IN SEVEN elections so far, Union minister Maneka Gandhi and son Varun have won Pilibhit seat, securing more than 50 per cent votes each time but once. But this April 23, the fight will be tougher.
Varun, who had won from here in 2009, is up against Mahagathbandhan candidate Hemraj Verma of the Samajwadi Party. The Congress has not fielded a candidate but is backing one put up by the Apna Dal faction led by Anupriya Patel’s mother Krishna. Given this group’s bleak fortunes, Pilibhit is virtually a straight fight between Varun and Verma.
Belonging to the Lodh farmer community, Verma is expected to garner a chunk of votes of the OBC group, that has been considered a core BJP base in Uttar Pradesh due to stalwart Kalyan Singh (now Rajasthan Governor). The other big group in Pilibhit comprises the Muslims (around 5 lakh), and Varun’s camp concedes he won’t get their votes.
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While the MP also admits this is “a tough election” for him, he asserts, “It is tough for others as well.” Among the constituency’s 17.47 lakh votes, Varun claims, “My count starts with 5 lakh, my main opponent’s count ends at 4.5 lakh votes.”
In 2009, Varun’s victory margin was 2.81 lakh votes. In 2014, Maneka had won the seat by 3.07 lakh votes.
While the Lodhs comprise nearly 3 lakh voters in Pilibhit, there are over 2 lakh Scheduled Caste voters, and around 50,000 Yadav votes. The constituency also includes over two lakh voters of the Kurmi group Gangwar.
Much of Varun’s time on the campaign trail, from 8 am till late evening, is spent telling small gatherings why he is back in Pilibhit from Sultanpur and assuring that he will always be with them. With Verma saying at his rallies that Varun had been “rejected from Sultanpur”, the 39-year-old BJP leader tells The Indian Express, “It (shifting him back to Pilibhit) is the party’s decision.”
In 2014, the BJP had fielded Varun from Sultanpur, while bringing Maneka back to Pilibhit. The Union minister had gone on to win Pilibhit for the sixth time, after 1989 and 1996 (on a Janata Dal ticket), 1998 and 1999 (as an Independent), and once earlier (2004) as a BJP candidate. 2019 marks a swap of seats again between mother and son, with the BJP having fielded Maneka from Sultanpur this time.
But the musical chairs has not gone down well with some local BJP leaders either. On March 17, three of the five BJP MLAs under the Pilibhit Lok Sabha seat held a press conference demanding that the party field a local leader and not “outsiders (like Maneka and Varun)”. While Sanjay Singh Gangwar, the MLA from the Pilibhit Assembly segment, is said to be particularly displeased, local BJP leader Sanjeev Majhola asserts, “Now all five MLAs are working for the party. They were all with Varunji when he filed his nomination.”
SP candidate Verma, who was a minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government, is focusing on Varun’s “bahri (outsider)” tag. At his rallies, Verma says, “His mother (Maneka) pushed the area backwards and he is contesting here as he failed in Sultanpur.” Says one of Verma’s key managers, Pintu Yadav, “Varun won in 2009 because of his speech that polarised votes (he had threatened to chop hands of those who ‘raise a finger towards Hindus’), but left in 2014 sensing defeat. Thanks to our alliance with the BSP, the SP will win this time.”
Shreepal Valmiki of Paonta village attests to this, adding that while even SP core voters like Yadavs may not go with Verma completely, BSP backers like him will.
But that may be too optimistic as well. In village Lilori Kheda, Data Ram Bharatiya, who belongs to the SC Dhobi community, says they will vote for the BJP, despite their local issues with the Gangwars, who are BJP supporters. “The BSP has done nothing for us. It focuses on Jatavs and has never taken care of us,” says Bharatiya.
What might also help Varun is the apparent indifference of two prominent Muslim names of the area, Haji Riyaz Ahmed of the SP and Anees Ahmed Khan alias Phool Babu of the BSP, towards Verma. It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the SP that despite the presence of both at a rally of party chief Akhilesh in Pilibhit on April 12, not many Muslims were present in the crowd.
At his rally, the SP chief reminded people of Varun’s 2009 speech, which was seen as directed at Muslims.
Varun claims he is not worried, saying, “Caste equations were there earlier too, still Manekaji and I won seven times from here. Our base is quite fortified. I never look at politics as such mathematics but always do optimistic politics.”
Varun is also hoping Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, including among the backward castes, will help. He reminds voters of welfare schemes initiated by the NDA government “which have benefited weaker sections mostly”, and adds, “Modiji is not from any big family, he reached the top on his own. Ve mere liye prerna ka kendra hain (He is a source of inspiration for me).”