Smriti Zubin Irani is widely perceived to be a protégé of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s PM aspirant who has an uneasy chemistry with party peer Sushma Swaraj.
BJP leader Smriti Irani during an interview at her Delhi house. She is the party’s candidate against Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)
But by picking up Rahul Gandhi’s gauntlet in Amethi, the actor-politician has emulated Swaraj more than Modi. That too at a time when Uma Bharti shied away from mounting a similar challenge to Sonia Gandhi in nearby Rae Bareli.
Even Swaraj’s worst detractors don’t deny her the credit for willingly taking up losing battles at her party’s diktat.
A year after agreeing to become Delhi CM to fight the 1998 assembly polls in which the BJP stood no chance, she travelled south to take on Sonia in Karnataka’s Bellary; the seat the Congress president won and vacated while retaining Amethi.
Swaraj’s purpose wasn’t as much to win as to make a political point. Her party lost power in Delhi but she won the Hauz Khas seat. In Bellary, she was a gallant loser, picking up new Kannada lines each day to weave them into her magical Hindi oratory.
The hard work paid off. Sawraj polled 3,50,000 votes in a constituency the Congress hadn’t lost since Independence.
Contesting her first direct election, Smriti, 38, was born a year before her senior colleague’s maiden 1977 victory against Congress biggie Bansi Lal from Ambala cantonment. Sushma was then 25.
But by taking the plunge, the Tulsi of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi can legitimately claim to be the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj-II.
Read: Smriti Irani takes on Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, says 'voters not beholden to family name'
Barring 1998, Amethi has been a Gandhi family citadel since 1980, when Sanjay Gandhi first won after losing to a Janata Party candidate in 1977. Rajiv Gandhi defeated Maneka in 1984 when she contested the seat to claim her husband’s legacy.
The former premier won subsequent two elections by trouncing Sharad Yadav and Kanshi Ram in 1989 and Rajmohan Gandhi two years later. After Rajiv’s assassination midway through the 1991 polls, the seat was represented by the Gandhis’ family friend, Satish Sharma, until 1999 when Sanjay Singh interrupted the winning streak.
Besides Sanjay’s defeat in Amethi, the post-Emergency 1977 elections saw Raj Narain knocking out the mighty Indira Gandhi in Rae Bareli. She reclaimed the seat in 1980 but gave it up for Arun Nehru to retain Medak, the other seat she contested in Andhra.
Sonia made way for Rahul in 2004 in Amethi. Over the past decade, she thrice sought mandate from Rae Bareli, including 2006 when she resigned and re-contested in the aftermath of the office of profit controversy.
Her BJP rival that year was Vinay Katiyar. He polled 1.61 lakh votes against the Congress president’s 4.17 lakh. Then a party renegade, Uma Bharti tried her luck as an independent, getting barely 6,500 votes.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s Kumar Vishwas believes that Smriti’s candidature could help Rahul, split as it would the anti-Congress vote. Maybe, but it has made the contest a way more watchable — a kind of real-life soap opera.
On paper, Smriti contests Rahul, the sitting MP. But in reality, she’d be facing Priyanka, who helps her brother manage the prestigious constituency. It’ll be a three-way charisma versus charisma — Vishwas included for his draw as a bard who can sing.