Even after she was defeated in 2014, Smriti Irani toured rural areas and addressed local infrastructural problems, said the locals, young and old.
When Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s face flashed on television channels after his defeat, Ram Prakash Sonkar says he was briefly ridden with guilt. Having voted the Congress’ “panja” (palm symbol) all his life, it was a tough choice to abandon the Nehru-Gandhi scion and shift allegiance to Smriti Irani. But he feels the choice was justified. The VVIP culture had become unbearable and Mr. Gandhi had started to take his voters for granted, without addressing their actual problems.
“Rahulji thought people of Amethi are his murid (sworn followers) and he would come, wave his hand and we would vote him for just a glimpse, no matter what he did,” says Ram Prakash, a truck driver.
He echoed the sentiments of a group of Dalits who had gathered on Sunday afternoon in Tiloi, one of the five Assembly segments in Amethi, which is still coming to terms with the big political turnaround.
While Mr. Gandhi is accused of merely meeting a select group of “bade log” (powerful people) during his customary visits to his constituency, even after she was defeated in 2014, Ms. Irani stepped up the activity, touring rural areas and addressing local infrastructural problems, said the locals, young and old.
The perception that Mr. Gandhi took Amethi for granted was cemented the day he picked another seat, Wayanad, to contest. Ms. Irani took advantage of the situation by dubbing Mr. Gandhi as a “lapata sansad (missing MP).”
In 2014, Mr. Gandhi defeated Ms. Irani by a little over a lakh votes; while he secured 4.08 lakh, she got 3 lakh, over 11% short.
But in 2019, even as Mayawati extended support to the two Gandhis in Rae Bareli and Amethi and Dalit leader Udit Raj shifted ranks and campaigned for them, Mr. Gandhi lost by over 55,000 votes.
Not to mention, that his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra actively campaigned for him till the last day.
Mr. Gandhi’s vote share dropped from 46% to 43.86%, while Ms. Irani’s climbed from 34.38% to 49.71%, indicating a big shift in support base of both leaders.
The welfare measures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi like free cooking gas, toilets, pucca houses and electricity connections seem to have won over several poor voters across castes.
However, Ms. Irani also had her fair share of work. Dayashankar Yadav, former district president, said Ms. Irani visited Amethi 42 times since 2014.
Apart from providing relief to people whose huts were consumed by fires, Ms. Irani is credited with getting a barrage built in Pipri village in Jagdishpur, rescuing the locals from the fury of the shifting Gomti river that routinely destroyed crops as well as property.
One of the beneficiaries in Pipri was Satyanarayan Mishra, who sells tradtionally-made ice candies. Before the barrage or the “bundh” was built, Mr. Mishra suffered heavy losses as the river washed away the crops on his 1.5 bighas of land. Over the years, he had to re-build his mud house five times. “Smriti Irani heard our grievance, which nobody cared about before,” said Mr. Mishra, who voted for the BJP.
While the scenario in the Lok Sabha election is different from the State polls, the ground in Amethi had been shrinking for the Congress leader since 2014. In 2017 U.P. Assembly elections, the combined vote of the BJP in five segments of Amethi was 3.45 lakh, a jump of 44,500. In contrast, the Congress got 2,36 lakh in five Assembly segments of Amethi, a drop of 1.72 lakh. It fought in an alliance with the SP and the two parties had a friendly fight on two seats, in which the SP got 1,36,628. The total vote of the SP and Congress was 3,73 lakh, which was only 27,806 more than the BJP.
The BJP, meanwhile, also had big gains in terms of local leadership, including former MLAs — Dr. Muslim of the Congress, Chandra Prakash of the BSP, the BSP candidate in 2017 Vijay Kishore and the pradhan of the village adopted by Mr. Gandhi.
Another voter won over by Ms. Irani and Mr. Modi was Ranjeet Kumar in Jais. Mr. Kumar’s new concrete house was built just three months ago. Painted a neat white, flags of the BJP and stickers proclaiming “Didi hai toh mumkin hai” pay tribute to the BJP leader.
