While Varanasi is in the heady grip of euphoria at being represented by Narendra Modi, in Amethi it is sometimes hard to believe Rahul Gandhi actually won his election.
Two facts have coalesced to recast him, in the public mind, as someone who lost. The first is that his victory margin dropped from 3,70,000 votes in 2009 to only 1,07,000 votes in 2014. Even more consequentially, that he led his party to a far more ignominious defeat than expected in the general elections.
Dan Bahadur Yadav, pradhan of Macchawa village, expounded at a tea shop on Rahul’s remote persona and his failure to swing real benefits for Amethi. There were vigorous nods of agreement, even from those who had voted for him. Their verdict, in the idiom of rural UP, was: “Rahul Gandhi bhunna na paye (He couldn’t cash in on his opportunities)”.
As Amethi struggles to accept the changing political realities, the rise of Varanasi, a three-hour drive away, seems to have deepened the sense of its own fragility.
The buzz in Amethi’s bazaars about how improved road and rail connectivity between the country’s ‘First Constituency’ and Lucknow will work to the former’s benefit evokes poignant memories for at least one veteran Congressman. “It reminds me,” says Bhola Tripathi, “of the excitement in neighbouring districts when Rajiv Gandhi threw himself into developing Amethi.”
While Varanasi looks forward to the future, a disappointed Amethi seems to be in the throes of intense nostalgia. It is often aroused by the fact that Rajiv, thanks to his brute majority in Parliament and a Congress UP chief minister, was able to bring 500-odd industries to the Jagdishpur industrial complex.
Ultimately, his big moves proved unsustainable and Jagdishpur turned into an industrial graveyard by 2000. That it mostly remains one to this day, despite a slew of big-ticket announcements from Rahul, is a fact that Amethi mourns, repeatedly, incessantly. There is scarcely a conversation to be had without a wistful reference to Malvika Steel, a defunct unit he promised to revive , but so far has failed to do so, despite persuading Steel Authority of India Limited to buy it.
Yet, despite its thwarted hopes, Amethi continues to believe in the power of VVIP affiliation. This came through strongly during a recent visit to Jagdishpur village in Deeh block, which Rahul has adopted under the Prime Minister’s Adarsh Gram Yojna. In an omission typical of a demoralised Congress machinery, nobody important had made the trek here – on spectacularly bad roads – to tell the villagers of their new status. All they got was a phone call. (Rahul did visit, eventually, some days later).
Nevertheless, they were excited, not so much because he had adopted them but because they were now waiting to be twinned with Modi’s adopted village, Jayapur, in Varanasi.
“There will be constant competition,” said retired school teacher Virender Shankar Mishra exultantly, noting that the names of both villages began with ‘J’.
Disappointment here with Rahul, though palpable, is expressed in different registers: With anger and resentment, but also plaintive complaint. When someone says, “We wanted to teach him a lesson,” there is a distinct undertone: ‘Well, come on, notice us, we exist’.
But will he? In a setting in which every twitch of Rahul’s eyebrow is registered, his post-election demeanour has not raised hopes. Over a decade as Amethi’s member of Parliament, Rahul’s reserve with workers and the public – his discomfort with freewheeling interactions, his propensity to forget names of workers – has become the stuff of the wrong sort of legend.
When he exuded a relaxed charm at an open house here in July, it seemed he might be changing. However, the verdict of local Rahul-watchers is that though he visits dutifully every month, he is back to his stiff, structured ways. Does he have a political strategy for recovering ground in Amethi? His representative here, Chandrakant Dubey, responds with a single sentence. “Rahul’s only political strategy is to empower people.”
Dubey’s soft-spoken calm contrasts with the turmoil, and low morale, among Congress workers. Ramamurthi Shukla, once Sanjay Gandhi’s election agent (at 73, he still manages to exude the air of a storm-trooper), is a rare local Congressman willing to go on record with unsolicited advice. “Rahul needs to hold public meetings, to show up at village chaupals without notice, to listen to the public, to fight for their causes, whether with the state government or the Centre. He must get out of air-conditioned rooms and renew his bonds with the people.”
It is amusing that even critics like Shukla react with outrage when you mention Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani. While most “outsiders” defeated by the Gandhis in electoral battles here, such as Rajmohan Gandhi and Maneka Gandhi, conveniently slunk away, Irani, who ran a spirited campaign in May and secured 300,000 votes, is keeping in touch, albeit in a low profile way.
Local Bharatiya Janata Party leader Daljit Singh, in whose home Irani stayed during her campaign, is upbeat. Local ratings for Modi are sky high, he maintains. As for Irani, he says, she is ticking all the right boxes. He points out that she personally thanked voters after the election, sent trucks with relief material in June after a village fire, assiduously entertains visiting party workers from the constituency, and has demonstrated interest in Amethi’s pending projects.
He adds diplomatically that Irani would decide her own future, no doubt, “but whatever happens, we want didi as our margdarshak (guide).”
Irani famously had 15,000 saris distributed here at Diwali. Asha Rani Gupta says she walked two kilometres to the bazaar when she heard about this and used her elbows to secure one, while others in the crowd retreated empty-handed. She triumphantly brings out a box with Modi’s photograph on it, and Irani’s below, with the legend – ‘Exclusive Saris’. Gupta knows the man on the box, but Irani’s smiling face confuses her, and she asks, hesitantly, “It’s not Sonia Gandhi, is it?”
Clearly, if Irani does wish to create more than a spark in Amethi – restless and dissatisfied, and yet in a time warp – she needs to invest in more saris, and more than saris.