Postcard from a village
The Aam Aadmi Party's Kumar Vishwas is drawing crowds in Amethi. Sonia Sarkar reports that his plank is the lack of development in Rahul Gandhi's constituency
Vishwas in Amethi
Rahul Gandhi smiles at the world from huge billboards lining the dusty and pot-holed roads of Amethi. But there is a stranger in town who vows to wipe out the smile. And that's a little known poet called Kumar Vishwas.
Kumar is likely to be fielded from the Gandhi pocket borough by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the 2014 general election. And the 43-year-old outsider is doing all he can to strike a chord in the heart of the eastern Uttar Pradesh town. "I have come here to listen to you," he says, addressing some 300 people in the Salon area of Amethi.
While Gandhi has been busy addressing Congress members in Delhi, Kumar is canvassing hard in Amethi. He starts his day at seven in the morning, and his cavalcade of four cars — with Vishwas in a white Scorpio — weaves its way through the town, stopping every now and then to address meetings in a constituency that Gandhi has won twice, and which was earlier represented by his uncle, Sanjay, his father, Rajiv, and later, his mother, Sonia Gandhi.
Kumar's plank is that of lack of development. "People of Amethi are angry with Rahul Gandhi because there has been no development here," he says.
Indeed, the people do have a litany of complaints. Amethi — which comprises the five Assembly constituencies of Tiloi, Salon, Jagdishpur, Gauriganj and Amethi — has an average literacy rate of 39 per cent, far lower than the national average of 59.5 per cent.
Though there are six government colleges in Amethi, no new college has come up in the 10 years since Gandhi's first election from Amethi in 2004. A new extension campus of the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Allahabad, has been opened, but locals complain that it doesn't help them.
Winning turf : Sunita Kori (left) with Kumar Vishwas
"Admissions take place in Allahabad. And there is no reservation for us," Deepak Sharma, a 23-year-old unemployed science graduate, rues.
As Kumar meets people in village corners, they crowd around him to complain about unemployment. In recent years, factories of LML Vespa, Usha Rectifiers and Samrat Bicycles have shut. Only a few companies remain, notably Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Associated Cement Companies Limited and Indo Gulf Fertilisers.
It was only last year that the foundation of the 67km-long Unchahar-Salon-Amethi rail line was laid by Rahul Gandhi. Last year, he also announced the setting up of 140 food processing units in the Jagdishpur Industrial Area and a paper mill in Amethi. But the locals are not sure if they will get jobs.
"With no new projects, we don't even get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. So what will these government investments do for us," Mohammed Arif, a resident of Bhadar village, asks.
Kumar is making the most of the resentment. "Do you see any development in your village," he thunders. "Where are the roads? Where is electricity? Don't you think you should question your parliamentarian?"
You can see that the people are drawn to Kumar, who peppers his speeches with colloquial Hindi words and barbs, and bits of poetry. He makes fun of the dynastic rule of the Gandhi family by referring to Rahul as babua (a nickname for small boys) and Yuvraj (Prince). "You may not be able to meet your Yuvraj but I will be there for you. I will be your slave," he says.
Though new to politics, Kumar, clearly, is a shrewd politician. He praises Rajiv Gandhi — for the people of Amethi still hold him in reverence — while pulling down his son. And he knows that in Amethi, Muslims account for 13 per cent of the total 12 lakh votes. His mission now is to assuage the fears of Muslims, perturbed by his anti-Islamic remarks of 2005.
Of course, a lot of his rhetoric is borrowed. He uses the message of an old poster for secularism by pointing out that Ramzan, the Muslim period of fasting, starts with the name of Ram, while the Hindu festival Diwali, ends with the name Ali.
The Dalits, comprising 28 per cent of the total vote, are another constituency he focuses on. He visited Sunita Kori, a Dalit woman with whom Gandhi had shared a meal in 2008, and in whose house he had spent a night. "Rahul Gandhi ate at a Dalit's house and advertised it widely. But did he invite any Dalit to his house," Kumar asks.
It looks like a clever political strategy to call on the woman Gandhi had charmed. But Kumar insists that it was just a coincidence. "When I was passing by the village, someone pointed out Kori's house. So I stopped to see how she was doing," he says. "I was very surprised to find that she was living in a pathetic condition. She neither has a roof over her head nor does she or her husband have a job. I have promised her that we will pool in money to put an asbestos roof."
Kori seems impressed by Kumar, and disillusioned by Gandhi. A mother of three, she managed to meet Rahul only after repeated attempts last year. "But I was shocked that he didn't even recognise me. Nor did he offer any help," she says.
Qattar Singh of Salon is not charmed by Gandhi either. He points out that one of the major problems that the people of Amethi face is that Gandhi is inaccessible. "He comes and goes. But we never get to tell him our problems. His security officers never let us go near him," Singh complains.
But Amethi has its share of Gandhi family loyalists too. "If anyone can do any good to Amethi, it is the Gandhis," says Radhey Shyam Tewary, a history professor in Amethi's RRPG College.
Local Congressmen are doing their bit to counter Kumar. He was recently attacked by his political opponents for praising Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in a symposium a few years ago. "In poetry sessions, we often say good things about the chief guests. I was not political when I said all this," Kumar replies.
The man from Pilkhuwa in Hapur, however, misses being a poet. "I used to do political satire in my shows. I would make fun of Atal Behari Vajpayee and even Manmohan Singh but I have stopped because it might lead to controversy," he says, popping peanuts into his mouth, while his car takes him to the interiors of Amethi.
There is nothing to show — even physically — that the constituency has powerful patrons. The town is crowded like most small towns, and the villages — with thatched huts — look like time has passed them by.
He hops out of his car near one such village. A small child calls out his name, and Kumar stops. "Tell your parents not to vote for Rahul Gandhi because he has not done his homework," he says, as the crowd bursts into loud cheers.
It doesn't look like he has stirred up a wave in Amethi, but he may have converted some voters. "We voted for Rahul because we didn't know anyone. Now we have an option," schoolteacher Satyam Piyush, 23, says.
But senior Congress leaders such as Rammurti Shukla hold that the charm of Kumar will vanish in no time. "People gather to listen to his poetry. At the end of the day, they will vote for the Congress," Shukla says. "Kumar should understand that it is a political battle and not a mushaira (poetry session)."
The going has not been all that easy for Kumar. Eggs were hurled at him at some meeting. Somewhere people threw ink. But Kumar is not giving up the battle. "If I want something in life, I make all the effort to get it. It will happen this time too," he says.