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Saturday, May 28, 2022

The battle for Hastinapur: A ladki in the mix

Up against heavyweights, Archana Gautam is not likely to win. However, the 26-year-old model, actress and contestant from this reserved seat has not let that stop her earlier.

Written by Amit Sharma | Meerut |
Updated: January 22, 2022 6:08:49 pm
Archana Gautam with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra | Facebook/ArchanaGautam

“A woman faces challenges starting from her birth, at her parent’s place to that of her husband’s. For me too, there are many challenges, but I am not frightened and will face all,” says Archana Gautam.

On Friday afternoon, Gautam filed her nomination papers as the Congress candidate from the Hastinapur (SC) seat in Meerut. It might be the 26-year-old’s first election, but the model-turned-actress-turned politician has been making much news since Priyanka Gandhi Vadra announced her name as one of the Congress’s women candidates, in an Uttar Pradesh campaign centred around the theme ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon’.

Not many roads for a woman from a Dalit middle-class family, in a city like Meerut, lead to Mumbai or other tinsel towns. Gautam, who has a Miss Bikini India title and some Tamil and Hindi films under her belt, says that never stopped her. When some right-wing Hindu outfits sought to embarrass her with her modelling pictures after the Congress gave her a ticket, Gautam shot back in a statement to ANI: “I request people to not merge my profession in the media industry with my political career.”

In a Facebook Live interaction, Vadra took on those attacking Gautam, asking why questions regarding the choice of clothes or prospects of marriage are not asked of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Sirf mahilaon se aise prashna poochhte hain… halka banana chahte hain, kyonki mahila hain (Why are such questions asked only of women?… It is to diminish them).”

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On the electoral field at least, the task before Gautam is daunting. Facing her are sitting BJP MLA Dinesh Khatik, who was inducted as a Minister of State in the Yogi Adityanath government three months ago; former MLA Yogesh Verma, a candidate of the SP-RLD alliance; and the BSP’s Sanjeev Jatav.

Gautam, a Mass Communication graduate, says entering politics was a well-thought-out move. “I joined inspired by Priyanka didi, only because I wanted to give a strong message to women that they need not face bottlenecks if they decided to accomplish any task successfully.”

Born to Gautam Budh and wife Sunita, she had her first exposure to the world of glamour when she won the Miss UP title in 2014 while doing her graduation. In 2018, she won the Miss Bikini India title and represented India at the Miss Cosmos World.

Gautam claims politics is in her blood, citing a grandfather who was in the party around the time of Indira Gandhi. “I heard a lot about the Congress from him.” Vadra’s Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon decided it for her, she adds. “I knew I would be trolled as a Bikini Girl but nothing was going to deter me from my goal. My ambition is to put Hastinapur on the tourism map of the country.”

Pointing to Hastinapur’s significance as one of the major mythical sites in the Mahabharata, she adds: “Hastinapur’s MLA is a minister in the Yogi Adityanath Cabinet but the place has seen no development. The BJP is giving a facelift to Ayodhya by building the Ram Temple and to Varanasi through the new corridor for the Kashi Vishwanath temple, but no one thought about developing Hastinapur.”

Proving herself a quick learner, she taps into the epic for that extra emphasis. “I want to free Hastinapur from the curse of Draupadi. The kingdom of Kauravas will be doomed,” she declares.

Hastinapur has been a reserved constituency since 1967, and its residents pride themselves on always choosing an MLA whose party went on to form the government. While Muslims form the biggest group here (nearly 75,000), by virtue of it being reserved (the only one of Meerut’s seven), it is the Dalits (70,000) who call the shots in the constituency. People laugh that, here, all the Dalit candidates are out wooing the non-SCs.

There is also a 10,000-strong congregation of Bengali Hindus in Hastinapur, many of whom migrated here from then East Pakistan in the 1970s.

Verma, an SP leader, is facing protests from some workers of ally RLD over his nomination. However, he is dismissive of the challenge posed by Gautam. “The Congress likes to field Bollywood faces from Meerut. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it fielded Nagma, but she got only 13,222 votes, forfeiting her deposit. Needless to say what Archana’s fate will be, though her campaigning will obviously add glamour,” he says.

Verma had fought the last election as a BSP nominee, losing that time to the BJP’s Khatik, whom he is facing again. Verma’s wife Sunita Verma is the Mayor of Meerut.

The gram pradhan of Hastinapur village, Kusum Siddharth, says they are excited about having a young woman in the race. “The contest will generate curiosity. Even though Archana Gautam’s victory at the moment seems a distant dream, elections can be unpredictable. Let us wait and watch,” she says.

SEAT DETAILS

2017

Winner: BJP’s Dinesh Khatik (99,436 votes)

Runner-up: SP’s Yogesh Verma (63,374 votes)

2012

Winner: SP’s Prabhu Dayal Balmiki (46,742 votes)

Runner-up: Cong’s Gopal Kali (39,009 votes)

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