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Varun peddles future of hope
- ‘Vote for development, not caste’

Varun Gandhi campaigns in Sultanpur. Picture by Prem Singh

Sultanpur, May 7: Feroze Varun Gandhi has over the past six weeks travelled to villages across Sultanpur, urging people to trust him to work better for them than his contestants would.

“Don’t look at me as a politician, see me as your brother or your son,” Varun told people in Nir Sahiya, Bhadra Parshurampur, Teergaon, Eklakhee, and Peero Sarayian, among the 19 villages he covered on Saturday through stomach-churning rides along fissured, potholed roads and dirt-tracks.

“Give me your blessings, I’ll return your love two-fold,” said Varun, who has travelled to over 600 of about 1,350 villages in Sultanpur that went to the polls today.

This eastern Uttar Pradesh constituency, he says, has remained largely neglected since his father, Sanjay Gandhi, helped establish sugar factories here just before he died in a plane crash 34 years ago.

The BJP general secretary and MP from Pilibhit in western Uttar Pradesh is engaged in what many Sultanpur residents say is a four-cornered contest against the Congress candidate Amita Singh — the wife of sitting Congress MP Sanjay Singh — the Samajwadi Party’s Shakeel Ahmed and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Pawan Pandey.

Some residents hesitate to predict even a likely — if not a clear — winner. “Who knows what lies in people’s minds,” Mohammad Safiq Khan, a farmer, told The Telegraph during a chat with his friends at a tea stall in Bankepura village.

But sections of Bankepura’s population appear disappointed with the Congress. “In the five years since he was MP, he hasn’t rolled down his car windows and waved to us once,” claimed Ajmal Khan, another farmer, speaking about Sanjay Singh.

Singh was not immediately available to respond to the claim.

Sultanpur, located on the banks of the Gomti river 160km southeast of Lucknow, remains largely an agricultural district cultivating wheat, rice and sugarcane. And some residents claim there hasn’t been any big industries since Sanjay Gandhi helped establish sugar mills in 1980.

“There may have been development elsewhere, but not here,” said Jaiprakash Yadava, a farmer who grows wheat, rice and arhar (a legume) on a patch of land smaller than a football field in Charoli village where — as in Bankepura — poor electricity supply is a big problem.

“The voltage is so low, we can’t even recognise the faces of people at home,” said Safiq Khan.

In village after village, Varun has promised people he would assist them with everyday problems. He has said he would help establish better health care facilities for the elderly, create jobs for the young and even assist in arranging marriages of young women. In one village populated largely by rope-makers, he promises to find ways to expand their market.

And in virtually all his village meetings he tells people not to vote on the basis of religion or caste but with hope about the future. “Caste and religion are slowly becoming irrelevant in the election process, one should strive to make them totally irrelevant,” Varun told this newspaper during a small stretch of his visits to villages across Sultanpur on Saturday.

“We need to show success in the electoral process without these factors,” he said.

Varun had won Pilibhit — a constituency that had elected his mother Maneka Gandhi MP five times since 1989 — with a big margin of about 280,000 votes. His move to eastern Uttar Pradesh for the 2014 polls brings him into a territory that has not been a traditional BJP constituency.

“I don’t criticise those fighting against me. I tell people I can serve you better,” he said during his ride across Sultanpur on Saturday, passing farms, wild deer, ponds covered by water hyacinth and the Gomti floodplains in between short halts in villages. “I tell them: trust me, give me a chance, I’ll be a better vehicle for your growth.”

Varun said he feels connected to Sultanpur. “At times, it is an emotional experience for me — I sometimes meet people who say they had garlanded my father,” said Varun, who was only a few months old when his father died in June 1980 while flying an aircraft over Delhi.

But some Sultanpur residents who recall the contributions of Mohammad Tahir Khan, the Samajwadi Party’s MP elected in 2004, may tug the electoral contest toward the new Samajwadi candidate Ahmed and pose some challenge to Varun.

“During Tahir’s time, we got two trains that connect Sultanpur to Ahmedabad and Mumbai, and we got electricity lines too. But there is not enough power,” said Mobeen Khan, another farmer in Bankepura.Varun did not attend the rally that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addressed in Amethi on May 5. Varun’s cousin, Rahul Gandhi, is the Congress candidate from Amethi, which also went to the polls on Wednesday.

“I have decided not to campaign against family,” Varun said, adding that there is “absolutely no bitterness” between himself and his cousins Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. “I believe it is possible to be in different parties and work for India with competing visions — visions that can be competing yet civil.”