Politics

Modi’s ‘Vikas’ And Absentee MP Rahul Gandhi Make Smriti Irani’s Job Easier In Amethi

Union Minister Smriti Irani (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • People are impressed by the work and determined governance showed by Team Modi.

    However, old habits and loyalties die hard. There are many who still vouch for Rahul Gandhi because he is a ‘big’ leader.

On the campaign trail in Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, Congress general secretary Priyanka Vadra admitted in an interview to the media on 1 May that she played a “pivotal role” in selecting candidates in Uttar Pradesh in a manner that would “hurt” the BJP’s prospects and in turn help the SP-BSP gathbandhan. “We have carefully chosen candidates so that either Congress wins or they cut into the BJP’s votes. Congress is not at all cutting into votes of the U.P. gathbandhan,” she is reported to have said.

This open confession by Mrs Vadra - of Congress playing the role of a “vote-katua party” - appeared to be a faux pas to many, at least the BJP supporters who could be seen firing “we told you so” salvos and mocking her on social media for being so dumb as to let this open secret out. None less than Arun Jaitely, who is playing the role of chief backroom manager this election, pounced on the Congress party for this, calling it a “fringe” organisation.

However, many were forced to revisit their assertion and conclude that something was amiss when a day later, Congress president Rahul Gandhi reiterated the comment made by Mrs Vadra. “I have told my sister and Jyotir that our primary aim in UP is to defeat the BJP. In the places where we are not going to win the elections, let's support the gathbandhan,” he said.

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What could it be? It’s Rae Bareily and (more importantly) Amethi, stupid!

These pocket boroughs of the Gandhi family are going to polls in the fifth phase on 6 May. The BJP is going all out to make sure that serious erosion in Congress vote-share happens in the former and Smriti Irani trounces Rahul Gandhi in the latter. In light of this, Congress needs all the votes it can get, especially of traditional voters of SP-BSP which haven’t fielded candidates in these two constituencies. Unlike earlier, Congress is not sure of cornering vote banks of these parties, hence the signalling to its voters. The brother-sister duo is not being dumb, but desperate.

Take a look at the Amethi constituency map and the results of the 2014 election in various Assembly constituencies of this Lok Sabha.

Congress swept Salon (reserved), Amethi and Gauriganj Assembly segments, whereas BJP registered a good presence in Tiloi and Jagdishpur.

Gandhi Vs Irani (2014). How they fared in different assembly constituencies of Amethi LS Gandhi Vs Irani (2014). How they fared in different assembly constituencies of Amethi LS

In the 2017 state elections, the BJP turned the tables and won four of these five constituencies. Congress came a distant fourth in Amethi, third in Tiloi and second in the rest. SP won Gauriganj by a huge margin. BSP came second in Tiloi and third in the rest, winning a good chunk of votes. No wonder, Rahul and Priyanka are trying to appease SP and BSP voters through their comments.

Swarajya travelled to those towns and villages in Amethi LS where Congress won comfortably in 2014 to check if there has been any further erosion in Rahul Gandhi’s support base.

Jais is a Muslim-majority town in Taloi constituency, which Congress won easily. Sonkars (SCs) are the second largest group in numbers. While the former is with the Congress, the latter, which is a traditional BSP voter hub, is leaning towards the BJP this time as the SP-BSP gathbandhan hasn’t fielded any candidate from here. But that’s not the only reason.

“I got Rs 2.5 lakh in three installments from the government and added Rs 1.5 lakh of my personal savings. Now, we have a pucca house which has two rooms and a toilet,” Dinesh Kumar, a small kirana store owner tells me.

