ON A SCORCHING WINDY AFTERNOON, as Union Minister Smriti Irani’s cavalcade moves from one public meeting to another in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, dark smoke billows on the horizon from the wheat fields. A fire engine tries to douse the fire, which has started spreading towards the trees, husk and huts. A little ahead, at Azadpur Chauraha, a group of women are sitting on the road, crying. As Irani tries to console them, speaking in the local Hindi dialect, people gather around. An agitated man says just one fire engine has arrived 90 minutes after the villagers informed the authorities. “Jisko yahan hona chahiye woh tho nahi hai (the person who should be here is missing),” says Irani, using the grievance to target her opponent Congress President Rahul Gandhi, the three-time Member of Parliament from Amethi.
She tells someone to escort the women to a safer place in one of her cars and makes calls asking for more fire engines to be sent. Further down, at Paschimi Duara village, where the fire is spreading towards the road, vehicles are stopped from moving ahead. Irani again gets off her car, and asks the villagers to save the children, cattle and household belongings, as she walks into a cluster of thatched roof huts, with party workers in tow. She fills some cans with water from the hand pump to lend a helping hand in dousing the fire. Taking a cue from her, party workers join in. Meanwhile, another fire engine reaches the village.
Irani cancels her next public meeting, having spent nearly an hour in the heat, dust and smoke. The vehicles make a U-turn and head straight to Rahim Ganj Chauraha in Salon Assembly constituency, where her Cabinet colleague and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan is waiting for her to address a rally. At the bustling crossing, a crowd had gathered. In her speech, Irani lashes out at Rahul Gandhi, whom she is pitted against for the second consecutive time in Amethi. She makes it a point to allude to the fire. “I apologise for getting late. There was fire in the fields in around 10 villages. We were helping the villagers. People were asking me where is the MP they voted for. I told them that this was about humanity so let’s not bring in politics,” she says.
Yet, politics she does ring in adding a little later “I will only say that when 10 villages were on fire it was not your MP who was there, but your didi (referring to herself).” Irani also hits out at Priyanka Gandhi, Congress General Secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, saying she too was not around. All is fair in love, war and politics and, in Rahul Gandhi, Irani is fighting a lineage that has had deep roots in this region for decades. Four members of the Gandhi family have represented the seat, which barring twice (1977-80 and 1998-99), the Congress has won in every election since 1967.
Standing on the dais with one hand on her waist, an image of spunk, Irani invokes nationalism, terrorism and her “ordinary” background. She reiterates her tagline for Gandhi— “Lapata sansad (missing MP)”, presenting herself as a woman who is not a “Naamdaar (dynast)”, leaving the choice to the people, who seated in neat rows, listen quietly, their faces inscrutable.
Irani’s day had begun in the morning at Jamo Road in Gauriganj, one of Amethi’s five Assembly segments, where she stays in a rented accommodation. Party workers wait below the two-storeyed white painted house with red curtains fluttering on the balcony. At one point, she looks down from the balcony and asks for someone to get a woman dropped home. A security guard at the door below lets in people in batches to meet her. A party worker, waiting with a bunch of roses, claims Irani has made 35 trips to Amethi in the past five years and knows all the local party workers by name. They refer to her as didi. Nine meetings, including the rally with Paswan, are scheduled for the day. She is already running late.
A little later, in a small room upstairs icy Rooh Afza, the good old Indian summer sherbet, is served. Irani is all set to take questions. Asked about her reaction when told to fight in Amethi, she says, “Why should any communication from the sangathan (organisation) come either as a surprise or a burden? It is an opportunity to serve not only the people but the cause of the ideology.”
Irani’s first impression of Amethi had been of “shock”. “When I came in 2014, I thought Amethi would be no less than heaven. It has had the service of those in the highest echelons of power, be it Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi or the current lapata sansad. What was extremely shocking was the lack of core development, for instance, the shilanyas of Amethi’s Collector’s office was done by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath just two years ago. The basic administration didn’t have a permanent office. How can you expect development?”
IN 2014, WHEN GANDHi got 408,651 votes (46 per cent) and Irani 300,748 votes (37 per cent), BSP’s Dharmendra Pratap Singh had managed to win over 57,716 votes (6.6 per cent) and Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Kumar Vishvas polled 25,527 (2.9 per cent). This time, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine and AAP have not fielded candidates, giving Congress an advantage. Gandhi, whose vote share had fallen by 25 per cent in comparison to 2009 when he won by 464,195 votes, is also fighting from a second seat— Wayanad in Kerala.
