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Grouse takes on loyalty in Amethi

- Priyanka plays up brother’s development initiatives, BJP and mascot sense level playing field
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra campaigns in Amethi on Monday. A Congress leader hinted she might campaign in Varanasi where Modi is contesting but wouldn’t confirm it. (PTI)

Tiloi (Amethi), May 5: Amethi too has its share of unhappy people.

Girish Mishra, a retailer of ready-made garments, bewails the poor roads in Tiloi, one of five tehsils that make up Amethi district, the constituency from where Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is seeking a third term as a member of Parliament.

Sunita Yadav worries that six-year-olds in her village, Paharpur, have to walk 3km through searing summers, deep winters or rain-battered muddy fields to reach the nearest school. And Radhey Shyam, a farmer in Munshiganj, is angry a local hospital — once virtually free — charged him Rs 7,000 to treat an illness.

Amethi isn’t insulated from poor civic infrastructure that torments residents of rural areas in different ways across India. And both the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party are hoping this, among other factors, will swing voters here towards their candidates — the BJP’s Smriti Irani, a former actress, and AAP’s Kumar Vishwas, a former Hindi poet — when Amethi goes to polls on May 7.

But many residents say their long-standing ties with the Gandhi family are stronger than — and on voting day, will override — any unhappiness with the way Rahul has managed his constituency over the past decade.

“Two former entertainers are not going to be able to break Amethi’s voting habit,” Mishra, the garments retailer in Tiloi, told The Telegraph. “Those who want fame come here, fight against Rahul and lose.”

Since 1980, the Gandhi family has won the Amethi seat eight times — Sanjay Gandhi had won the seat in 1980 just months before he died in a plane accident. Rajiv Gandhi was elected MP from here four times, Sonia Gandhi once, and Rahul twice in 2004 and 2009.

Sections of Amethi’s residents say all the development this town has ever seen has come through the Gandhi family. “He will get another chance,” said Wajid Khan, a 75-year-old wheat and rice farmer in Kasimpur village. “There is disappointment about the way some things are here, but when you get angry with a family member, you don’t turn away, you hope things will get better.”

But even some supporters of Rahul acknowledge what they sense is a wave in favour of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. “It looks like Rahul will need to sit in the Opposition for five years — then return to lead a government in 2019,” Mishra said.

In the main market of Jamo village, several shops display the BJP symbol and shopkeepers wear orange BJP caps. “There will be change this year,” said Sunil Kumar, a resident. “There is discontent with the Congress — and a great amount of enthusiasm for the BJP.”

Vishwas, the AAP candidate, has camped in Amethi for the past four months, drawing, he claims, over 27,000 supporters who’ve been riding on motorcycles into villages across the district, campaigning for him.

“We’re going to make it — 200 per cent, not 100 per cent,” Vishwas said earlier this week from his Amethi camp site, a crowded and smelly basement of a building near Amethi railway station. “We’re asking local people: what has he (Rahul) done for you?”

Members of the AAP cadre are visible across the district, but many are obvious outsiders — such as Subhash Mehla, a second-year engineering student from Haryana — who’re seen with derision by the BJP cadre.

“Most of these AAP supporters are not from Amethi,” said Dharmendra Shukla, a local BJP leader. “The Modi wave is sweeping through this constituency too — this time, Amethi will deliver the lotus (the BJP symbol).”

In her campaign for her brother, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has over the past week travelled across the district, addressing village congregations, meeting women’s groups and, at times, walking through crowded marketplaces.

In short incisive speeches, Priyanka has recalled her father’s and brother’s development initiatives in Amethi — from a pilots’ training school and a Hindustan Aeronautics Limited factory for aircraft components established by her father in the 1980s to an information technology education institute, a hospital, 30 milk chilling plants, and a food processing park that her brother has facilitated over the past decade.

“Rahul has a long-term vision, such initiatives will help future generations of Amethi,” Priyanka told people in Shamou, Shankarganj, and Raja Fatehpur, among more than 25 villages her motorcade touched on May 1.

She also urged her audience to recognise who is contesting the elections in Amethi with true heartfelt intentions. “A vote is a big responsibility, think well before voting,” she said. “This vote isn’t for Rahul alone, it is for the future of the country.”

In Paharpur village, she spoke for a few minutes with Sunita Yadav. “We told how far small children in our village have to walk to go to school,” Yadav said after she had met Priyanka. “Our biggest need right now is a primary school,” Yadav said.

Priyanka, at times, has also sought to explain to her audience why Amethi has bad roads and why the district’s electricity supply is poor. The Centre builds roads, but the state is expected to repair them, she said. Sonia and Rahul, she said, had spoken with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to provide 24-hour electricity supply to Amethi, but opponents to the plan filed a court case to block it.

But sections of residents say the institutions established by the Congress leaders — whether the flying school or a footwear design and development institute or the information technology institute — are primarily staffed by outsiders.

“There hasn’t been enough emphasis on higher education in this district, students who pass Class 12 have few local opportunities,” Mishra said. “And not all parents here can afford to send their children to Kanpur or Lucknow for university studies.”

At a cattle bazaar, sections of local farmers and livestock owners chatting about the elections say it will be a close fight in Amethi. Rahul had won with a margin of about 370,000 votes in 2009 and 290,000 votes in 2004. “I would not predict who will win this time,” said Kallu Yadav, a resident of Bankatwa village. “It’ll depend on how people vote, and nobody knows that yet.”