Anurag Mittal, a shopkeeper, informs that more than 1,100 houses under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana have been sanctioned or built in Jais alone, each beneficiary getting subsidy directly in their bank accounts. “This area has no good hospital or school. We either go to Sultanpur or Rae Bareily. Only now, a 200+ bed hospital is being built in Tiloi,” he adds. He credits it to efforts of Smriti Irani. “All our roads were full of potholes and it used to take us two hours to reach Rae Bareily which we can do in one hour now. It was only Irani who got it done by petitioning the state and the central government,” Ashish Srivastav, a local resident says. “She had also approved a central government school for Jais, but since the local government and the MLA was that of the SP, they took it to Kowar.” he adds.

Shyam Babu, who supplies plastic utensils for weddings and functions, says that the situation is so bad that there is no official bus stop in the town. “We have around 30,000 people here. That’s not small. Rahul Gandhi says it’s the BJP which is in the government at the state and central level. Is he mad? Why didn’t he do anything when they were in power? Sansad nidhi ka paise kyun nahi lagaate yahan,” says an agitated Babu. A vegetable fruit seller, Mukesh Sonkar, joins him. “Sonkar community usually votes for BSP, but in municipal elections, BJP gave ticket to a person from our community and he won as Muslim votes got divided. Since there is no BSP candidate this time, many will vote for the BJP,” he says.

R.H. Sonkar, who runs a small education NGO for the community, told me that Sonkars will not vote for the Congress this time. “Jab se hosh sambhala tab se iss party (Congress) aur parivaar ke saath rahe but Salon aur Tiloi ke saath hamesha sautela vyavahaar hua. When we went to meet Rahul Gandhi and raise our issues, we were dismissed by his minions saying we are not Congress voters. Is that the way to treat citizens. He is a representative of everyone, not just of those who voted for him. Before every election, the party workers would try to bribe and ensure the community’s support, but now enough is enough. They can’t keep treating us as bandhua voters,” Sonkar says.

But that doesn’t mean he is with the BJP. “We are voting NOTA. BJP made it clear last year what it thinks of us. All those who indulged in violence against us during our protests against ending reservation have been freed. The Prime Minister and the BJP have made it clear they would change the Constitution and establish manu-raj in the country,” he told me. When I told him that the PM said the opposite, that no one can dare change constitution until he is there, Sonkar said the BJP does the opposite of what it says. When pressed to show where PM said he would establish manu-raj, Sonkar said Modi has talked about Ram Rajya which is nothing but manu-raj.

If BJP does the opposite of what it says, then Modi’s promise of Ram Rajya should make Sonkar happy, logically speaking. Not everyone suffers from such paranoia and bitterness. Our conversations with some in the same Chaudharana area where R.H. Sonkar lives made it clear that the BJP has succeeded in making inroads in the community.

Most Muslims are still behind the Congress. Mahesar, who owns a paint shop in the town, said that unlike the BJP, Congress doesn’t make people fight on religious lines. At a neighbouring barber shop, Md Hafeez and Raes Ahmed say they have been voting for Congress for decades and will continue to do so. Ahmed complained that he hasn’t got his ration card despite shelling out Rs 600 to the government officers as “fees”.

There are a few like Ishrar Ahmed, who runs a tiny kirana shop in Choudharana mohalla. He voted for Gandhi in 2014, but is with the BJP this time because he and his brother got Rs 2.5 lakh from the Modi government for building their homes. “Jo kaam karwaya, ussi ko he vote dena chahiye. Earlier, only those who knew how to get the money from the government used to get the grant. Ab wo bhaag daud nahi karni padti. Money comes directly into the bank account” he told me.

In Nasirabad, we meet a group of eight people at a chai shop on the main road. Pawan Singh, who hails from Chaura village in Tiloi block, says that his village road was in a pathetic condition for years and only recently, Rs 2.5 crore was sanctioned for it. “Rahul never came to the village or even cared about us. Where is the Amethi model of development? He doesn’t want it to develop, lest people become educated and aware of their rights,” Singh says. Rambali Kori is all praise for Modi, for Balakot. “Wo to sheron wala kaam kiya hai,” he says. Ram Bahadur, a Kori, says that Congress needs to be taught a lesson from here. “Ek baar jhatka lagega to sudhrenge,” he says. The group tells me that earlier, power supply was erratic, electricity would be available for 8-9 hours at most, but now, there is hardly a couple of hours of power cut.

