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Smriti prays, Modi on road less travelled

- To Amethi, breaking a tradition
Smriti Irani in Amethi. File picture

Amethi, May 2: Narendra Modi is scheduled to address a rally on Rahul Gandhi’s turf of Amethi on Monday, departing from the tradition of topmost leaders of rival parties not campaigning in each other’s constituencies.

Other than posing the riddle of whether Rahul and his sister Priyanka will return the compliment in Varanasi, Modi’s presence in Amethi is expected to help BJP candidate and actress Smriti Irani face queries why senior party leaders were staying away from her campaign.

After naming Kalyan Singh and Nitin Gadkari as two notables who had campaigned for her, Smriti, considered close to Modi, had smiled and replied to such a question on Friday: “The campaigning is not over yet.”

Sources close to Smriti had told The Telegraph yesterday that “Tulsi” (the name of Smriti’s character in a Hindi TV serial that made her a household name) had been praying for Modi’s presence in Amethi.

BJP sources said Modi had himself taken the decision to campaign in Amethi. Although Rahul has not been officially declared the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate, his elevation as party vice-president and leader of its campaign means the general election is being seen as a Modi-versus-Rahul contest.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee had avoided holding public meetings in Amethi and Rae Bareli where Sonia had contested from in the 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, Sonia had not addressed rallies in Lucknow, just about a three-hour drive from Amethi.

Amethi, like neighbouring Rae Bareli where Sonia Gandhi is in the fray, has been with the Congress since 1980.

In 1977, Sanjay Gandhi had lost Amethi to R.P. Singh while Raj Narain had humbled Indira Gandhi in Rae Bareli.

The BJP believes that 2014 will be like 1977, with a “Narendra Modi wave” sweeping the Congress out of power.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Rahul, Sonia or Priyanka would now travel eastwards and electioneer in Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, which votes on May 12.

Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate in Varanasi, had initially claimed that Priyanka would campaign for him but senior Congress leaders have so far not backed him up.

BJP leaders claim that Modi will come to Amethi with the leaders of the Opposition in the two Houses, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.

A joint campaign by Sushma and Modi would allow the BJP to contest charges that the two are not on the same page. Local BJP leaders claimed that even L.K. Advani, who was initially opposed to Modi’s nomination as the prime ministerial candidate, might visit Amethi to campaign.

The news of Modi’s plans comes at a time local Congress representatives, behind their public proclamations about Amethi being a cakewalk for Rahul, have privately been conceding an erosion of support among rural youths.

Lack of development, Rahul’s long absences and frequent power cuts are some of the key issues worrying the Congress in Amethi, although the Congress vice-president’s work with women’s self-help groups has been widely praised.

But each time Rahul has challenged Modi’s “Gujarat model” of development, Smriti has pointed to Amethi’s poor socio-economic indicators and asked why the area continues to be backward despite having been a “VVIP constituency” for decades.

Aam Aadmi Party candidate Kumar Vishwas’s presence too has injected a further element of uncertainty. Vishwas has been camping in the constituency since January.

Today, party chief Arvind Kejriwal came to Amethi to tell voters to look beyond the Congress and the BJP.

Rahul’s sister Priyanka has been holding fort for him but although her presence has energised the Congress rank and file, the replacement of “Team Rahul” by “Team Priyanka” locally appears to have caused some heartburn among a few field managers.

Smriti’s supporters too are somewhat resentful of party candidate Varun Gandhi’s strategy in neighbouring Sultanpur. Varun, a cousin of Rahul and Priyanka, is contesting on the “family plank”.

His focus on his surname and on the contributions of father Sanjay Gandhi and grandmother Indira Gandhi to Sultanpur-Amethi-Rae Bareli is blunting Smriti’s thrust on the lack of development.