44 years after Indira Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi faces the same dilemma: Rae Bareli or a seat in the south - Hindustan Times
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44 years after Indira Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi faces the same dilemma: Rae Bareli or a seat in the south

Jun 13, 2024 03:39 PM IST

HT edition of Feb 8, 1980, said: “Mrs Gandhi was given a tumultuous reception on her first visit to this town (Rae Bareli) after assuming office once again.."

After the 1980 Lok Sabha election Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had a difficult choice to make. She had won from Rae Bareli — her traditional constituency —and Medak in undivided Andhra Pradesh. The Prime Minister had to quit a one; she opted to leave Rae Bareli.

Wayanad, Jun 12 (ANI): Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during a public meeting, in Wayanad on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)(Congress X) PREMIUM
Wayanad, Jun 12 (ANI): Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during a public meeting, in Wayanad on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)(Congress X)

The decision was possibly more emotional than tactical. Indira had been a Rae Bareli MP since 1967. Feroze Gandhi was a two-term MP in 1952 and 1957. And when she needed the support of Rae Bareli in the first election after the Emergency in 1977, the voters opted for Raj Narain. Also, it allowed Indira to get Congress leader Arun Nehru elected from Rae Bareli.

The HT edition of February 8, 1980, said, “Mrs. Gandhi was given a tumultuous reception on her first visit to this town after assuming office once again with a massive election victory… Mrs. Gandhi was more on a mission of thanksgiving and assuaging the feelings of the people who felt hurt because she had resigned the seat, opting for Medak.”

History repeats

Over four decades later, another Gandhi family member faces a similar dilemma: Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has won both Wayanad and Raebareli and he has to pick one seat by March 17.

According to the rules, a lawmaker can represent only one seat in a legislative body. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won both Vadodara and Varanasi and he opted to retain his Uttar Pradesh seat.

At a rally in Wayanad on Wednesday, Gandhi said he was faced with a dilemma over which seat he should retain. He told the rally, “Whatever decision I take, it will be liked by the people of both constituencies. What I will commit to you is that both Wayanad and Raebareli will be happy with my decision.”

Rahul Gandhi and Wayanad

In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, a group of Congress leaders from Kerala met Gandhi with a request: He should contest from Wayanad. The Kerala Congress leaders, who are known to be argumentative even among themselves on most issues, were unanimous that if Gandhi contested from the coastal state, it would boost the overall prospects of the party in Kerala.

Gandhi agreed and the Congress-led UDF bagged 19 of 20 Lok Sabha seats. It was the highest number from a state for the Congress. In 2024, UDF bagged 18 seats with the Congress getting 14 MPs again the highest tally from a state.

“Rahul Gandhi loves Wayanad and Wayanad loves him,” a Congress strategist who did not wish to be named said.

In the 2024 Lok Sabha poll, Rahul Gandhi bagged 60% votes in Wayanad while his closest rival, CPI’s Annie Raja got 26% of the popular votes. In the previous national election, even as the Congress lost miserably, Gandhi bagged 65% votes to win in Wayanad.

In 2019, the Congress made a tactical mistake of announcing that Gandhi would fight from both Wayanad and Amethi, his seat since 2004. “For us, the people of Amethi, it was an insult. We voted for him since 2004 but he couldn’t trust us. Many of us voted for (then) Union minister Smriti Irani,” Anshul Dubey, a college teacher and a Congress supporter, said during the election campaign.

Wayanad didn’t disappoint him.

“When I was being interrogated by the ED for 55 hours, when the BJP gave me a two-year jail sentence, the people of Wayanad supported me throughout. The BJP took away my house, I got letters from the people of Wayanad saying, ‘Please come and stay in our house’. Throughout this period, you have supported me with your love and affection. This is beyond elections. When I was struggling and fighting the government of India and all its agencies, you gave me your love and affection, which is much more important than the votes. You treated me like a family member and I can never thank you enough. I will remember it all my life,” Gandhi said on Wednesday at a rally in Wayanad.

Rahul Gandhi and Rae Bareli

The Samajwadi Party (SP) had inserted a key clause in its compact with the Congress to fight the 2024 Lok Sabha polls together: One Gandhi family member must fight in Rae Bareli or Amethi.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra didn’t want to fight as she wanted to campaign across India. Also, Congress’ pre-poll surveys didn’t project a comfortable victory for a party candidate in Amethi (the results, of course, showed that the Congress surveys were wrong).

On the last day of filing nomination, the Congress announced Rahul Gandhi will fight Rae Bareli. Hours later, he arrived at the Fursatganj airstrip with his family members.

Later, at a rally (her sole campaign appearance in this election) Sonia Gandhi told the people: “I am handing over my son to all of you. Rahul will not disappoint you.”

When the results came, Rahul won by a margin of 3.9 lakh votes in Rae Bareli—higher than all the elections fought by his mother except the 2006 by-poll in which she secured a margin of 4.2 lakh votes.

For Rahul, Rae Bareli is not just another Lok Sabha seat. It has a rich and close association with three generations of the Gandhi family—the seat of his mother and grandmother—and more than anything, it is the last electoral bastion of the Gandhi family in India.

Wayanad or Rae Bareli?

Rahul Gandhi’s participation in Wayanad has paid rich dividends to his party. It has strengthened the Congress’ footprint in Kerala even as the Congress lost to the Left in the 2021 assembly poll ending Kerala’s long tradition of changing government every five years.

Kerala still contributes to the largest share of Congress seats in 2024. It helped the party to get a sizable number of seats from the south: 41 of 130 seats.

But the larger goal of the Congress is to improve its strike rate in northern India, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In this context, even if Gandhi’s electoral representation in Uttar Pradesh might not lead to the party’s revival in the Hindi belt, it can boost the morale of the party workers. Especially when many senior leaders of the party including the party chief Mallikarjun Kharge, general secretary, the organisation, KC Venugopal and the chief spokesperson Jairam Ramesh are from south India.

To be sure, Gandhi retaining Raebareli is no guarantee for the party’s success. In all Lok Sabha elections between 2004 and 2019 (when Gandhi was Amethi MP), the Congress had 21, two, one and six seats respectively. “But the party can’t vacate the political space to HT and instead, put more resources in the Hindi belt,” said a senior Congress leader.

Former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said Rahul’s victory from Rae Bareli is significant as it will also embolden the alliance with SP. “I don’t know which seat he will retain. Both are important seats. But Rahul Gandhi’s electoral presence in UP will give a fresh lease of life to the alliance.”

Also, Gandhi has a task cut out to succeed Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli. Barring her first election in 1999, which she fought from Amethi, Sonia shifted to Rae Bareli in 2004 as her son fought in Amethi. For 20 years, she represented the seat, more than what Indira or Feroze Gandhi did.

Gandhi has maintained he "will discuss with people and take a decision." For Congress insiders, this means he will talk to Sonia, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Mallikarjun Kharge before taking the final decision.

 

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