Muslims in the area are supporting the Congress. We met Mohammad Yunus, local BSP leader who is in a meeting with some local Congress leaders. They have come to thank him for supporting Gandhi. “Mayawatiji’s order is to back a secular party, so we are canvassing for Congress here,” he says. Allahamullah, a paint shop owner in the town, says that Gandhi is a “big leader” and if he becomes prime minister, he will be able to do much more work for Amethi. His friend Mohammad Ahmed nods in agreement.

From Nasirabad, we move to Bargadi village where Paswans live. Koris and Paswans form the largest chunk of voters among the SCs in the area and most of them voted for Congress last time. “This time, the community is with the BJP because Modi has given cylinders, colony (awas) and toilets to everyone. Can you imagine that until now people didn’t even have toilets? Young generation is appreciating this a lot because women of the family had to go out in early hours in the dark. Ab izzat mili hai unko,” says Shiv Prasad Pasi.

Ram Kishan Pasi, another resident, says Modi is giving double the amount that they earlier got for building a pucca home. “Ration delivery has improved a lot. Earlier, we didn’t know where all the supply used to go, but villagers didn’t get as much as they are getting now,” he adds.

Close to the village, there is Rahimganj Chauraha where NDA minister Ram Vilas Paswan addressed a rally in support of Irani the day before we visited. Locals told me that most of them got to know quite late about it and as a result only 1,000 people could make it. At the chauraha, Uday Raj, 40, and Radhe Shyam, 46, both Koris from a neighbouring village, said they have never voted for the BJP in their life but they will do so this time. “During SP rule, the local MLA openly sided with Muslims during clashes with Hindus due to which both Koris and Paswans felt sidelined. This time, there is a general feeling among Hindus that we will not vote for the candidate that Muslims are siding with,” Uday Raj says.

“Modi built toilets for everyone. Ab bahu betiyon ko baahar sauch ke liye nahi jaana padta. He gave us colony (awas) and cylinders too,” Radhe Shyam tells me. Both voted for Gandhi in 2014.

In Thauri, some Paswans are still with the Congress because former party MLA Ram Balak Pasi is from this village. "BJP has made some inroads in the village because Ram is not that active in politics and his brother has joined the BJP,” Ram Ganesh tells me. In the village, we meet Vinod Soni, who hails from Deeh, a Congress stronghold. Soni is a artificial jewellery salesman and goes from village to village selling his products. “I visit 20 villages a day and I am witnessing a lot of change from last time. Lots of poor have converted. They won’t tell a stranger like you but many admit to me in private. They think you are from some party. Even in Deeh, which Congress swept last time, the situation is quite different,” Soni says.

In the village, we meet Dinesh Kumar, who is resting with five of his family members and neighbours on a cot under a shade. “There is a lot of change from last time because people have got cylinders, new homes and most importantly, ration delivery has improved greatly,” he tells me. But even in this group, three of them are vocal Congress supporters while the rest are silent about who they will back.

Chandrapal Singh, sitting outside his kuccha home, boasts of Congress sweeping the whole village again. “We voted for BJP in 2017 Assembly polls but the MLA is not doing any work. I campaigned for the BJP candidate and even stayed with him for two years but he doesn’t do any work of ours,” he says. Chandrapal’s two cousins do not agree with their uncle. “What has Rahul done? Is this an Assembly election that you bring in the performance of the local MLA while voting? There are more votes of BJP in the village this time,” one of the nephews says with confidence.

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Dukhi Ram, their neighbour, believes that Chandrapal is sulking due to personal reasons but will come around by election time. “Modi has done good for the country. I also got Rs 4,000 Kisan Nidhi amount. Earlier, the corrupt used to take away all the money of the poor, now they get the whole amount meant for welfare,” he says.

