The Gauriganj Congress office has the slogan “Amethi ka MP, 2019 ka PM (Amethi’s MP is 2019’s PM)” (Photo: Anuja)
The Gauriganj Congress office has the slogan “Amethi ka MP, 2019 ka PM (Amethi’s MP is 2019’s PM)” (Photo: Anuja)

Elections 2019: How Amethi battle is sign of challenges to Congress nationally

  • They’ve voted for Gandhi, now Congress president, in every general elections since
  • The tea shop conversation winds down after half an hour with most participants agreeing that Union minister and Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Smriti Irani is Gandhi’s strongest challenger

AMETHI : It is Friday morning and Arvind Panday (37) and Dev Prakash Mishra (35) share a bench under a tree near a tea shop. They also share a similar past—both belong to farmer families from Amethi district, both voted for the first time in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, and both supported Rahul Gandhi, who made his political debut that year. They’ve voted for Gandhi, now Congress president, in every general elections since. This election, however, they’ve diverged on their political views.

“My vote this time too will be for Rahul Gandhi," declares Mishra, sitting at the tea shop under the banyan tree in Musafirkhana, a town in Amethi district. “His family has done so much for this constituency. This is a crucial election and he needs our support more than ever. This constituency is not going any other way," says Mishra, who runs a small business.

Panday, beside him, politely disagrees: “Amethi is a VVIP constituency but what has it got? It is a civic mess. People are in the same situation they were 10 years ago. At some point, one needs to decide if we are electing an MP to improve a constituency or to help one family retain its political dominance." Panday works for a security service in Lucknow and shuttles between the two towns.

Mishra and Panday voice the opinions you hear across the constituency, even the country, when politics is brought up. They also sum up the challenges the Gandhi-led Congress is facing in the ongoing Lok Sabha election—reaching out to those disillusioned by its past record, reversing its decline, and widening its support base beyond traditional party supporters.

The tea shop conversation winds down after half an hour with most participants agreeing that Union minister and Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Smriti Irani is Gandhi’s strongest challenger—and the Amethi seat has never really seen a challenger, it being a Congress stronghold, since 1967. Amethi has sent a non-Congress member to Parliament only twice—in 1977 and to the short-lived 12th Lok Sabha in 1998. There is some disgruntlement about the lack of development in Amethi despite being a star constituency, but the debaters conclude that ‘larger sentiment’ could favour Gandhi one more time.

ROAD TO DELHI

A wall outside Gandhi’s main campaign office in Gauriganj is painted with the slogan “Amethi ka MP, 2019 ka PM (Amethi’s MP is the PM for 2019)", referencing the fact that this election is a presidential-style contest between Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Congress has staked its chances on a combined pitch of farm loan waivers and NYAY, or the Nyuntam Aay Yojana, to guarantee a minimum income. In Amethi, even Gandhi’s most vocal supporters don’t believe it can be implemented.

“The scheme to provide 72,000 a year sounds good on paper but I don’t think it is realistic. Even though our support is for Gandhi, we know that promises like these are made but not fulfilled," said Mohammad Azam Khan, a farmer near Musafirkhana.

Voters and senior party leaders believe that for Gandhi, the road to Delhi passes through this pocket borough in eastern Uttar Pradesh even though he may have picked a second seat of Wayanad in Kerala this time. Amethi is a prestige fight to retain a seat that has been with the Gandhi family for over three decades.

The choice of a second seat has divided sentiments. While his supporters believe Gandhi was trying to motivate party cadre, others say he is afraid of losing. “He went to Wayanad because he wants to bridge the gap between the north and the south. Supporters like us are now competitive and will work harder. We want his winning margin in Amethi to be far higher than in Wayanad," said Shah Bahadur, who owns a bike repair shop in Amethi.

Friends, enemies and observers have all speculated that Gandhi picked the “safe seat" of Wayanad because he was not sure of winning Amethi. Irani, who put up a spirited fight in 2014, narrowed his margin of victory to just 12.33%. In previous elections, Gandhi romped home with a margin of 50% or more.

