THE UNGUARDED FORTRESS OF THE GANDHI FAMILY
Months before the general elections, the state of two of the most famous constituencies in India, Rae Bareili and Amethi, lies in neglect as the Congress tries to blame its managers for its poor performance in the area
Pradeep Kapoor Rae Bareili and Amethi
When it comes to their Lok Sabha constituencies, Rae Bareili and Amethi, both Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are walking a tightrope. The inaccessibility of these top leaders to their voters, poor communication by their managers with locals, collapse of party organization and lack of any development is likely to create hurdles for the mother and son in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
The Gandhi family’s woes may be compounded by UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s recent promotion of two ministers of state to the cabinet rank, both belonging to the traditional Gandhi stronghold. Minister of State for Geology and Mining, Gayatri Prasad Prajapati, an OBC and key face of the Samajwadi Party, successfully led the party’s Backward Yatra from Lucknow to Jhansi to consolidate the OBCs. He is also the MLA from Amethi.
Significantly enough, the other MoS elevated to cabinet rank is Manoj Pande, MLA from Rae Bareili, and influential in netting the Brahmin vote bank. Political observers feel that the elevation of these two ministers is clear indication that the party will field candidates against Sonia and Rahul. However, while releasing the party list earlier, SP leader Ram Gopal Yadav had said that they would not field candidates against Sonia Gandhi. On Amethi though, he said no decision had been taken. But the changing political scenario suggests that the SP will still most likely prop candidates against Sonia and Rahul. Experts believe the decision has come about in light of the recent deterioration in the relations between the two parties.
In a recent visit to Rae Bareili and Amethi by this correspondent, the anger among the voters—particularly the youth—was palpable. They rue the fact that despite being VIP constituencies for several decades, real development is yet to come. Voters are finding appeal in the development slogans of BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi, as well as calls by AAP leaders to end the dynastic rule of the Gandhi family.
The impression one gets after visiting Rae Bareili and Amethi is that Sonia Gandhi may sail through but Rahul Gandhi will face a tough battle. Sanjay Singh, the incumbent Congress MP from Sultanpur and erstwhile ruler of the royal family of Amethi, is now being given a Rajya Sabha ticket, after there were rumours that he would contest on a BJP ticket.
Although Congress star campaigner Priyanka Gandhi has decided to limit herself to two constituencies, even her charisma couldn’t shake off the anti-incumbency factor in Rae Bareili, where the party lost all five assembly seats. In Amethi, the party won only two out of five assembly seats in 2012.
At a public meeting called by AAP leader Kumar Vishwas at the Ramlila Maidan in Amethi on January 12, a sixty-year-old woman, Mangala, had come to see if this supposed new political party was any different. Mangala said she had been meeting the gram pradhan, block pramukh and even MLA Gayatri Prajapati of the SP regarding water, power and land issues, but to no avail. ‘Any party that even attempts to help us out will get 13 votes from our family,’ Mangala had announced.
Another local, Vivek Kumar, who had come with his wife and baby, said he had been working in the public sector in Amethi for the past ten years but had not seen any major development work taking place. He lamented the lack of proper roads, which caused grave difficulties for the villagers. Brijesh Mishra, a student of Shiv Pratap Inter College in Amethi, says that Rahul Gandhi did nothing to create jobs for people belonging to the area. Brijesh claims that on several occasions, students would stop the Rahul Gandhi’s motorcades to draw his attention to their plight. He would promptly assure action, but there was never follow-up from Gandhi’s managers. On the other hand, the minority community has pledged its full support to Gandhi and his party.
Rafeeq Ahmad, from Amethi, says people of his constituency are emotionally linked with Rahul Gandhi and would vote for him. He attributes all the development work that has taken place in Amethi to Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi. Ahmad feels the BJP and other parties would not be able to make any dent here in the Lok Sabha polls. He could be wrong, but he does point out that Kumar Vishwas had to depend on outsiders to hold his first ever meeting in Amethi. “Not even half of Ramlila ground was covered in the AAP meeting, 75 per cent people were brought from outside,” says Ahmad.
Similarly, another local, MA Khan, says that although Kumar Vishwas exhorted the locals to end the dynastic rule of the Gandhi family, he could not refrain from announcing his Brahmin credentials, despite the fact that the AAP has been claiming to work against communal and caste-based politics. Vishwas faced huge protest following his remarks against Muslim religious leaders. Khan asks, why would the Muslims vote for Vishwas, who sings praises of Narendra Modi and criticises Muslim religious leaders?
Congress leader and social activist Jagdish Piyush, from Amethi, dismisses any possible threats to Rahul Gandhi’s winning the seat, even after factoring in Sanjay Singh. Piyush says the people of Amethi have seen the development work; in Amethi today, there are 52 trains linking it to the rest of the country.
