BJP leader Smriti Irani (PTI )
BJP leader Smriti Irani (PTI )

Giant killer Smriti Irani wrests Gandhi family bastion from Rahul

  • In Wayanad, the second seat that he contested from, Rahul won by a margin of more than 400,000 votes
  • Analysts said on Thursday her presence on the ground in Amethi did the job for her

NEW DELHI: Union minister Smriti Irani has punched a hole through a Congress citadel.

Pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate beat Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, a seat the Congress president had held for three consecutive terms. Irani defeated Gandhi by more than 52,000 votes in the Gandhi family bastion.

The Amethi election was a prestige battle for the Congress, which was fighting its first general election under the leadership of Gandhi.

The Congress has won the seat continuously since 1967, except in two instances—the Janata Party won in 1977 and BJP for less than a year during the tenure of the first National Democratic Alliance government in 1998.

Conceding defeat, Gandhi told reporters: “On Amethi, I want to say that Smriti Irani has won. I want to congratulate her. I respect the decision made by the people of Amethi. I hope that she will take good care of it and respect the mandate given to her by the people of Amethi."

The win marked a strong comeback for Irani after being trounced by Gandhi by over 100,000 votes in 2014. “Kaun kehta hai ki aasman mein suraakh nahi ho sakte (Who says there cannot be a hole in the sky)," Irani said in a tweet in Hindi, alluding to her win.

Since her loss in 2014, the Union minister had been making regular visits to the constituency, preparing for a fightback.

Analysts said on Thursday her presence on the ground in Amethi did the job for her.

But the battle for Amethi also saw senior BJP leaders such as party chief Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath turn up in Irani’s support.

BJP leaders in their rallies spoke about how the constituency was being neglected by its political representatives and about the corruption allegations and dynastic rule in the Congress.

Pushing forward the party’s model of development, in March Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a rifle manufacturing unit, along with other development projects in the areas of power generation, education and health in Amethi.

The opposition pitched in for Gandhi with equal grit: the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance refrained from fielding a candidate in Amethi and BSP chief Mayawati appealed to supporters of the alliance to vote for Gandhi.

As things turned out, it was all in vain.

The 43-year-old Irani has been a member of the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat since 2011. In 2014, she was made a cabinet minister, holding portfolios such as human resource development, textiles, and information and broadcasting.

Perhaps sensing an upset, Gandhi also contested from Wayanad in Kerala, where he won by a margin of more than 400,000 votes.

The move to contest in two seats divided opinion on whether the Congress was unsure of a win in Amethi or whether it was a move to motivate the party cadre in south India.

Amethi has had a star cast of politicians representing it. Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi have both represented the seat. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi won the seat by a massive margin of 300,000 votes. Rahul Gandhi won by nearly as much (290,000 votes) in 2004, and took it up to 370,000 votes in 2009 before the Modi wave of 2014 saw the margin narrow to around 100,000.

The loss in Amethi means the party is down to just one Lok Sabha seat in UP, which sends 80 members to Parliament. In the 2017 assembly elections, the party managed a win in just seven of the 114 assembly seats that it contested.

The Amethi campaign fell formally under the charge of Gandhi’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress general secretary responsible for eastern UP.

Gandhi Vadra spent a large part campaigning in Amethi and Rae Bareli. Days before polling, Rahul Gandhi had written to voters in Amethi, asking them to vote for the Congress and for development.

Analysts said that while the result was not entirely unexpected, it does put a question mark on the Congress leadership.

“There was a contest in this seat—that is why he (Gandhi) went to contest in Wayanad as well. Smriti Irani, even after her loss in 2014, has been working hard and making regular visits to the constituency. The party was also rallying behind her," said Shashikant Pandey, a professor of political science at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow.

“The loss in Amethi puts a question mark on the Congress party’s leadership. This seat has been a Gandhi family bastion. It will be a big jolt for the party cadre. If they want to revive the party, they must put forward a fresh face," added Pandey.

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