He was supposed to come to Raniganj at 1pm but arrives a little after 3 and reads out a list of names of local party notables before starting his speech.
Someone screams, “Rahul bhaiyya, we can't see you.” Gandhi lifts his mike and steps onto a more elevated plane on the stage. He is now on the edge, struggling to get the right balance, before starting an aggressive campaign speech.
The scene perhaps illustrates the bind the Congress scion finds himself in. People are complaining and Gandhi is on the edge - though he remains the clear favourite.
Politics of emotion
Asked if they are as laid back as the name of their town suggests, some Fursatganj locals laugh heartily. But they turn serious over tea.
Akshay Kumar Awasthi, an elderly man, says, “Rajeev Gandhi will win again.” Rajeev, one asks? Shopkeeper Parikrama Prasad steps in and says Awasthi means Rahul Gandhi. “When one votes for Rahul, it is like voting for his mother, his sister, his father, his uncle, his grandmother, his grandfather.”
Rahul knows that, for in his speech he repeatedly refers to the 38-year association with the constituency, and asks: “Will you allow these people who come every five years, create some noise, to break our parivar?” And it is precisely this spot that the BJP's firebrand candidate, who made her name in family soaps, Smriti Irani, seeks to counter. At a workers' meeting in Jagdishpur, she says, "In Indian culture, we give to the parivar, not take from it.”
Disappointed but resigned
Indeed, people here are now debating substantive steps.
Prasad, the shopkeeper, is a supporter and lists out the Gandhi family’s achievements in the region: improved roads, including seven national highways and an education hub (an IIIT, NIFT and Footwear Design and Development Institute).
At Bhadiya village, contractor Amit Srivastava says he will vote for Rahul Gandhi. Why? “People outside will laugh at us for voting him out. We have international recognition because of him. Otherwise, who will know Amethi?”
But this fatalism doesn't extend across the board. A shopkeeper at Jais is furious with Rahul for what he says is a betrayal of the promise to get long-distance trains to halt at Kasimpur. “His uncle, Sanjay, has visited my house, but he needs to be taught a lesson once.”
AAP and arithmetic
The mere fact that uncomfortable questions are being raised is perhaps partly due to AAP's Kumar Vishwas, who set up base here soon after the Delhi assembly elections. Ironically, AAP seems to have benefited the BJP in two ways - it showed to them Gandhi's vulnerabilities, and AAP's inroads into the Muslim community made Amit Shah smell an opportunity.
A BJP local leader says, “There is general disillusionment but arithmetic matters more. And our calculation is that AAP is taking away Congress votes, which helps us.” But precisely because the BJP graph has been rising in the past few weeks, Muslims who flirted with AAP are returning to the Congress. The BJP also hopes to cash in on Dalit votes as the BSP candidatde is perceived to be weak.
As Gandhi steps back into his car after the Raniganj rally, Samiullah Khan - an old loyalist who claims to have worked for Rajiv's campaign -- knocks and tells Rahul, pointing to an aide, “He never takes our calls. How do we talk to you?” Khan later tells HT that Gandhi will win, but his inaccessibility, the presence of a powerful opposition this time, and the fact that the Congress machinery is usually inert, has made this a closer contest.
It is to exploit these faultlines - between Gandhi and his workers and between a yearning for change versus old loyalties which make a switch difficult --- that Narendra Modi will step into Amethi on Monday, breaking an unwritten code of Indian politics. Whether he succeeds in altering the outcome on May 16 is uncertain, but the Modi-Irani combine, with a little help from Kumar Vishwas, has made Amethi a battleground seat.