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A file photo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.  (Photo: PTI)
A file photo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. (Photo: PTI)

Elections 2019: In Rae Bareli, old habits are hard to break

  • Sonia Gandhi's confidence comes from the people of Rae Bareli constituency, which she has been representing since 2004
  • In this election, the seat holds significance because Sonia Gandhi has taken a step back from active party politics

RAE BARELI : Not at all," was former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s crisp reply when reporters asked her on 11 April in Rae Bareli whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invincible in this election. “Don’t forget 2004. Vajpayeeji was invincible, but we won," she added. Gandhi, who was speaking to reporters after filing her nomination papers for the seat, was referring to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when the Congress defeated the first National Democratic Alliance government under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Her confidence comes from the people of Rae Bareli constituency, which she has been representing since 2004. The seat was once represented by former prime minister Indira Gandhi and, like her son’s seat of Amethi next door, is a pocket borough of the Gandhi family.

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In this election, the seat holds significance because Sonia Gandhi has taken a step back from active party politics, handing over the reins of the party to her son and Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

A section of voters in both constituencies feel that the kind of development work that has taken place in Rae Bareli has not happened in Amethi.

She’s a popular figure in Rae Bareli and not just because people have a sense of loyalty.

“She has been elected from here for so long. Usually constituencies of big, busy leaders are ignored. They don’t have time for us. She visits once in a while and her health has troubled her, but she has a team that works seamlessly in her absence. Her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra keeps a close eye on the constituency and that is how work gets done," said Gangacharan Ram, a farmer from Balapur village near Rae Bareli.

Local Congress leaders, too, feel that Sonia Gandhi has paid attention to the constituency and her team keeps things running.

“This year, too, she will win. Everyone supports her, even our adversaries accept it. There is a 31-member district Congress committee, a city president, 823 booth heads and gram sabha and panchayat chiefs who work in tandem in the constituency," said V.K. Shukla, Rae Bareli district Congress chief.

Though her constituency will back her, voters feel her absence has made a difference to the party’s fortunes at the national level.

“It would have been very different if Sonia Gandhi had been actively involved during the alliance talks. If she had been there, all parties involved in the mahagathbandhan would have actively considered Congress’ inclusion. Nonetheless, in Rae Bareli she continues to hold strong fort," said Vikas Singh, a small trader from Rae Bareli.

In 2014, Rae Bareli and Amethi were the only two seats the Congress had won in UP. The party’s performance in both seats and its impact on neighbouring constituencies will be important for its revival in the state. Both Amethi and Rae Bareli are key because they are handled directly by Congress’ newly appointed general secretary in-charge of UP East, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

Not everyone agrees that Rae Bareli has been developed. A section of voters would like a change, but say that they do not have strong alternatives to pick from. In this election, Sonia Gandhi’s main opposition is from Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Dinesh Pratap Singh. Singh is a former Congress leader and a former member of the legislative council. He has been in the BJP for a little over a year.

In previous elections, too, no party—neither the BJP nor the Bahujan Samaj Party—had fielded a ‘heavyweight’ who could put up a tough fight.

“Every constituency demands change. We would want to see how someone else works. We feel Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing a good job in the centre, but here, their contender is a former Congressman—how is that an option for us to consider? Why would we vote for someone who was part of the Congress about a year ago," said Alok Kumar from Munshiganj near Rae Bareli.

The BJP, though, is confident of improving its performance in both seats. “Both Amethi and Rae Bareli have a possibility of seeing change this time. The family narrative no longer works. People are fed up of dynastic rule. This time our candidate is strong. His past in the Congress does not matter, what matters is that the vote will be in the name of the development work BJP does," said Sushil Sharma, a senior BJP leader from the district, sitting in the party’s makeshift campaign office at a hotel in Rae Bareli.

To read more stories on Lok Sabha Elections 2019, click here

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