Next, we move to Birnawa, one of the biggest villages in Salon constituency. Here too, improvement in ration delivery is a big issue. “Earlier, getting ration was a tiring task. Pradhan ke pair padne padte the. Under the BJP, welfare delivery is very good,” says Mithai Lal at a pan shop. Out of his four friends standing with him, three are supporting the BJP.

Awadesh Kumar, a tailor, says his whole family’s vote has flipped this time from Congress to BJP. Reason is same: more rations, free cylinders, awas and toilets.

At a kirana store, a group of eight people, are upset at Gandhi’s absence from the constituency not just during the last five years, but even during the campaign. “Rahul hasn’t come here even once. He promised to install solar pump. Even that didn’t happen,” Babu Khan tells me. “In 2014, Gandhi won this village one-sidedly. This time, Irani will sweep. It’s a complete reversal,” Jang Bahadur says. Out of eight people, seven will be backing Irani this time. Most of them sided with Gandhi and have been traditional Congress voters. “Yesterday, fire gutted wheat crops in Goverdhan village. She was passing through the village. She stopped to help the people. Now, that’s the kind of leader that is needed here, not someone who never visits,” a government employee who didn’t wish to be identified said.

Next, we travel to Jagdishpur. On the way, we meet a group of youngsters who say Gandhi has a lot of votes in their village. Suresh Sahu, who voted for Gandhi last time, says he is with the BJP now. He cites toilets, awas, cylinder, electricity as the reason. “Gandhi can’t compete with the benefits that poor have got from Modi. He is local MP but never visits, nor do his party workers come here,” Sahu says.

The road to Jagdishpur village is full of potholes. This village was adopted by Gandhi in 2014 under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. But the Congress president has not cared to visit it since then, let alone getting work done. Rajendra Shankar, ex serviceman and a traditional Congress voter told Swarajya that Gandhi didn’t get even a single paisa worth of work done in the village. “But I will still vote for him because he is prime minister candidate and Amethi LS is his family borough,” he said.

Not everyone, however, is as charitable. Rahul Prajapati, who has been voting for Congress for years, is not ready to repose faith in Gandhi again. “This time, I will vote for Modi Sarkar because I got electric pottery wheel machine, toilet, cylinder and awas from the government without paying a single penny as bribe. Hamara ghar bhar diya,” he said.

“Villagers got more than 200 houses built under PM Awas Yojana. We used to get 8-10 hours of power supply earlier - one week during the day and one week during the night - now, it’s available for more than 20 hours a day,” Bhuvnesh Tripathi informs. Manish Tiwari tells me that defeated candidate Irani visited Amethi more than the winning candidate Gandhi. “Now you can guess who is better for us,” he says. Bhaskar Shukla, 35, who works at a bullet manufacturing unit in Maharashtra, has come all the way to cast his vote for the BJP.

In Prasadepur town, the situation is no different, but one finds less converts here than we did in villages. We meet Himanshu Singh at a pan shop. He hails from neighbouring Ninawa village. “The whole village used to be a traditional Congress base, but this time it’s hard to even spot their karyakartas. Rahul Gandhi choosing to contest from Wayanad has given the wrong signal and broken their morale further.”

In Amethi Assembly constituency, we visit Tikree, a big village comprising many small hamlets scattered over a large area. Outside the village, at a tea adda, we meet a group of eight people, most of them Congress supporters. “Amethi is known because of the Gandhi family. Irani’s aim is only to defeat Rahul. She won’t even care to visit after that objective is achieved,” Chandra Bhan Singh says. He boasts confidently that the whole village is with the Congress just like last time. But the reality we find inside the village is totally different. A group of over 100 children is taking out a massive bicycle rally in the village. Akhilesh Kumar says such scenes are a first because the village has been a Congress stronghold.

