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Amethi face-off as Rahul yatra reaches lost citadel

Feb 20, 2024 05:46 AM IST

High-profile constituency of Amethi turned battleground as Rahul Gandhi faces off against Smriti Irani in first public rally since 2019 loss.

The high-profile constituency of Amethi turned into a battleground on Monday as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi descended on the Uttar Pradesh town for the first public rally since his shock loss in 2019, only to face off against Union minister Smriti Irani who dared him to contest from the erstwhile family bastion again.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Amethi on Monday. (PTI)
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Amethi on Monday. (PTI)

Gandhi reached Amethi as part of his ongoing Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra and addressed a huge crowd in the constituency which he won handsomely three times but lost to Irani by 55,000 votes in 2019.

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“I have come to Amethi. Our relationship is old. We have a bond of love. I want to thank all of you,” Gandhi said. He also said during the 2022Bharat Jodo Yatra, people from Amethi came and complained why didn’t he come to his former seat. “Today, I am standing before you in Amethi,” Gandhi said.

Gandhi, who was accompanied by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, attacked the government over the Ram Temple inauguration ceremony, the caste census and welfare of poor people.

Visuals showed a thousands-strong crowd jostling to catch a glimpse of Gandhi and his entourage in a red open-air jeep; flags emblazoned with the Gandhi name and image fluttered in the background as the 53-year-old leader waved to the crowd from atop the jeep even as ordinary people stretched out an arm to shake his hand, or take a photo on their phones.

But if the Congress wanted to paint the event as Gandhi’s homecoming, Irani and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to counter this perception. The sitting MP spent the day criss-crossing her constituency as she stopped by several villages in the district to hold jan samvad (public discussions), listening to people’s grievances.

“Rahul Gandhi considered Amethi as the centre of power but did not provide service, that is why he was welcomed by the deserted streets of Amethi. Congress workers who welcomed Rahul Gandhi did not participate in his yatra due to which the Congress had to call workers from Sultanpur and Pratapgarh,” she said amid cheers.

The seat in central UP is considered among the most prestigious in Indian politics, having been represented by four members of the Nehru-Gandhi family from 1980 — Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi won his first election from the seat in 2004 by about 300,000 votes to make his Lok Sabha debut and won two more polls — in 2009 and 2014 (he defeated Irani by about 100,000 votes) — before slumping to a defeat against the BJP leader in 2019.

Gandhi then entered the Lok Sabha as the parliamentarian from Wayanad in Kerala.

The face-off also came days after Gandhi’s mother and former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi filed her nomination papers for the Rajya Sabha, signalling the end of her decades-old career in the Lok Sabha. The senior leader represented the neighbouring Rae Bareli constituency since 2004; together, the Amethi-Rae Bareli belt was considered the lone pocket borough of the Gandhi family in a state where Congress dominance has given way to the party’s obsolescence in recent decades.

Gandhi’s first major rally in Amethi since 2019 assumed significance as a section of the Congress want him to return to Uttar Pradesh. The demand has mounted after Sonia Gandhi shifted to the Rajya Sabha, sparking speculation that either Gandhi or his sister Priayanka Gandhi Vadra might contest from the family bastion.

On Monday, with banners and pictures of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi fluttering on the stage and flowers being showered on the leader, Congress state unit chief Ajai Rai hailed the family. “The people of Amethi have you in their hearts. They have a relation with the Gandhi family. The Sanjay Gandhi hospital [foundation laid by then PM Indira Gandhi in September 1982] was closed by the local MP [Irani]. Whatever development has happened here, it is because of you,” he said.

But Irani — who was the first BJP leader to defeat any Gandhi family leader in Amethi since 1999 — quashed the claim.

“Amethi has received an investment of 6,523 crore in the UP Investors Summit. The anger of the people of Amethi against the Gandhi family is clearly visible... Empty streets today were showing that the people of Amethi have nothing to do with the Gandhi family,” she said.

The Congress decided to extend the suspense around Gandhi’s candidature. “CEC will decide on who will contest from Amethi. Rahul Gandhi has been an MP from Amethi thrice. His father Rajiv Gandhi also used to contest from Amethi. It is a very important constituency for the Congress party,” Jairam Ramesh said.

In his speech, Gandhi reiterated the Congress’s commitment to conduct a nationwide caste census, calling it an “X-ray”.

“I ask in every meeting, what is the population of backwards? They are 50% of the population. Dalits are 15% and tribals are 8%. Together, they form 73% of our country. Not a single backward person owns the top 200 companies. In the top management, in media, in the top administration of big hospitals, how many people are from this 73%? Zero. 90 officers run the country. They distribute the budget. Only 3 of these 90 IAS officers and Dalit and Adivasis;” he said.

“Your (backward) people will find their names in the list of workers, MGNREGA. But your attention is being diverted. Sometimes, you will be told to see what’s happening in Pakistan. Sometimes, you will be told ‘Look, China has come’,” Gandhi said.

He referred to the January 22 consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, an event which marked the fulfilment of a longstanding poll promise of the BJP.

“Did you see the Ram Mandir event? It was a grand event. Top business leaders were there, so was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amitabh Bachchan, and Aishwarya Rai. But did you see any Dalit faces? Our President is a tribal woman, and she wasn’t there. Did you see any farmer or labourer during the event? No backwards were seen during the event,” Gandhi said.

He also spoke about the ongoing farmers protest in north India over minimum support price (MSP) guarantees.

Irani, on her part, accused Gandhi of insulting Amethi.

“Amethi’s former MP insulted the people of Amethi in Wayanad. Amethi was distressed due to this. Ram Lalla’s invitation was rejected by him and his family. Amethi is distressed due to this also,” she said, referring to the senior Congress leadership’s decision to skip the January 22 ceremony.

“I dare him (Rahul) to contest from Amethi alone in the Lok Sabha elections,” she said, adding that Amethi decided to bring a change in 2019 and sent the Gandhi family away. “This is the reason why this family has now also fled from Rae Bareli ahead of the 2024 polls,” the Union minister said.

Gandhi was scheduled stay overnight in Amethi.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Manish Chandra Pandey is a Lucknow-based Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times’ political bureau in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Along with political reporting, he loves to write offbeat/human interest stories that people connect with. Manish also covers departments. He feels he has a lot to learn not just from veterans, but also from newcomers who make him realise that there is so much to unlearn.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Saubhadra Chatterji is Deputy Political Editor at the Hindustan Times. He writes on both politics and policies.

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