| Priyanka Gandhi at a polling station during the Rae Bareli byelection. (AFP)
Rae Bareli, May 8: When Priyanka Gandhi stopped at the Shankar temple near the Congress headquarters in Tilak Bhavan at 6.30 am, she must have prayed for a high turnout in Rae Bareli.
Everything the Congress hoped for hinged on how many would vote. The calculation was, a figure higher than last time’s 48 per cent would ensure that Sonia Gandhi would better her previous victory margin of 2.5 lakh.
The final figure would have disappointed the party: 43 per cent.
To the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family, a big turnout and wider margin would have been a “vindication” of Sonia’s Sacrifice II ' her resignation as MP and National Advisory Council chairperson.
For her main opponent, the Samajwadi Party, the turnout was equally crucial. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh had blamed Sonia for Jaya Bachchan’s disqualification from the Rajya Sabha over the office-of-profit controversy.
While nobody in the Samajwadi expected that Sonia could be defeated, the buzz was a low turnout and a reduced margin would prove its point that her so-called sacrifice was a “nautanki” (drama).
The odds in the tussle were stacked against the Congress president. The heat was scorching; Mulayam had deployed 60 ministers, 24 MPs and 50 MLAs in the campaign; and the marriage season was in full swing ' each village reported at least two weddings today.
To make matters worse, the Election Commission had banned all vehicles from the roads, including two-wheelers, rickshaws and tongas. Rae Bareli looked like a town under curfew.
“In this heat, most voters will have to walk at least 5 km to reach their booths. It’s a punishment,” said state Congress spokesman Akhilesh Pratap Singh.
By half past seven, Priyanka looked circumspect. “I am concerned by the number of EVMs that aren’t working,” she told reporters after stopping at the primary school in Bachrawan on the Lucknow-Rae Bareli road.
Asked about the turnout, she said: “It would be unfair to speculate. It’s so hot.”
By the time she entered a booth in Sheshnar Samodh 3 km away, other complaints were pouring in. The village head told Priyanka: “The EC is being too strict. In the past, those who didn’t have voter cards or other proof were allowed to vote if the pradhan or lekpal (revenue official) vouched for them. Their testimony is not being accepted now.”
Sonia’s election agent, dressed in a cool green-and-lemon yellow striped south Indian cotton sari with a pink border, rushed to the polling officials. She informed the mukhiya that the lekpal’s statement would be accepted. “But there’s no lekpal around,” despaired a voter.
In Rajamau, complaints against the Mulayam administration flew thick and fast. “Our ration cards were collected on some pretext or other 15 days ago. What other proof can a poor man have ' a passport, a kisan credit card'” asked a voter.
In Rae Bareli, poll panel officials would not confirm or deny this charge.
By half past one, everyone at the Congress’s control room was panicky. The information was that there had only been 27 per cent polling till then, one point less than in 2004.
“Madam is angry and Priyanka is worried,” said state Congress vice-president Satyadev Tripathi.
A young associate of Rahul Gandhi was monitoring the information from the various booths on two cellphones and text-messaging him. Tripathi asked the workers to fan out across the villages but was ignored.
By 3 pm, a blame game of sorts had begun. “Mulayam has achieved what he set out to,” said Deepak Vajpayee, a Congress worker from Devanandpur in Sadar Assembly constituency.
But a senior functionary, who didn’t want to be quoted, was more realistic: “Rahul sweated it out, but you know what the Congress is like. Our people like their leaders to slog and reap the profits without doing anything.”
Despite the tight security, gunmen from a car fired at a Samajwadi worker, Jaishankar Vajpayee. A bullet grazed past his right arm, causing a minor wound. Vajpayee suggested that former Samajwadi leader Akhilesh Singh, who had switched over to the Congress recently, was behind the attack.
Samajwadi MP Beni Verma alleged Priyanka’s securitymen were rigging the polls. “She was accompanied by 13 vehicles,” he said. State election officials dismissed the allegations.