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Day of reckoning for Gandhi cousins

- At play: local factors versus national picture
Rahul Gandhi

By day’s end on Wednesday, the fate of Gandhi cousins Rahul and Varun will have been sealed, locked in the secure memory of electronic voting machines.

Amethi and Sultanpur are among the seats that go to the polls on May 7, when Uttar Pradesh votes for the fifth time in these elections.

Of the 15 seats that will vote, 14 are in the Avadh region and one, Bhadohi, is in eastern Uttar Pradesh near Varanasi. As many as 14 more seats in Avadh had voted on April 30. With 28 seats, Avadh — which stretches from Kanpur to Sant Kabir Nagar — in the heart of the state is the most politically crucial belt because the big players, namely the BJP, the Samajwadi Party, the BSP and the Congress, have invested big stakes here.

If Rahul is locked in an unexpectedly close fight with the BJP’s Smriti Irani, Varun has sorted out the initial glitches that arose in his electioneering, largely because of his manifest reluctance to share political space with Narendra Modi.

Varun wouldn’t mention Modi’s name in his speeches, nor use his picture in posters. Pressure from the cadre and an extended sphere of new voters and neo converts to the BJP later prodded him to include Modi in his discourse.

Varun’s prospects have been facilitated by a split in the Muslim vote between the Samajwadi and the Congress (the BSP candidate, Pawan Pandey, was implicated in the Babri demolition case), a consolidation of upper-caste votes and a breach in the Samajwadi’s Yadav vote bank.

If Varun seemed comfortably placed in Sultanpur, excepting for unforeseen exigencies, Rahul is up against an energised BJP, sullen Congress workers upset with his alleged inaccessibility and an overall sentiment that for 10 years as Amethi MP, he did little or nothing.

Varun Gandhi

The horizon of Amethi residents doesn’t extend beyond Uttar Pradesh. Which is why while large parts of Uttar Pradesh’s rural and semi-urban voters seemed sold on the “Gujarat model” peddled by Modi — thanks to Gujarat-based relatives who shared the narrative of 24X7 electricity and silken roads — for the residents of Amethi, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s home turf Saifai was the ultimate dream.

Amethi residents compare Saifai — bestowed with a helipad, big hospitals, colleges and universities and fancy hotels — with “Dubai”. Their sense was: had the Samajwadi fielded a candidate against Rahul and had Mulayam made a one-line promise to convert their decrepit little town into Saifai, he would have pocketed their votes.

Barring staunch Gandhi loyalists, who continue to believe that Rahul alone would sustain for Amethi the cachet of a “VVIP constituency”, others sounded impatient with the Gandhis’ political model of “expecting our votes as their right” and giving nothing in return.

The sense of weariness with the Gandhis was not confined to Amethi. Shyam Singh, a civil engineer by training and an NGO worker by profession, says: “We swore by Sonia Gandhi after she sacrificed the Prime Minister’s chair (in 2004). Uttar Pradesh rewarded the Congress for Soniaji’s sacrifice by giving 22 seats (in 2009). Rahul’s freshness also appealed to the youths and there was a craze for Priyanka (Gandhi Vadra). But 10 years of scams, ending in one that embroiled Priyanka’s husband, shattered our belief in the family.”

However, the “Modi wave” may hit spots of bother from the state’s usual suspect: caste. In quite a few places, including Allahabad, Phulpur, Pratapgarh, Faizabad and Gonda, it will take more than Modi for the BJP to overcome the challenges posed by the far stronger caste equations the Congress, Samajwadi and the BSP have worked out. The BJP and its ally Apna Dal’s candidates in these places haven’t caught the fancy of local residents as much as their opponents have done.

Crucially, this phase is expected to clinch what matters more to the voters: local factors or the national picture.