“If there was no fear of losing, why did he leave? Why Kerala? He is contesting against the communists because he cannot take on the BJP. Agar ladna tha toh Gujarat jaa kar ladte (if he really wanted to fight, he should have gone to Gujarat)," said Hari Om Mishra, a 24-year-old from Amethi who works in the merchant navy and is home to vote on Monday.

BJP NIPPING AT HIS HEELS

Nearly 3km from Gandhi’s campaign office is the recently opened office of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gauriganj, which is also Irani’s campaign centre. It’s a bustling office, full of party workers and volunteers who seem to have a clear sense of purpose. One group of party workers is setting out to distribute pamphlets, another to set up and participate in small meetings. The BJP’s methodical approach is on display, and it is this campaign machine that the Congress is up against in most of the country.

Gandhi has represented Amethi for three consecutive terms. BJP has fielded Irani again, a strong orator who tears into the Gandhi family each time she takes the stage. Nepotism, corruption and the neglect of the constituency are her main talking points.

“The choice of Irani is significant because the party wants to focus on how this high-profile constituency of the senior-most Congress leader is in bad shape. She talks about development and dynastic rule, and puts the focus on things that have been ignored for so long in Amethi," said a senior BJP leader from the state.

She appeals to a section of voters who feel the constituency has been ignored and needs a non-Congress, non-Gandhi representative. “Amethi is worse than it used to be. We have nothing compared to the kind of work that Modi has done. Irani is a strong candidate and will do well this time," said Heera Soni, a jewellery shop owner in Amethi.

Across UP, and large parts of north India, Congress’ inability to firm up alliances has impacted its chances and left voters uncertain. In UP, Congress is not part of the Samjawadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine. In contrast, BJP had a fairly smooth ride with its allies. In states like Bihar, it ceded space to allies in order to create formidable combinations.

“It is a make or break election for the Congress. They have staked everything on it. Rahul Gandhi needs to win Amethi and Congress needs to do well in the Lok Sabha elections. If one or the other does not happen, it will cast a shadow on the future of both," said Ram Prasad, who supplies hardware material in Amethi.

A MUCH NEEDED WIN

After losing to the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Congress faced its roughest electoral run in the following years. In 2014, Congress won only Amethi and Rae Bareli of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP. Three years later, in the assembly elections it could not improve its performance, and won only seven out of the 114 assembly seats it contested.

Until Punjab in 2017, Congress was unable to win an assembly election on its own. The first bright spot under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership came in December last year when Congress defeated BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It will be interesting to see if Congress carries the momentum to the Lok Sabha elections.

This election will also test Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s influence. In the past, Gandhi Vadra has only worked in the Gandhi bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli. This time, she is overseeing eastern UP, the stronghold of both Modi and state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

Senior party leaders are aware that this election is a do or die battle for Gandhi. “We were down and out in 2014. It took us four years to defeat BJP in some states," said a senior party leader from UP. “This election is a survival test for us, for the new leadership and for the new ideas that we have brought to the fore. We either perform or perish."

Supporters believe that if Gandhi wins both Wayanad and Amethi, he will leave the latter for his sister to contest in a by-election. The younger sibling has spent a lot of time in Amethi and is a popular leader.

“Irani had narrowed the gap in 2014. Gandhi retained the seat despite a Modi wave. Irani has made a dent and it would be interesting to see which way the fight goes. I think Gandhi has the edge because the loyalty factor is still intact," said Shashikant Pandey, professor in the department of political science at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Central University, Lucknow.

He agrees that Amethi is symbolic of the challenge Congress faces nationally. The party has been decimated in UP. Amethi is synonymous with Rahul Gandhi, so winning here is critical. But even if he loses, it is not the end of road for either him or Congress," Pandey said. “Many heavyweights, including his grandmother, have lost pocket boroughs and then returned stronger."

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