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Why Modi stepped on Rahul turf

Rahul Gandhi

Gauriganj (Amethi), May 5: The decision to have Narendra Modi campaign in Amethi was taken four days ago, once he and the BJP brass were confident that they had levelled the once uneven playing field.

Modi’s political confidant Amit Shah, the general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, came for a quick reconnaissance last week, met the Amethi office-bearers as well as grassroots workers and returned with the sense that party candidate Smriti Irani had managed to revitalise a moribund organisation.

The BJP had been a bit of a shrinking violet in Rae Bareli and Amethi, wondering if it was prudent to challenge the Gandhis in their fiefs. It had won Amethi twice, when there was a Janata Party wave, and in 1998, when a former Congress leader, Sanjay Singh, fought on a BJP ticket. He later returned to the Congress.

The BJP’s gut sense this time was that the Gandhis weren’t “invincible”, not after they had forfeited eight of the 10 Assembly seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi in 2012 to the Samajwadi Party.

In 2014, the Samajwadi took a call to not field candidates against Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. “But the vacuum for a political alternative remained,” said Shivkumar Pandey, a BJP official in Sambhai town.

In September 2013, when this correspondent visited the Gandhi boroughs to spot signs of recovery after the 2012 defeat, most Congress workers said while they continued to “respect” Sonia and would work to ensure her victory, Rahul was a different cup of tea.

The most frequent complaint was he wouldn’t recognise the party workers by name and face and remain inaccessible except through aides like Kishori Lal Sharma, an old family retainer, and Chandrakant Dubey, a former activist of the party’s student wing NSUI whom Rahul brought from Madhya Pradesh. The chicks came home to roost months later.

Dr Jitendra Singh, who works at Jagdishpur’s BK Nursing Home, didn’t mince words when he analysed the Rahul “factor”. At a crowded marketplace in this premier town of Amethi, Congress flags and buntings vied for attention with those of the BJP and Singh’s hospital was among those that still hoisted one with the hand symbol.

“Good or bad, I am with the Congress because I was born into a Congress family. Rahul Gandhi is our compulsion because those like me were very fond of his father, Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul did no work in the last 10 years. He did me a favour when he got my son admission in a Pune medical college without having to pay a capitation fee. Today, my son is a doctor with a good practice, so I owe Rahul something. But let me be brutally frank. People like me are not Congress workers. We are beneficiaries. The majority of the workers have left Rahul.”

The claim wasn’t entirely airy. A third-generation Congress worker in Amethi said: “We want to teach Rahul and the party’s top management a lesson this time for their awful behaviour towards us.”

At marketplaces and in interiors of Amethi, BJP offices have sprung up over the past month or so. But a big chunk of the workers are those who recently deserted the Congress, hoping that a BJP win in Amethi and in Delhi would bring them the bounties the Gandhis promised but never delivered in full.

No wonder, at today’s meeting addressed by Modi, each time the BJP’s anthem claiming “Achchhe din aane wale hain” (good days are coming) was played, the youths who made up the bulk of the crowd broke into spontaneous gigs.

On May 16, when the verdict is out, Amethi may end up hogging the headlines instead of India if the mood two days before it voted was a barometer.