During a visit to Amethi to cover the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, I remember a group of foreign journalists, who, after visiting the constituency, pointed out to late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi the backwardness of the region. The PM replied that whatever development took place in that area was due to his and his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi’s efforts. The area has been considered a pocket borough of the Gandhi family ever since Sanjay Gandhi won from Amethi in 1980.
Those living in the Jagdishpur assembly segment of Amethi still remember how the industrial area was developed and subsidy given as incentive to those setting up industry in the region, such as Indo-Gulf Fertilizer, Malvika Steel, BHEL and many others. However, most of these companies, after taking advantage of cheap land and subsidy, closed down their units. Although Rahul Gandhi has announced several times the revival of Jagdishpur industrial area and held meetings with the industrialists, nothing concrete
In August 2004, after winning his first ever Lok Sabha seat from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi invited journalists to hear his vision for speedily developing the area. AP Singh of Salon assembly, while pointing out the obvious lack of development in there, refused to buy the argument that it was because the Congress had been out of power in UP since 1989.
Two years ago, this correspondent went to the house of the Dalit woman whose village Rahul had visited with British politician David Miliband. The woman explained that Rahul Gandhi had promised a lot of development but nothing really happened on the ground. She also alleged that a gram pradhan had agreed to release her NREGA payment only if she agreed to share half the amount.
One way to gauge the collapse of the local organization of the party was its unimpressive organization of Priyanka Gandhi’s birthday celebration in Amethi and Rae Bareili. It became a low key affair as local leaders failed to bring supporters out of their homes in the chilly weather. Even during the 2012 assembly polls, public meetings of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi were controlled by the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust, and women from self-help groups were taken from one meeting to the other. Surprisingly, the same group of women were taken for Priyanka Gandhi’s road show or public meetings in villages. A similar arrangement was made for Rahul as well.
As in Amethi, in Rae Bareili, too, evidence of the collapse of the party’s local organization is visible. The Gandhi family has started depending on the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust for holding public and road shows. Sonia Gandhi, the MP from Rae Bareili, has retained the seat in the Gandhi family since 2004. However, despite being represented by bigwigs such as Feroze Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and Sonia, the area continues to remain very backward. Experts concur that it was due to anti-incumbency against Congress in 2012 assembly polls that the party could not win even a single assembly seat in this VIP constituency. As in Amethi, much of the blame is being placed outside the constituency managers’ doors. Recently, the employees of the Indian Telephone Industries in Rae Bareili and their families registered their protest for being cheated by a public sector insurance company. An insurance activist, Dhruv Kumar, narrates how in 1998, ITI employees paid a premium of Rs 16 lakhs in all for an insurance of Rs 5 lakhs each. The policy was valid up to 2008, but in 2001 the government insurance company demanded Rs 80 lakh to continue the policy. The amount was not paid as it was deemed illegal, and the policy was cancelled in 2001 without informing the beneficiaries. When 20 employees died between 2001 and 2008, the insurance company rejected their claims. Dhruv Kumar says the matter was taken up with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, but nothing came of it.
B Pande, a resident of Lalganj, in Sareni assembly segment, complains that the rail coach factory in Rae Bareili was not giving as many jobs to the local people as were promised. She alleged there was not enough water in canals, creating hurdles for farmers. But she admitted that the power supply had increased in her area, for which she thanked Sonia Gandhi.
A visit to Rae Bareili by road exposes the lapses in the constituency of one of the most powerful people in India. This is the site of many a great political duel, the most infamous being the contest between socialist leader Raj Narain from the Janata Party and then Prime Minister India Gandhi, in 1977. The nation was shocked by Mrs Gandhi’s defeat. Back then, Narain did acknowledge the work undertaken by PM Gandhi. In fact, when a delegation from Rae Bareili complained to him about Indira Gandhi’s supposed neglect of the place, Narain, a union minister at the time, refused to pay heed to them, saying he had nothing to do with people who had no loyalties.
Another interesting Lok Sabha election in Rae Barelii was when just one speech of Priyanka Gandhi’s turned the tide in Congress’ favour, in 1999. Arun Nehru from the BJP was the frontrunner while Congress candidate Satish Sharma was far behind. A young Priyanka proceeded to launch an attack on Arun Nehru, asking people why they had allowed entry to someone who had backstabbed her father, Rajiv Gandhi. For a minute there was stunned silence, as if everybody present there was feeling guilty, and in one stroke the battle had been won.
Now with the SP, BJP, BSP, AAP and the Congress in the fray, the poll shenanigans in Rae Bareili and Amethi are going to be even more intense.