|Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli.
Picture by Naeem Ansari
The photos on the walls of the Congress’s election headquarters here tell the story of a constituency the party has held captive for most of the six decades since 1952.
They are a happy cast of characters: Feroze Gandhi, who won the seat in 1952 and 1957 with wife Indira Gandhi as his campaign manager; Indira, who held it in 1967 and 1971; and Sonia Gandhi, the victor in 2004 and 2009.
Complementing the ensemble are two MPs from next-door Amethi: Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, yet to make her electoral debut, completes the gallery because whenever there’s an election here, she’s the biggest draw.
Only Jawaharlal Nehru is missing, ostensibly because his political turf, Phulpur, is quite far away.
To office employees like Savitri from Bhuyamau village, Sonia is “Madam”, Rahul is “beta” (son) and Priyanka a “bitiya” (daughter). Every day she goes to the villages and, from 8am to 8pm, advertises the UPA’s “good work”.
The BJP held the seat twice, in 1996 and 1998, when the Gandhis were in political seclusion. Rae Bareli decisively rejected the family just once, when Raj Narain unseated Indira in 1977.
For the Congress, the constituency is something of an oasis in an Uttar Pradesh that seems charmed by Narendra Modi. Sonia is safe in her seat, the only debate being whether she can better her 2009 victory margin of 3.72 lakh.
“It may go down by 15 to 20 per cent,” said Ram Naresh Mishra, a former state roadways employee from Bachrawan town, at a tea stall. But the schoolteacher seated next to him was more cautious.
“We have to vote our hearts out for Soniaji,” he said. “This business of a reduced margin can get dicey because you can never tell by how much it will fall.”
Underlying the teacher’s manifest commitment to Sonia was his sense of history. “Once Rae Bareli defeated Indira, she turned her back on its voters forever. We learnt a lesson. Our city regressed into a village,” he said.
After the 1977 reverse, Indira had won from Rae Bareli in 1980 too but relinquished it in favour of her other seat, Medak.
“Sonia has given us everything: a rail coach factory, wide roads, a flyover that’s about to take shape…” the teacher said.
Rae Bareli has vested the Gandhis with such an aura that Brajesh Gupta, a lawyer from Harchandpur, claimed: “If (Narendra) Modi were bold enough to stand against Soniaji, even he would have lost.”
He continued: “No doubt, Modi’s name is on everyone’s lips but ours is a VVIP constituency that has earned a place on the international map because of Soniaji’s personality, the Gandhi legacy and the work they have done.”
The refrain of Priyanka’s speeches, while campaigning for Sonia, has been the “work” done in the past five years and the “contrasting ideologies” of the Congress and the BJP.
“Roads, electricity poles, solar lights, factories, an AIIMS-like hospital — we have brought all this to Rae Bareli,” Priyanka told Aihar village on Friday.
“I’ve heard that local people don’t get work at the rail coach factory. The factory is not meant just to provide jobs. When an enterprise like that comes up, land prices rise, many small trades mushroom, and the area’s overall economy looks up.”
Implicit in the relationship of patronage between Rae Bareli and its VVIP representatives, marked by the idea that the constituency can expect tangibles only if it elects a Gandhi, is a feeling that voting for change or “hope” of the sort Modi has held out would be risky.
“Modi talks of entrepreneurship, jobs…. We don’t care for his ideas, for even if some projects here mainly benefit outsiders, the good thing is that the Gandhis have at least brought them to our town,” said Bachchan Singh, a Lucknow University law student who is a voter in Rae Bareli.
In the 2012 Assembly polls, the Samajwadi Party defeated the Congress in four Rae Bareli seats. This time, the Samajwadis haven’t put up a candidate against Sonia.
“Those were state elections, so we had to choose between the Samajwadis and the Bahujan Samaj Party. This time the choice is between the BJP and the Congress,” said Bhagwan Baksh Singh, former headman of Bannamau village.
“Even if there’s a Modi wave, we’ll vote for Soniaji. We know that even if the BJP comes to power, the Gandhis will always have the clout to protect us and work for Rae Bareli.”
Rae Bareli votes on April 30