“One needs to look at Amethi’s political situation from two perspectives. Rahul needed the crutch of the BSP to fight in his own seat. That he was ungrateful and spoke ill of them reflects on his character. Secondly, even after support of BSP and SP, he had to run to another seat. So that tells you that he is in a spot of trouble,” says Irani. After the last Lok Sabha election, she got a Rajya Sabha seat, Cabinet berth and key ministries.
I will only say that when 10 villages were on fire it was not your MP who was there, but your didi, ” says Smirit Irani, BJP candidate from Amethi
Political analysts agree Irani, an “outsider”, is giving Gandhi a tough fight in his turf. “You have to see her campaigning to realise she is an effective speaker, a fierce debater and a formidable politician. You have to grant her that,” says Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Ashoka University. He does, however, point out that it was unusual in India for senior leaders to take on strong candidates, barring rare instances like Raj Narain contesting against Indira Gandhi in the 1970s in Rae Bareli, the seat neighbouring Amethi and now held by Sonia Gandhi. For Irani, according to him, the fight against Gandhi appears to be more of a personal initiative.
Sanjay Kumar, Director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says it could be tougher for Rahul Gandhi this time in Amethi. “In the last four-five years, Smriti Irani has been trying to nurture the constituency. While in most other constituencies, Modi is contesting a proxy battle, in Amethi it is seen as a direct contest between her and Rahul,” he says.
Irani, however, insists that the battle for Amethi is about Modi, like in all other seats. “In the absence of a competent Member of Parliament, people of Amethi today recognise that Modi has delivered on promises even after the BJP candidate lost. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the good work done by him is communicated to the people.” She attributes her strength to the organisation and Modi’s connect with the masses, saying his capacity to persevere and deliver on core issues like toilets, Kisan Samman Nidhi, Ayushmann Bharat and Ujjwala Yojana have resonated across villages.
On Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics, Irani is dismissive. “Couldn’t care less. She’s not the candidate.” But, out in the battlefield, Priyanka Gandhi is unmistakably in Irani’s line of fire. The war of words between the two has intensified. The Congress leader criticised Irani for distributing shoes saying it was an insult to the people of Amethi. Irani retaliated saying Priyanka Gandhi should go and see the plight of the poor who don’t have shoes to wear. Gandhi has also dubbed the Kisan Samman Nidhi as Kisan “apmaan” (insult) nidhi saying it amounts to just Rs 500 per month, has questioned the BJP’s definition of nationalism and accused the Modi Government of stalling construction of a food park in Amethi. According to Irani, a letter of 2012 in the UPA era shows that the food park was promised gas which was not given and facilities were denied for it to be operational. “So if Congress wanted, it could have been operational.”
One of the nine women candidates in the BJP’s list of 78 for UP, Irani says she does not like to carry her gender as a crutch. “A politician is supposed to serve all genders, ages, communities. The minute I put myself in a silo, I actually become part of that discrimination you talk about. In life everybody gets a lot of raw deal. If you are so scared of life you don’t step out of your home.”
It is time for her to get into the heat and dust of campaigning. Sitting in the front seat next to the driver in a Honda BRV, with no one else in the car, she sets off for the long day, dressed in a white and magenta cotton Patola saree, a watch on her right wrist and resoluteness in her demeanour. Driving through the winding rural roads, her car stops for the first rally of the day at Neelkanthpur Duara village. A small gathering is waiting for her under a pandal. She begins her speech by saying she knows Rahul Gandhi has never come here. “The sauchalayas (toilets) are not given by Rahul Gandhi, but Modi,” she says. The wind gets severe. She halts for a moment, as party workers hold on to the pillars supporting the pandal. “Yeh Modiji ki aandhi hai (this is a Modi storm),” she says.
She then asks the people who has given them LPG cylinders. The villagers reply “Modi”. She asks if the farmers have got the first instalment of the Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme. Some in the crowd say they have got two instalments. She asks how many of them live in “kuccha” houses. They reply “all” in chorus. Irani plays the role of Modi’s messenger, saying he has sent word that he will ensure they get pucca houses, potable water and sugar at Rs 13 per kg. Some pose with her for selfies. An old man suggests that there should be a college in the region. Irani replies in the local dialect “sansad naahi hain phir bhi banaye de rahen hain (I am not the MP yet we are doing work.)”
In the absence of a competent Member of Parliament, people of Amethi today recognise that Modi has delivered on promises even after the BJP candidate lost, says Smirit Irani, BJP candidate from Amethi
Watching from across the road, Sitaji, an old villager who has lost count of her years, knows only “Gandhi”. Her son Amit Yadav says there is a need for change. “For 15 years not much work has been done here,” he says. On the road ahead, there are huts with Congress flags on them.
