baar sabak sikhake jitayenge (He will win, but we will teach him a lesson),” says a youth.
In the last Lok Sabha elections, Rahul won with 4,64,000 votes, the BSP’s Ashish Shukla came a distant second with 94,000 votes and the BJP’s Pradeep Kumar Singh got 37,500 votes.
Nasirabad is Priyanka’s last stop of the day. There is a festive air about the village, party flags flutter in the hot breeze, Youth Congress members shout slogans and perform nukkad nataks and villagers mill around waiting for Priyanka.
“Vikas toh kuch nahi hua yahan (There has been no development here),” says one of them. The list of complaints grows longer — no light, no water, bad sewage, bad roads. “But of course, we will vote for Rahul,” they laugh.
The talk then turns to Narendra Modi. “It’s not as if the Muslims will never vote for the BJP. We would vote for Atalji, Rajnath is also good. But Modi? Look at how he has discarded Advaniji,” says 66-year-old Mohammad Rashid who owns a shop that sells trunks.
“Arre bhaiyya, there’s no Modi wave in Amethi,” says Birendra Kumar Tiwari, a farmer who has come from a neighbouring village to see Priyanka. “But when Priyanka comes, ek lahar si aa jati hai,” intervenes Rashid.
At another street corner, a man has a cautionary tale for those contemplating “deserting” Rahul. “You know, when Raj Narain defeated Indira Gandhi in Rae Bareli, he had himself said, ‘How can I trust those who weren’t even loyal to Indira Gandhi?’.”
Another has a completely unrelated counter-argument. “I have heard that in Gujarat, you can leave your cycle anywhere and it won’t be stolen,” he says, before being led away hastily by his friend.
But the bickering is forgotten as Priyanka walks down the uneven road, surrounded by a surge of supporters. She waves cheerily, keeps up the pace to the sabha ground and addresses the crowd. A wooden beam that has too many children sitting atop collapses and the children scramble up quickly, not wanting to miss any of the action. The sound system is shaky and Priyanka’s voice alternatively rises and dips. “Kya aap sun sakte ho, ab aa rahi hai meri awaaz? Lagta hai saari shaam mein yehi kehti rahoongi (Can you hear me now? Looks like I will have to spend the entire evening saying this),” she says. “Aur aap toh phone pe lage hain to aapko meri awaaz kaise sunayee degi,” she laughs, pointing to someone in the crowd.
As the meeting winds up and the crowd walks through the darkness back to their shops and homes, a young man tells his friend, “Priyanka paidal toh chaleen. Unhone mujhse haath bhi milaya. Bhaiyya, mera vote to unko hi padega (She walked to get here. And shook hands with me. My vote is for her).”
The poll season has made poets out of many a party functionary. At Salon, as members of the BJP’s youth wing wait for party candidate Smriti Irani and Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, a Mahila Morcha worker sings, rather off key, a poem in Modi’s praise, likening the BJP without Modi to “basant bina koel (spring without cuckoos).” The youth, mostly from families who have traditionally voted for the BJP and some who have crossed over from the Congress, say they want better schools, a college which “offers science and commerce”, good roads, electricity, better connectivity to Allahabad, and more jobs.
Though Amethi has its industrial belt in Jagdishpur, home to public and private sector units such as BHEL, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and ACC, people in Salon say job opportunities are limited. “How does opening factories and institutes, where usually outsiders come to work and study, help us? Rahul Gandhi ne yahan kuch nahi banaya, bas kuch banaya hai to humen bewakoof (Rahul hasn’t made anything here; only made fools of us). If he couldn’t do anything for us when his government was at the Centre, what will he do if Modi comes to power?” asks another.
Salon is one of the many stops on Irani’s route that leads finally to Jayas panchayat. The national highway goes through the busy marketplace in Jayas, kicking up dust and derision in equal measure. “This is the state of the national highway here. When Rahul Gandhi passes this way, I am sure he can at least see this,” says Rajesh Kumar Maurya, who runs a fertiliser shop. “But he usually has a newspaper or a book in front of him so that he can’t see anyone,” chips in another shopkeeper.
Young boys ready to vote for Irani quote Aam Aadmi Party candidate Kumar Vishwas to make their point. “This is the land of the poet Malik Mohammad Jayasi but there is no degree college here. Dr Vishwas is right when he says that if they can get your vote without making a university, why will they spend money to make it?” AAP’s relentless campaigning, asking people to question the Congress, appears to have stoked the youth’s resentment, some of the fruits of which could go to the BJP.
Maurya and his family have always voted for the Congress but this time he says he will back the BJP. “I am not saying Rahul Gandhi will lose, but this election will tell the Congress it can’t take us for granted,” he says.
The Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, which has been with the Gandhi family for years and which Rahul has held since 2004, has rarely seen such a spirited campaign by the challengers. Apart from Irani and AAP’s Vishwas is the BSP’s not-so-visible candidate Dharmendra Pratap Singh. The Samajwadi Party has not fielded any candidate.
“Wherever we go, people say, oh, you are from Amethi, the VIP constituency. But does this look like a VIP constituency to you?” asks Maurya. “We have no degree college. Our children go to Rae Bareli which is 35 km away. There are no hospitals, so if an accident victim has to be taken to Rae Bareli on these pathetic roads, the patient might die by the time he reaches. At least, let us give the BJP a chance. This time, some Muslims too are ready to vote for the BJP. Like our Pappu kasai (butcher),” he says, calling out to a man across the street.
Pappu, dressed in a vest and a lungi and sporting a ‘Modi for PM’ cap, crosses the road with a swagger, chewing paan. “ I am Mohammad Rafiq,” he says. What does he do? “Business,” he says with a smile, evoking much mirth all around. “Business? Batate kyon nahin ho kya karte ho? “Why, isn’t it a business?” he responds joining in in the laughter. “Why not give Modi a chance?” he says. “Whoever asks me for my vote, I always say yes. After all, how can you say no? But when I go in to vote, I press the button where I want to,” he says with a knowing smile.
Irani finally arrives at 9 pm and hits the ground running. “When I tell people I am going to Amethi, they tell me, it’s the Gandhis’ constituency, it must be swarg (heaven),” she tells the workers, “Par swarg mein gaddhe to nahin hote (But there can’t be potholes in heaven).”
“Amethi isn’t untouched by the Modi wave. This time, we have a strong candidate. Smriti is also vice-president of the party. Is baar ladai takkar ki hogi (This is a battle of equals). This time, the OBC votes that usually go to the Congress will come to us and so will some Brahmin votes,” says Daya Shankar Yadav, the BJP’s district chief.
The BJP’s office in Gauriganj, the district headquarters, today has a visitor from Chennai — Vanathi Srinivasan, vice-president of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, who, more than anything else, is struck by the absence of posters in Amethi. “In Tamil Nadu, we have huge cutouts, why aren’t there any posters here?” she asks quizzically.
Mujahid Khani village in Amethi doesn’t get too many visitors. As the AAP campaign vehicle rolls in with the song ‘Mera rang de basanti chola’, people step out of their homes. In these parts, the AAP caps, many of them with the party’s name in Urdu, are the new toffees. Children line up for them, some hide theirs in one hand and reach out greedily for another. Too young to vote but the cap fits.
As the AAP convoy travels through the mostly Muslim-dominated villages, the youth flock to it. “It’s difficult to persuade the older people who have been voting for one party for so long to change. But the younger lot has been coming to us in large numbers. We have 27,000 volunteers here. This is the first time they have tasted activism and they are excited,” says Vishwas. The AAP candidate has been camping in Amethi for five months, claims to have visited 1,200 villages so far, spending 40 nights there.
Pankaj Shukla, AAP’s spokesperson in Amethi, says, “There are 1,256 gram panchayats in Amethi. We began by going everywhere and educating people to question their leaders, to ask them about water, health, roads. In 2004, the voting percentage here was 56 per cent and it fell to 46 per cent in 2009. The decline was because many people didn’t bother to vote. They knew only Rahul would win. There were about 12 lakh registered voters in Amethi but after our groundwork, two-and-a-half lakh new voters have been added,” says Shukla.
Meanwhile, Vishwas stops to address villagers as one of them starts a chant, “Kumar bhaiyya ki takker mein, Pappu pad gaya chakker mein.” “On May 16, when you switch on your TV sets… oh, but how will you do that, you get no electricity. But if you do, then you will see when the results come out, Pappu paas nahin hua hoga.”
At Pichooti village, a Dalit family watches the cars go by. “I will vote for the jhadoo. Why? Bas mood hai,” shrugs Ayodhya Ram, a farm labourer. Ram Kala, another farm labourer is more forthcoming. “We use a jhadoo in the fields to sweep grain, we use it in our homes. Without a jhadoo, how can you clean?” she reasons.
At Kishni village, villagers sit around discussing elections after the AAP convoy has left. “The transformer got burnt weeks ago and we are left without light. We have got no kerosene for the past four months. Na batti jalti hai, na chiragh.”
“That’s true but it’s not as if nothing has been done. It’s the party dalals who have looted everything. And how can they solve matters that come under the state?” says Tyeb Ali, former pradhan of Kishni. “Priyanka reminds us a lot of Rajiv bhaiyya. He also used to move away from the road and start meeting people. Amethi ki pehchan Gandhi parivar se hai. This is their home, how can we break away from them?” asks Ali wistfully.
That’s a question many in Amethi are wrestling with.