“Jo kaam karega ab Amethi uska gadh hoga (Amethi will belong to those who work for it),” says Mr Kumar, who now also has a ration card and is awaiting a new power connection.
He also repeats a commonly heard complaint that the local Congress leaders only engage with rich and influential people, alienating the poor and lower caste people.
“We were treated like dogs. A long time ago, I had gone to Rahul Gandhi himself with an application over a medical help, but he tore my paper in front of me. Smriti Irani is a good person and she gives respect to the poor,” he said.
Dharmendra Sonkar, who teaches students at a coaching centre, is annoyed with the Yogi Adityanath government for failing to fill 27,000 vacancies for the job of assistant teacher. But he had no complaint against Mr. Modi, and was glad to receive the ₹2,000 under the PM-KISAN scheme and a new cement house.
“Rahul Gandhi would come by road and pass by our block. In 15 years he was our MP, he didn’t check on us once,” said Mr Sonkar.
And it stretches across class. Shayam Babu, a Dalit labourer, says he voted the BJP as its government gave him a cement house for the first time in his life. “How can I be a namak haram (turn coat) and not vote it,” he asked.
Zahir Khan, a Muslim corporator and one of the many who run beedi workshops in Jais, said Mr. Gandhi assumed that since “Amethi is his house” he would never lose. Though Mr. Khan voted the Congress due to ideological reasons, he is not sad that Mr. Gandhi lost. Mr. Khan supports the Samajwadi Party and his was one of the many votes that helped the Congress chief put up a fight in his bastion. Had the SP fielded a candidate, the situation would have been worse, say locals. In 2014, the SP had deployed its minister Gayatri Prajapati to help Mr. Gandhi secure a win, is the local perception.
Mr. Khan says that despite ruling Amethi for decades, his block Jais still doesn’t have a single degree college or hospital and pregnant women have to rush to Rae Bareli, 32 km, away for deliveries.
“In the 1980s, when Amitabh Bachchan went to Allahabad, he said he would make it like Amethi. He would cry if he came to Amethi today and saw its state,” added another local.
Supporters in shock
But many old Congress supporters are in a state of disbelief. Ram Baran argues that the party ended the zamindari system, initiated the schemes to provide people toilets and houses. “How is it the Congress’ fault that people spent the money on liquor and marriages,” he asked, partly laying blame on the implementation of the schemes at the local level.
Ram Baran, like many other Dalits here, believes that BJP is anti-Dalit and is diluting the reservations. Saroj Kumar Chanchal, an unemployed Dalit youth, says the BJP didn’t make even a single member of his community, Khatik, a minister despite having three MPs — Bhola Singh, Neelum Sonkars and Vinod Sonkar.
“Rahul Gandhi did not do anything good but he didn’t do anything bad either,” said Mr Chanchal. However many Dalits complained that the local Brahmin-Thakur leaders of the Congress prevented Dalits from access in the party, pushing a section of them to the BJP, while others said the Congress only gave posts to Muslims and Brahmins.
R.S. Sonkar, head of the Dr. Ambedkar Seva Samiti, could have also rebelled the same way but he campaigned actively for Mr. Gandhi, putting aside personal hurt and insult by the local Congress leadership. Mr. Sonkar alleges that the upper caste office bearers of the Congress “sold out” to the BJP and over the years they damaged the structure of the party in Amethi by not allowing workers access.
“So when BJP people taunt me by bursting crackers at my door on the day of the results, it was hard for me to digest. But I had to keep quiet since the BJP is in power at the State and the Centre and their police is also theirs,” he said.
As Mr. Sonkar speaks the news of the murder of a former village head considered close to Mr Irani breaks on the television.
“Wait, she will visit his family tomorrow. He is a Thakur. If a Thakur or Brahmin faces something, even Congress people will go to their homes. But no Congress person came to my house when my son-in-law who was serving in the ITBP was killed in 2018,” Mr. Sonkar said bitterly.
And he was right. Ms. Irani attended the funeral of the murdered leader even joining the pall bearers of the man who had campaigned for her.
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