February 24, 2012
Lucknow: In the first of a two-part feature, Sheela Bhatt of REDIFF.COM travels with Priyanka Gandhi deep into the villages of Amethi and Rae Bareli and discovers that all is not well in the pocket borough of the Congress First Family. "She is not wearing bangles. She is not wearing a mangalsutra. She is not sporting a bindi on her forehead." Sonna, a vegetable vendor sitting on the roadside on the outskirts of Dhema, a small hamlet near Amethi, points this out in the Awadhi language when she sees Priyanka Gandhi on February 6. Sonna sports a bindi, bangles and a thin but colourful necklace made of some cheap metal.
She seems a little curious to see Priyanka Gandhi disembark from her white Toyota SUV, but does not connect her to the fair-skinned, graceful, lady from the Nehru-Gandhi family. The media in New Delhi has branded Priyanka, who turned 40 last month, as the most charismatic member of the first family of the Congress party. She is sheer magic when seen through the eyes of a television camera in news footage. Her slim figure, her flawless European skin tone, her thick black hair and her resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi is accentuated by the camera and loved by the television viewing urban middle-class. Every time she is shown on television screens, the myth around her deepens. No doubt, through the camera lens, she emerges as the beautiful mix of grace, wisdom and spontaneity.
Her charm is evident when she responds to television journalists' nagging questions. But on the campaign trail in Amethi, following Priyanka Gandhi, Rediff.com encountered simmering discontent over the absence of development in village after village which even Priyanka's fabled magic is just not able to overshadow. In this passive region, without the buzz of developmental activity, Sonna's total disconnect with one of India's most charismatic personalities and, perhaps, to-be-political entity, comes as a reality check.
Has the Nehru-Gandhi family's spell on the Amethi-Rae Bareli-Sultanpur belt in Uttar Pradesh entered its final phase of influence? When one moves into villages and inside the homes and in the minds of loyal families which supported the Nehru-Gandhis, one finds that the Nehru-Gandhi legacy is in urgent need of 'value-addition.' On February 6, Priyanka Gandhi is campaigning in Busiyanwan, Maderika, Tikri, Amaeya Mafi, Nagardeeh, Ramganj, Trisundi, Dhema, Ratapur, Balipur, Tikarmafi, Chanderiya, Shajipur, Sangrampur, Bisesarganj, Gosaiganj, Loharta and Amethi town. Rediff.com followed her speeches in the nooks and corners of the most famous Lok Sabha constituency in India. Priyanka is not yet a full-blown politician, but the bandobast around her visits to Amethi, her brother Rahul Gandhi's Lok Sabha constituency, and to Rae Bareli, her mother Sonia Gandhi's Lok Sabha constituency, is, always, a meticulously planned affair identical to any powerful Indian political leader.
The Special Protection Group, that protects her, surveys the area in advance, ensures smooth passage from the dais to her car and perfects the drill to ensure that she can enter the village and exit without any snags. If and when Priyanka wishes, the media and local Congress activists are kept out of her way by SPG personnel under the pretext of 'security.'Priyanka Gandhi's car is followed by an escort car and local policemen as it is required for her status under the SPG guidelines, but these days, the Election Commission's observers follow the caravan of all campaigners.
Not many local leaders and supporters are allowed to follow their leaders due to the Election Commission's restrictions, so there are not many people along with Priyanka. Of course, her family is conceived as the awesomely powerful family here. Barring the 1977 Lok Sabha election -- when Priyanka's grandmother and uncle Sanjay Gandhi were both defeated in Rae Bareli and Amethi, respectively -- has the family faced any real challenge from their opponents. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi registered a massive victory in Amethi, garnering 464,195 votes. Ashish Shukla, his Bahujan Samaj Party opponent, won 93,997 votes. In the large Lok Sabha constituency, which has 1,431,787 voters, only 45 percent voted in the last general election, giving Rahul Gandhi an impressive lead of 370,198 votes. It is less than 30 percent of Amethi's voters, but nevertheless Rahul's victory was considered awesome. On the campaign trail this time, I saw people look troubled.
The political mood seemed different. Like elsewhere in India, the voting patterns in assembly and Lok Sabha elections differs here too. Ashish Shukla and Gayatri Prajapati of the Samjawadi Party are giving the Congress candidate in Amethi, Ameeta Singh, nightmares. In spite of Rahul and Priyanka's caste-neutral presence, casteism is a dominating force here. Just a few years ago it was said the Gandhi detergents washes away caste. It is not so any more. Ameeta -- nee Kulkarni/Modi -- and her second husband Sanjay Singh have a controversial past. Both of them were accused, but later acquitted, in the murder of Ameeta's first husband, the national badminton champion Syed Modi. Sanjay Singh is the son of the former ruler of Amethi and the Member of Parliament from Sultanpur.
Many local Congressmen tell this correspondent that Singh has a better grip over the area than the Gandhi family. In fact, there is a kind of local alliance of expediency between these two powerful families with lots of pulls and pressures. The Gandhis want to ensure that they remain unchallenged in the Lok Sabha election. Sanjay Singh extends them local cover, but wants in exchange a piece of the pie of the Gandhi power. There is a deceptive game of balance of power between the Gandhis and Singh in the area. Currently, there is an imbalance because Sanjay Singh has not been appointed a Union minister.
He is addressed as Maharaj and Ameeta Singh as Rani by many voters here. However, when Priyanka Gandhi is around, it is clear that only she dominates the dais. Of the some 16 meetings that she addresses on February 6, only at two meetings does Ameeta Singh speak. Ameeta Singh, once a national badminton player, is a hopeless speaker, but she gets elected each time, in the name of her husband, who has fearsome clout in the area.
In a brief chat with this correspondent, Sanjay Singh dismisses the possibility of anti-incumbency against his wife, boasting, "Our riyasat (royalty) has been in Amethi for 1,500 years. We meet people. We interact with them. We get daughters of poor families married." Priyanka Gandhi's extensive tour to the area has only come about because Congress candidates lag behind in most assembly seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi. Ameeta Singh is quite an unpopular candidate. Samajwadi Party supporters stage protests when Priyanka's car is about to reach Dhema village. SPG personnel whisk her away, but she gets a first hand taste of the sharp political attack on Ameeta Singh.