According to Kumar of CSDS, if there is rise of BJP in other seats, Amethi and Rae Bareli cannot remain islands untouched by it. “Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are tall leaders of their parties and have managed to retain their seats, which have been Congress strongholds. Generally, there is a committed vote of around 65 per cent for a party even in a wave.”
Gilles says VIP constituencies are generally on par with other seats, in terms of academic and human development indicators, and a lot of development depends on state governments. “The reality is that the Gandhis may have done a lot for their constituencies but there’s no major transformation,” he says.
AMETHI SEEMS CAUGHT somewhere between dedicating its allegiance to familiar faces and exploring promises of change from the unacquainted. Moving through the central UP district, one sees white or black paint splashed on several of Rahul Gandhi’s images on the walls. At Satguru dhaba in Bahadurpur, Ajay Singh is serving aloo-parmal and roti, the only item left on his menu by late afternoon. A devout Congress supporter, he says the Modi Government’s schemes have not reached the poor. “I have been forced to make a licence for my shop by local authorities though the Government had waived off such licences for the poor.” His brother Akhilesh Singh, on the opposite side of the political divide, praises Modi, saying there is electricity in the village and prices of essential commodities have come down. A farmer Ram Prasad, sitting next to him, points out that there has been no power for hours. Further down the road, at Purerajapurbi village, Bharat Lal Yadav says he has seen Gandhi, but not Irani. Last month, he had paid a visit to the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Petroleum Trust, a training and resource centre, just a stone’s throw from the village. Asked if Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had brought in change, a young woman laughs saying he has let loose cattle. The villagers point to the road laid with pebbles and stones, complaining that it hurts while walking. Yadav says that some people have been given LPG cylinders. The villagers have never seen Modi or Adityanath. “After people win they never look back at the poor,” says Yadav. A youth, Lakshman, disagrees with the other villagers saying a chaiwala has become a Prime Minister and this was commendable.
At a market in Fursatganj, Shiv Kumar, who runs a footwear shop, says the Gandhi family has nurtured the constituency. Another villager Santosh Kumar says Rahul Gandhi’s family has done work in the constituency and that he should set up a factory in Amethi. A middle-aged man, Mushtaq Ahmed, says that if Rahul Gandhi’s father Rajeev Gandhi was alive, Amethi “would have been a different place”. Sukumar, a farmer who has received Rs 6,000 under the Kisan Samman Nidhi, is happy with the Modi Government.
Of the five Assembly segments in Amethi, the BJP had won four (Amethi, Tiloi, Salon and Jagdishpur) and the SP one (Gauriganj) in the 2017 state elections, when Congress and SP fought in an alliance. This has given a boost to the BJP’s hopes in the pocket borough of the Gandhi family.
In what has turned out to be a battle of prestige, both Irani and Gandhi have had to deal with their share of controversies. Just a week before Amethi goes to polls, a Home Ministry notice asked Gandhi to respond within 15 days to a complaint by BJP Parliamentarian Subramaninan Swamy that he is a British citizen. Priyanka Gandhi dubbed it as rubbish saying the entire country has seen him growing up here and knows he is Indian. Earlier, Congress targeted Irani for giving “contrary” claims about her educational qualifications in successive poll affidavits, after she declared to the Election Commission that her degree was “not completed”.
“Everybody familiar with the election process knows about the scrutiny process. Only after finding valid papers does the election officer accept a candidate’s nomination. Every paper accepted is put up after thorough verification not only by the Election Commission but also by the opposition. So those who seek to demean me or circulate fake news about me, and some who were singing have switched sides, so the less said about such people the better,” she says. Irani was apparently referring to Priyanka Chaturvedi, then the Congress spokesperson, who ridiculed her “changing” qualifications. Chaturvedi, however, has now joined the Shiv Sena.
From Tulsi in the popular television serial Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi to Union Textile Minister, who earlier held Cabinet portfolios of Human Resource Development and Information and Broadcasting, Irani, who is just 43 years old, has had an extraordinary career. “I always knew I will be a public person. But, when you barely have enough to sail your parents through from one month to another, your basic ambition is to have a job with a salary for three meals a day. If you ask anybody who has grown up in a lower middle class family, they will always tell you that our basic desire is to have a steady job and a home.”
When at 28, she campaigned in the Capital’s Chandni Chowk against Congress veteran Kapil Sibal, Irani was still known as Tulsi. Today, she has no regrets about her work as an actor, politician or minister, “If you live your life in regrets you can never do anything positive for people. Every experience teaches something, but you only have capacity to learn if you don’t negate your own journey. I don’t have the what-if attitude.”
Other stories of General Election 2019