Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Amethi

Rahul Gandhi: His Father's Son

March 29: “Let Vajpayee contest from Amethi,” thunders Banwari Lal, a paan-seller sitting in his shop -- a small wooden cube supported on four legs, “he will get a taste of his feel-good factor. He will bite dust.”

About half-a-dozen people sitting on wooden benches around his stall agree in unison: “Yes, yes, we challenge either Vajpayee or Advani to fight from here. We would like to see what happens.”

That's one challenge Vajpayee or Advani are never likely to take up: it is easier for an Italian-born to become the Prime Minister of India than anyone defeating a member of the Gandhi family in amethi. The only time a Gandhi lost from here was in 1977, when Sanjay Gandhi contested Lok Sabha elections for the first time. But at the time, the country, especially North India, was in the grip of an anti-Emergency, and Sanjay, supposed to be the architect of the Emergency, lost to Ravindra Pratap Singh of the Janata Party.

In January 1980, Sanjay won the seat but he died within months in June, performing aeronautical stunts that led his twin-seater aircraft to crash. The seat was filled up by elder brother Rajiv in 1981, and he went on to win elections from there in 1984, 1989 and 1991. But in 1991, while elections were still going on in the rest of the country, Rajiv died. With Sonia Gandhi refusing to join politics despite pleas by Congressmen who were so used to being led by a member of the gandhi family, Amethi passed on to the hands of Satish Sharma, a close member of the family.

Sharma won from here in 1991 and 1996, but in 1998, in what was a big blow to the congress, he lost to BJP's Sanjay Singh. Locals see this as the defeat of an “outsider” rather than the defeat of the Congress. Sharma, according to them, did not tend to the constituency the way Sanjay and Rajiv did. Sanjay Singh, on the other hand, was known by the people: he belonged to the local royal family and was a close friend of Sanjay Gandhi.

In 1999, when Sonia Gandhi finally decided to take the plunge, she naturally chose Amethi and won handsomely. (Though to be on the safe side, she also stood from Bellary, in Karnataka, where she was given a fight by BJP's Sushma Swaraj but still managed to win by some 50,000 votes). So Amethi returned to the family.

This election, Sonia's son Rahul is making his political debut from Amethi and its people, naturally, are electrified. They don't admit it, but it is clear that they see Rahul more as Rajiv's son than as Sonia's son. After all, spouses haven't mattered more than progies in Indian dynasties, and especially so in the Gandhi family. Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru's wives remained in the background, so did Indira Gandhi's husband Feroze. Sanjay's wife Maneka was shown the door after he died and today she is part of the BJP parivar rather than the Gandhi parivar. And as for Sonia, political analysts have been saying that she is keeping the Congress president's seat warm for her children. And today, one of her children have taken the first step.

“I wish I could have shown you that girl, she was playing here just now,” says Banwari Lal, the paan-wallah, “you know she is barely two years old but still she says, 'Rahul bhaiyya zindabad, Rahul bhaiyya zindabad.'”

Adds Anokhe Lal, a man who must be spending his 70th summer at Banwari's shop: “Rahul ke aa jaane se hum sab khushi ke maarey pareshan hain (we are so happy that Rahul is coming here that we are getting tired of being happy).”

Adds Akhilesh, a 30-something whose job seemed to be hanging around in the paan shop all the time: “I think the idea is to project Rahul as a Prime Ministerial candidate. That is why he is contesting from here.”

Suddenly, out of the blue, tea is served. I protest, saying I've had too much tea. But they protest: “This is our culture. you cannot go without tea.” So over tea, they tell me Rahul might not have any political experience, but they will “blindly” vote for him because he reminds them of Rajiv Gandhi.

They are quite right about the resemblance. If you look at him carefully, Rahul not only resembles his father but also looks at lot like his late uncle Sanjay -- a man they really worship. “Wah, kya din thhey woh (Ah, those were the days),” says Banwari reminiscing Sanjay Gandhi's visits to Amethi. “He (Sanjay) used to walk very fast, so fast that others had to run to keep pace with him. And he used to campaign either by walking or on a motorcyle. He used to drive the bike himself while another Congressman rode pillion.”

Rajiv, like Sanjay, also came here often but not on a bike. “He drove in his car, but he also used to walk around. We once took him to the nearby theatre to watch a film. I even remember the name of the film, Do Badan (Two Bodies),” says Akhilesh.

As the conversation goes on, Banwari pulls out a framed picture and hands it to me. It's a newspaper picture showing Priyanka Gandhi greeting Banwari. “Sir, we are willing to lay our lives for the Gandhi family. After all, they have laid their lives for us. They died, but still kept coming to Amethi to contest elections. Is there any dearth of seats for them?” he asks. The family, clearly, has given Amethi its place under the sun.

The sun was scorching when we had set off for Amethi from Rae Bareli, where Sonia Gandhi is contesting the elections. A 60-km long road separates the constituencies of the mother and the son, but the two-hour taxi ride, on the rather smooth road, presents one of the most beautiful countrysides that the landscapeless Gangetic plain can offer. We pass miles and miles of wheat fields, interrupted occasionally by a lone, deserted brick structure which had a painting on the wall that exhorted people to come to Mayawati's rally in Lucknow (the one that was held on March 13).

Amethi arrives without warning. Suddenly the road gets bad and you run into a street where merchants on either side are selling foodgrains spread out on jute sheets. As you move on, you come across shops selling household stuff, among them, ropes. There are several shops selling different kinds of ropes -- probably to be used to draw water from wells or to be used as clothesliness. Maybe something more basic: as a harness for animals ploughing the fields.

The place, at best, looked like a village square. I asked the driver to go on, hoping to find the Amethi that matched the profile of its elected representatives. But after a point, where a statue of Ambedkar stood, the driver said, “This is Amethi. There is nothing beyond.”

So we return to the busy street where the shops were and stop at a tea-stall outside the local post office. Several people sat at the shop, reading different pages of the same newspaper. It's quite obvious that people of Amethi are used to journalists coming over. Even before I can introduce myself properly, they have shuffled and made place for me on the bench.A glass of tea appears and they, I can see, are ready with the soundbites. I begin with the poor amenities. “They are all deeds of the state government. The MPs allocate funds but it never reaches us,” the man sitting immediately next to me says.

“Satish Sharma is also to be blamed,” joins in the barber who runs his shop next to the tea-stall. “He was a useless man. It was because of his deeds the Congress lost in 1998.” Butts in the tea-wallah: “But now that Rahul bhaiyya has come, things will change. The roads will shine again.”
Our next stop is the house of Roop Lal, a farmer. I ask him about the poor amenities. “Look, conditions might be bad here, but today Amethi figures in the internatianol map because of the Gandhi family. And as for the conditions, show me one place in India where conditions are better.”

The sun is setting and it's time to leave. On the way out, we passed Banwari's shop. He waved us down and said: “Next time when you come, I will show you my pictures with Sanjay Gandhi.” As we drive out of Amethi, into the wheat fields, a silly thought comes to my mind: if the Gandhi dynasty ever wants to set up a kingdom of their own, they can easily be assured of this land of 14 lakh people. But then, this is democracy, and they are aiming to rule one billion.

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