The BJP, putting niceties aside, has fielded one of its most popular and articulate young leaders, Smriti Irani, against Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi in his family bastion Amethi. The AAP’s Kumar Vishwas is the other challenger.
With just a month to go, Smirti has to almost miraculously transform the scrawny BJP local organisation into a combative outfit. Tough. Especially in a prestige constituency watered for years by the Gandhi siblings Priyanka and Rahul.
And yet, with the Congress under considerable weight of incumbency and BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi rising, it could well be Smriti’s election. Excerpts from an interview:
In 14 Lok Sabha elections, Congress has lost Amethi only twice: In 1977 and 1998. The BJP has hardly any organisational presence in Amethi. Has the party sacrificed you in a losing battle?
No. It is quite an honour that the party feels I can fight a challenging election, especially given the paucity of time. I have a strong organisational background, and a connect with the local organisation there and with the district chief. The local cadre sacrifices and hard work will help me. There is an anti-Congress wave in the country and in Amethi, there is an anti-Rahul wave.
Read: BJP pits Smriti against Rahul from Amethi
You had threatened to go on fast over the 2002 riots. How have you reconciled to Narendra Modi’s leadership?
It speaks a lot about Narendra Modi as a leader and a gentleman that he leaves enough room for debate and discussion, that he is generous enough to reconcile with somebody who may have a difference of opinion. It was extremely uncharitable of me to publicly protest against him, especially when there was a paucity of facts before me. It is a huge compliment to him as a leader that irrespective of what happened, he gave me a chance to represent Gujarat in Parliament and hone my skills and activism.
Was he not upset with you?
No. No. And that says a lot about him as a gentleman. He was open-minded enough to tell me that judge people by their work and not by the fallacies spread about them.
Is he authoritarian?
I am a jeeta-jagta [live] example that he is far from being authoritarian. He is a leader who takes everybody along.
You are an outsider in Amethi. Even if you win, what is the surety that you will work for the constituency?
Neither was Rahul Gandhi born in Amethi, nor was Sonia Gandhi born in Uttar Pradesh. The ‘outsider’ tag is always used to derail a debate or discussion centred around issues of development. If you compare Rahul and me as public respresentatives based on a recent PRS study, in the last five years Mr Gandhi has only spoken twice and never about Amethi while I have been an MP for only two-and-a-half years and participated in 57 debates. He has not asked a single question in the five years; the national average is 150 questions in the Rajya Sabha. I asked 350 questions. He attended Parliament almost half the days I have.
BJP leader Smriti Irani during the interview at her residence in Delhi on April 1, 2014. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)
Priyanka Gandhi is an organiser, campaigner and force multiplier for Rahul in Amethi. Will her appeal neutralise yours?
For too long there has been a presumption that the electorate is beholden to the family name. Ms Vadra has also led the campaign there in the assembly elections and Congress did not win. I do not take her as a challenge at all. I am simply focusing on development. In spite of the Congress being in power for 10 years, roads in Amethi are broken, health and primary education have collapsed. It doesn’t have 24X7 electricity or clean drinking water. Its per capita income is about Rs 10,000, way below the state average and one-seventh of the national figure. Amethi has a huge youth vote and 42% women who are tired of price-rise.
Kumar Vishwas is popular leader and he has been campaigning for months in Amethi. How seriously do you take the AAP challenge?
I am going to Amethi to fight the Congress party and not its B Team.
Read: Kumar Vishwas has a history of being disrespectful towards women, says Smriti Irani
He could cut into BJP votes.
No, he won’t. He has been sent there to give Congress a cushy fight, so that all the Rahul Gandhi angst can come to him. But I think it will be a decisive battle between the Congress and the BJP.
Kumar Vishwas has called you an ‘Irani and a Pakistani’. Would you respond to that?
He has a history of making despicable comments about women. I did not expect an iota of respect from him. If he wants to flaunt my caste card, that’s not going to help the people. Does he want me to fight the election on the fact that my grandfather is from Moradabad, my father is a Thakur, my mother a Brahmin and my husband a Parsi, which is actually a micro-minority in the country? 2014 elections are not going to be about all this.
BJP is perceived to be a male-dominated party. Is it more difficult for women to come up in the party?
There could not be anything farther from the reality. Under a male president, BJP amended its constitution and brought about reservation for women within the organisation, a first in Indian politics. Congress, having a female president, could not do so.
From working in a restaurant to being a TV star and now a hands-on politician…what has been common in these three roles?
I have never seen my life from the prism of challenge but of opportunity.
Are you going to Amethi this week?
Full coverage: Lok Sabha elections 2014
Video: Being a woman I don't expect an iota of respect from Kumar Vishwas, says Smriti Irani