“Nobody can say that Rahul has done a single work in this village,” Babulal Agrihari tells me. He didn’t need to. One can’t tell if the road that takes you to Tikree has potholes or the pothole has a road. In the village, a group of five is resting under a tree shade. “Gandhi didn’t even properly utilize his MPLAD funds. Had he done that, this village road wouldn’t be so bad. This village used to vote overwhelmingly for Gandhis but now you will be hard pressed to find Congress supporters,” Praveen Singh says.

In Bhimi, another big village, one witnesses the same story of erosion in Gandhi’s support. “Gandhi has been winning here only because of sympathy and because it’s a VIP seat due to him. Otherwise, he hasn’t done any work. Rajiv Gandhi was the last representative of Amethi who cared for the area. He managed to conduct CRPF recruitment drive here and 4,000-5,000 youth at the time got the job. He also brought some factories and even got many youth from the area jobs in Delhi. That goodwill is the reason why still people vote for Rahul,” Jagat Bahadur Singh, a shopkeeper tells me.

Ashok Yadav, a customer at the shop, points to Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad as admission of his weakness. “He has lost faith in the people of Amethi. He thinks he is going to lose and that’s the reason he is not even campaigning here much,” Yadav says.

Outside of the shop, we meet six labourers from a neighbouring village who have come here to work. They admit to a BJP wave in their village which has always voted for Congress.

A few metres ahead, in Bhimi, we meet a group of four people, all new BJP converts. “All BJP supporters here are newly converted only. Everybody used to vote for Congress earlier,” Bans Bahadur Singh tells me. “Rashtravaad and vikas are two major issues. Of course, Rahul not stepping foot in this block let alone this village didn’t help matters.” he adds. Sarvendra Prarap Singh changed sides after he saw work done by the BJP on roads and electricity. “Phele to 2-3 ghante aati thi. Kabhi kabhi kai din gaayab bhi rehti thi. Now, we have got a new transformer and we get power supply for 18-20 hours,” Singh says.

In Bhadar too, Gandhi is losing votes to Modi’s good governance. “We had heard only Modi’s name in 2014 so didn’t vote for him and thought that we should stick with Gandhi. But now we have witnessed his tenure.” says Rajwant Singh, 52, a farmer who has got Rs 4,000 under PM Kisan Nidhi scheme. In a group of eight people that he is sitting, three are BJP supporters, the newly minted ones, while the rest are still with Congress.

If there is one village where Congress-to-BJP converts are hard to find, it is Thengha, close to Amethi town. “Whatever work has happened is because of Congress only. Smriti Irani only took away the projects given to this area by Rahul,” Rajendra Singh says. “People in India and even outside know Amethi because of Rahul. He should be given one more chance,” Ram Pratap Singh says. The villagers cite stray cattle as a big problem here.

Next, we move to Goverdhanpur village where villagers’ wheat fields caught fire on 28 April. Hundreds of acres of standing crop got burnt to ashes, resulting in losses worth crores. One family’s whole house also got engulfed in the fire. Irani, who was campaigning in the area rushed to help the villagers and was seen herself operating a handpump in the village and asking BJP karyakartas to help in firefighting.

Ek kilometre se jyaada area mein aag faila tha. Unke aane se bahut acha ho gaya. She called officers on the spot and more firefighting trucks and people also came and helped in controlling the situation,” Inderaj, a resident of the village who witnessed the incident told Swarajya.

Pal, the villager whose house was gutted in the fire along with his family’s five bigha crop, was resting in his burnt home with a relative when we went to meet him. “Due to strong blowing winds, the fire engulfed and burnt crops spreading over three villages. I lost everything,” he said. The cattle feed that also caught fire is still burning hot and fire hasn’t completely extinguished despite water being poured over it. No one wants to discuss politics in the village, but Pal admitted he can sense the change in the village this time. “Haath hilaane se kaam nahi hota, karne se hota hai. People have been voting for Congress for years but haven’t witnessed change in their lives, so they are thinking of voting differently this time,” he says.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details.

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