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Priyanka lifts party by bootstraps

Amethi/Rae Bareli, April 26: This morning, the streets of Rae Bareli were bare. Among Congress supporters, the best lac-ked confidence and the worst were seized by fear of attack from rivals.

Sonia Gandhi’s constituency, guarded by a force of 9,000, was under shoot-at-sight cover. It was not the presence of the men in uniform that got her poll workers stirring, but the sight of Priyanka Gandhi who turned up around 9 am.

Between greeting elderly people with a namaste, Sonia’s polling agent told Congress supporters: “I don’t want you to hang around here with marks of anxiety on your foreheads. Go and get your voters.”

Over the next three hours, she visited the most sensitive booths — walking through villages she asked people to come out and vote. At Sareni, Priyanka stood near the queue, asking voters if they had their serial numbers. Around her, some sort of a Congress organisation had come alive in a constituency that is anything but easy for the party.

At the end of the day, she was ready for more of the same, this time outside the family fief. “I will leave for Delhi tonight. Tomorrow we’ll have a meeting. If my party wants me to campaign outside, I will do it,” Priyanka said.

Brother Rahul, a candidate in neighbouring Amethi, was saying much the same thing. “A road to more responsibility has opened up. I will wait for the party seniors’ directives,” Rahul said.

Early morning, he and Priyanka offered puja at a temple in Babuganj (which Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi had visited a number of times) and blessed with a tilak after a small yagna, they parted ways, Rahul heading to his own constituency of Amethi.

Although party activists in Amethi were breathing easy, Rahul went around some of the villages asking voters to come out. A crowd soon grew around him, later splitting into smaller groups to reach polling booths.

A day back, a Congress supporter was killed in Jagdishpur and Rahul had to go there to persuade angry residents of some colonies to vote. “The love for me that you see in the people is not because of me. It is because of the love and dedication that my father had shown to the voters here,” he said.

Priyanka’s task was a little more difficult in Rae Bareli. Although known for its loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family, in the 2002 state poll, the Congress failed to win a single Assembly segment from here. Besides, a former Congress leader and Sonia’s opponent Ashoke Singh’s brother, Akhilesh Singh, had unleashed a reign of terror in the area, prompting Priyanka to complain to the Election Commission.

“Even this morning, one of my agents was threatened and a voter’s head was tonsured because he voted for us but I am happy that the Election Commission has taken quick action and made elaborate security arrangements,” she said.

Priyanka admitted the party was weak in Rae Bareli. “There is a sharp difference between the organisational strength of Amethi and that in Rae Bareli. But I tried hard in the last couple of days to improve it.”

She said Amethi, too, was no better five years ago. “But I stuck to this constituency in 1999 when my mother contested and toned up the network.”

Asked if she would step into the role of her grandmother Indira Gandhi as people saw in her the reflection of the former Prime Minister, Priyanka was evasive.

“Don’t ask me about the future. If you are so curious about that, you have to take the help of an astrologer, not me,” she said.

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