This July, the village of Ramnagar, Amethi, took sides in a palace coup it had done its best to avoid for the past 20 years. The palace belongs to the ‘king’ (Congress MP Sanjay Sinh belongs to the former royal family of Amethi); the power struggles in his family were his own affair; he had asked the people to vote for Ameeta, his second wife, in previous elections, and they did. But a combination of other factors seem to have prompted a division of past loyalties making Amethi rally behind Garima Singh whom Sanjay left to marry family friend and badminton star Syed Modi’s widow, Ameeta, in the Nineties. Twenty years later, Amethi would like to fix that “wrong” alongside its other ills — the broken-down roads and lack of schools, and the “harassment by goons” that, some locals allege, are part of Team Ameeta. And which is why, now, a considerable section says it is ready to be part of Team Garima.
The main reason for this alignment of forces is the presence of former Merchant Navy officer, Anant Singh, the son of Sanjay and Garima, at Bhupati Bhawan, the family seat, whose cream and red façade is a good-looking cover that conceals the peeling walls and termite-ridden wooden beams under which Garima Sinh now camps with her son.Garima is not unaware of the impact of her reappearance in Amethi and that it may upset political equations in a district where the family’s politics, power and allegiances are tied to politics, power and allegiances beyond Amethi — a seat for the Sinhs usually during the state polls, and the Gandhis’ bastion during the parliamentary biggie. "Right now, we are dealing with family problems. About politics, let Anant decide," says Garima. "My son and my grandson’s rights of inheritance are being threatened, which is why I’m now here. The lineage should flow from them not Aakanksha, Syed and Ameeta’s daughter, which Ameeta wants. My silence has served no one — that I see."
Ameeta was “ambitious” and Syed was a “simple boy”, says Garima, after a long pause in a conversation in which many of the questions are passed over in silence. Her eyes fill up occasionally at the mention of her husband. “She (Ameeta) would call us bhaiya bhabhi….”
The mother of three children, Garima is believed to have been kept away from each of their weddings. Her elder daughter was made to believe that she was “only interested in the property and not her children” and thus even protested her own mother’s entry into the palace, when she tried to enter it to assert her rights in the last decade. “Ameeta made it clear, not always in words, that we would be cut loose of financial support if we did not toe her line. I was out at sea; my elder sister was made to write in her own hand letters already written by Ameeta or her lawyer indicating she was against mom,” says Anant. Sanjay Sinh, speaking over the phone, says Anant was never stopped from meeting his mother. “I’ve always asked him to be responsible towards her,” he says. Ameeta says Anant’s “change of heart and mind” has happened in the past one year.
Family dirt is an unpleasant business and there are areas Garima Sinh would still like to keep out of public view. The streets of Amethi, however, have no such qualms. The gossips are rattling the family skeletons as if they had chanced upon them that very afternoon. “This Lok Sabha elections, Ameeta lost and got just over 40,000 votes. I say this is the struggle between the Maharani’s tapasya (penance) and her (Ameeta) paap (sin). That’s what this is,” announces Umakant Chaturvedi, an old school teacher at a teashop within a kilometre of the palace, collapsing past history into the present.Ever since the murder of Syed Modi and the subsequent marriage of his widow to Sanjay Sinh, (the Supreme Court raised the issue of its legality), the palace affairs have belonged to the marketplace and stayed there. Ameeta’s defeat in the polls, Narendra Modi wave or not, is perhaps, the first sign of the ebbing of politics arranged around ‘aura’, royal or otherwise.
Anant’s team sees these as “signs.” To keep the family saga interesting, the family has to deliver, they say. On being asked whether he is the latest entrant to the overcrowded stage of Amethi or about which family has done more, Anant says: “Ameeta keeps my father inaccessible and the people’s grievances go unaddressed. It is not that the Gandhis usurped our legacy. But if we remove our own representative from the people, people will notice who has done more. So, instead of a constituency of Gandhis or Sinhs, Amethi could have become a constituency of the Gandhis the Sinhs,” he says.
Anant is also up against other irritants. “The authorities won’t give me a phone connection or a bank account,” he says. It’s an attempt, one assumes, to keep him unsettled in Amethi. Old retainers guard the palace gate as do intelligence officers. He leaves Bhupati Bhawan to inaugurate family functions, address impromptu gatherings. People stop him to tell him they have a relative who used to fill his grandfather’s hookah. He smiles, waves, says the right things. “Entering politics is not my choice, I’m compelled to do it to protect my identity and family dignity, ” he says. Anant Singh is trying hard to be the next big thing of Amethi.