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Where only one identity matters

- Modi is the crutch for Maneka as well as Kalyan’s son
Maneka Gandhi and (below) Rajveer Singh, son of Kalyan Singh

Sardev Nagar is such a tiny dot on Uttar Pradesh’s political landscape that even the candidates contesting from Aonla, the Lok Sabha constituency it falls within, have not cared to drop by.

Yet the dusty town is palpably excited about the elections. The reason is Narendra Modi.

First-year arts student Manendra Pratap Raj is one of the 660 voters from the backward Kashyap caste — the same number as Muslims — in this rural electorate of 2,700.

Hindus such as the Kashyaps, Brahmins and Thakurs say they will vote for the BJP’s Dharmendra Kashyap. In keeping with a noticeable trend, the Muslims are likely to vote for Sarvaraj Singh of the Samajwadi Party.

Sarvaraj’s “big plus”, the minorities claim, is that he may be able to win over some Thakurs from the BJP, being a Thakur himself. But young voters like Manendra are not concerned with the arithmetic.

“For the first time, an election has brought excitement to our lives. Had you dropped by in the evening, you would have seen the boys take out a procession for Modi,” the 18-year-old said.

So, while veteran Murli Manohar Joshi may be dismissing the “Modi factor” as a part of “a larger BJP wave”, at least two among the party’s “dynasts”, Maneka Gandhi and Rajveer Singh, will be relying almost entirely on his popularity.

Maneka is contesting from Pilibhit and Rajveer from Etah. The BJP had wooed Maneka because many party seniors, including L.K. Advani, were in awe of the aura surrounding the Nehru-Gandhis. Rajveer is the son of the BJP’s “fallen hero”, Kalyan Singh.

“Had it been a Modi-minus election, she would have lost,” a political aide to Maneka said. “Modi is her crutch.”

What Amethi and Rae Bareli are to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Pilibhit is to Maneka and her son Varun.

Maneka has won from Pilibhit as a Janata Dal, Independent or BJP candidate every time since 1989 except twice: in 1991, when she lost to the BJP’s Parshuram Gangwar, and in 2009, when Varun contested and won from Pilibhit.

Maneka, who had shifted to Aonla and won by a whisker five years ago, is back in Pilibhit — to a cold reception, by all accounts — while Varun has moved to Sultanpur.

A young woman — bio-technologist by training and green activist by “instinct” — explained why Maneka was “unpopular”.

“The Pilibhit region has one of the best tiger reserves. Manekaji is supposed to be pro-wildlife but she has paid no attention to developing this area. Varun never bothered to take a look after getting elected,” she said, asking not to be quoted.

“It’s something in the Nehru-Gandhi DNA that makes them think that people are dying to vote for them without expecting returns. We heard that Amethi and Rae Bareli are in the same sorry plight.”

She added: “If Manekaji wins and there’s an NDA government, she will naturally become a minister because the BJP loves to showcase its Nehru-Gandhis. We’ll hold her to account because we heard Modi is Net-savvy. We’ll post all her failings on the Net and make Modi aware so that something is done.”

Nearly 185km away, in an equally nondescript town, Rajveer faces similar resentment.

Kalyan Singh, 82, has opted out of the Lok Sabha race citing his age. He had won from Etah in 2009, contesting on behalf of his own party with support from the Samajwadis, who later dumped him. Having rejoined the BJP recently, he has given Etah to his son.

“Kalyan and Rajveer have no vajood (independent existence). Only Modi has vajood. The BJP would never have been in a position to regain its primacy in Uttar Pradesh were it not for Modi,” said Lalesh Maheshwari, whose family manages Etah’s Saraswati Shishu Mandir, an RSS school.

“It’s a Modi boom, not a BJP boom. What did Kalyan and his son do these five years? Look at the road here; see how rotten it is. Their house is down this road and they use it several times a day. Are they blind to reality?” Lalesh said.

Maneka and Rajveer aren’t exceptions. Six-time Bareilly MP Santosh Gangwar is back in the reckoning after he lost narrowly in 2009.

But realising that his traditional campaign tools weren’t appealing to the city’s youths, Gangwar marshalled the services of his 34-year-old daughter Shruti and her husband Subodh. Both are IIT-Roorkee alumni and have their IT start-ups in Bangalore.

“Papa was available on the phone or at home. We had to go the Modi way and spread his outreach many times over on Facebook, WhatsApp, etc, so that Papa is finally recognised by Bareilly’s young people,” the bright-eyed Shruti said.

Pilibhit, Aonla and Bareilly vote on April 17 and Etah on April 24