Smriti Irani represents the new India, the India that is not cowed down by entitled authority, the India that wants to taste success based on hard work, and not on the basis of birth.
Last week, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced its first list of candidates for Lok Sabha elections, no one was surprised to see the party choose Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani to fight against Congress president Rahul Gandhi, in what has been historically considered as the ‘Gandhi family fiefdom’ of Amethi.
This will be the second time Irani will face Gandhi in Amethi. In 2014, she was the ‘brave outsider’, a politician with no strong base in Uttar Pradesh, taking on Gandhi, who was believed to be the prime ministerial candidate from the Congress. Irani lost in Amethi by a margin of a little over 100,000 votes. But there was no denying the fact that she gave Gandhi a tough fight. His victory margin was reduced by a whopping 200,000 votes.
Amethi has always been considered the bastion of the Gandhi family. The constituency first elected Sanjay Gandhi in 1980 as its Member of Parliament (MP). After Sanjay Gandhi’s untimely death, his brother Rajiv Gandhi represented Amethi for three consecutive terms until his death in 1991.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Amethi elected Satish Sharma, who was considered to be a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi won from Amethi, before she shifted to Indira Gandhi’s erstwhile constituency Rae Bareily and left Amethi vacant for her son, Rahul Gandhi, who has been representing Amethi since 2004.
It is clear from this electoral history that Amethi has been the ‘safe seat’ for the Gandhi family for the last four decades at least. However, in 2014, this safe seat felt the first tremors of political upheaval in the form of Smriti Irani, a feisty, self-made first generation politician.
In 2014, when Irani was chosen by the BJP to take on Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, not many gave her a chance. She was a politician with no mass base and no fixed constituency. Her first electoral fray had ended in a disaster with her losing from Chandni Chowk constituency to Congress heavyweight Kapil Sibal.
UP is a complex state, with caste and community politics playing a major role during elections. Irani showed considerable fighting spirit by agreeing to fight from Amethi. She may have lost from Amethi in 2014, but there is no denying the fact that she had made a mark in the minds of the voters in Amethi with her warmth, her oratorical skills and her sheer grit.
Everyone expected Irani to abandon Amethi after she lost the elections, but she did not. She assiduously nurtured the constituency by visiting it multiple times. While Rahul Gandhi took Amethi for granted, Irani prepared for the 2019 elections in a meticulous way, highlighting years of neglect Amethi had faced despite having been represented by the Gandhis for decades.
Despite being represented by the Gandhis, Amethi lacked even basic things like a good road network and an uninterrupted power supply. Many projects were announced in Amethi, but few actually took off. However, Irani changed that by launching projects that generated employment. From pickle factories to arms and ammunition factories, Amethi saw a host of new projects come up in the last five years, all spearheaded by Irani.
The result is there for all to see. The Congress has indicated that in the upcoming elections, Rahul Gandhi will contest from two seats, Amethi and a ‘safe seat’ like Wayanad in Kerala. It is clear that Irani has the Congress worried. She represents the new India, the India that is not cowed down by entitled authority, the India that wants to taste success based on hard work, and not on the basis of birth.
In many ways, the electoral battle between Smriti Irani and Rahul Gandhi is the battle between new and old India. Rahul Gandhi represents the old feudal order. He is in the position he is currently in, based only on his last name and family history. He is the ‘bade baap ka beta’ who thinks he is entitled to power simply because he was born as a scion of a political family.
Irani on the other hand, is a first generation politician. Born in a middle class family, she started her career as an actress, became phenomenally successful and then entered politics. She has proved her credentials by holding different positions in the BJP, starting from the lowest rung.
Irani is almost a decade younger than her electoral opponent, Rahul Gandhi. She had held three important ministerial portfolios, and is known to be a no-nonsense politician. She has also been at the receiving end of some of the most vicious and sexist attacks by some Congress stalwarts like MP Sanjay Nirupam and Tehseen Poonawallah, who is said to be related to Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi on the other hand is nearing 50, but is still hailed as a ‘youth icon’ by pliant journalists. He started his political career as a general secretary of the Congress party. He has never held any administrative position in any government and his record as an MP is abysmal. In fact, his whole appeal stems only from his dimples and his last name.
Rahul Gandhi is the symbol of the feudal patriarchal mindset of old India, while Smriti Irani is the brash new challenger, a small-town woman who is a self-made politician.
The results of the 2019 elections will determine whether the old order of entitled aristocracy changeth, yielding place to meritocracy or not. Until then, all eyes will be on Amethi.