February 20, 2002
2355 IST



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The Election Special/Prem Panicker

A contest of two 'bahus'

Election 2002

When Sherlock Holmes went looking for clues, he found one -- the dog that did not bark at midnight.

If he were to tour Amethi assembly constituency -- de facto fiefdom of the Nehru family, a constituency that has returned Sanjay Gandhi once, Rajiv Gandhi four times, and boasts Sonia Gandhi as its MP now -- he would find another: The cutouts that do not exist.

You would expect, going in, to see the town plastered with Sonia Gandhi to the exclusion of all else. And your expectations would be belied. The dominant icon in Amethi is not 'Amethi ki bahu' Sonia Gandhi, but the other bahu, 'Rani' Ameeta Singh -- of whom more anon.

The sense of unreality is sharpest when you visit the Congress party office near the railway station. 'Inaugurated by Rajiv Gandhi', runs the legend -- but where you expect a bustling beehive of a place, you are confronted by two cars, five party workers, and silence.

On inquiry, the party workers turn out to be from Jharkand. Not locals. Whyfor? "Arre saab, idhar kisi ko nahin mila kaam karne ke liye," says O P Singh, one of their number. But are you from here? Do you know the place? "No, I came here last week, I drive these people around where they want to go, that is all."

'These people' are Chandresh Kumari, All-India Mahila Congress president, Uma Mishra, chief of the Uttar Pradesh wing of the Mahila Congress, and five companions. Who are ostensibly here to tour the region and get first-hand feedback for the boss.

So how is it going, we ask. "Very well," says Kumari. "This as you know is a Congress stronghold, it is a family seat of the Gandhis, where is the question of the Congress doing badly here?"

Is that the feedback you are getting? "Yes, certainly." And if I were to tell you that out there in the marketplace people are disillusioned, that they say Sonia Gandhi has neglected this place, that she hasn't visited Amethi since getting elected, then? "See, Sonia Gandhi is a national leader, she has the whole country to look after, it is not necessary that she come here all the time. Priyanka looks after the constituency."

Priyanka hasn't been here either, according to the locals, for five, six months now. "Well, you must have read in the papers that she is pregnant!"

The responses are canned, automatic -- and seemingly out of touch with reality.

REALITY is an Amethi gone to seed. As you walk down the main thoroughfares of the city, you are confronted with piles of rubble, a rabbit-warren of shops, roads so narrow that when two lorries came face-to-face on Kakwa Road, leading to the main square fronted by the Jama Masjid, all traffic came to a halt and it took 10 minutes to unscramble.

Reality is a marketplace that seethes with anger, that struggles to make up its collective mind what to do, whom to support.

"The thing is," says Sanjaylal Gupta, "we are all in our heart of hearts Congress supporters. During the days of Sanjay and Rajiv, this place was well looked after, the roads were good, business was thriving, our wants were looked after. But now, we are forgotten, there is no one to go to with our woes, the place has gone to the dogs. Just look at it."

Gupta waves his hand at a huge mound of mud and muck outside his shop -- the road there has been dug up for some reason, but no one has bothered to redo it after. "When you look at this, at the shape of our town today, would you believe that our representative is the chief of the Congress, the leader of the opposition?"

So who is doing well here? "Ameeta Singh," comes the pat response. "She won the zilla parishad (district council) election last year, and since then, she has been doing some good work here. It is a straight fight this time, between the BJP and the Congress, and the BJP just might end up surprising the Congress in its own stronghold."

Further down the main road, cloth merchant Devisahay Jaiswal tells a different tale. "The Congress is in the blood of the people here. They will crib and moan, but when the time comes, they will vote for them."

Despite the fact that a once-prosperous community is now going to seed? "Yes, that may be true, that things are not as good as they were in Rajivji's time. But people remember all that Rajiv and Sanjay have done for us, for this place, and that gratitude is not easily forgotten for an interloper, someone who calls herself a maharani."

Why "calls herself"? Sanjay Singh is the raja, his wife is the rani, surely? "Garima Singh [Sanjay Singh's first wife] is our rani -- not Ameeta," Jaiswal insists.

As you walk around, talking to people, you realise this is a town divided. Between those who can see no fault with the Congress and those who think they have been let down by that party and its president; between those who refuse to accept Ameeta Singh's status as Sanjay Singh's wife, and those who have accepted the fait accompli of Singh's divorce from Garima and his remarriage.

And 11 candidates hope to take advantage of this division, this unsettled state. Of these, it is Ameeta Singh's face, and the BJP's party flags, that are everywhere. The Samajwadi Party, as represented by Gayatri Prashad, is very clearly in the number three slot. Prashad, incidentally, had also contested the seat in 1996 and managed to poll 23.2 per cent of the votes, coming in third behind the Congress and BJP candidates.

Then there is Tej Pratap Dwivedi of the Bahujan Samaj Party, with his election slogan: Brahman nahin, chamaar hoon/Haathi pe savaar hoon. You find, as you trek through the town, that there are maybe a dozen small posters of the man. The party office is a cubbyhole with just two people in it, and townsfolk say the BSP "campaign" consists of one forlorn vehicle doing the occasional round.

Ask why the BSP, which has been running a high-voltage campaign in Uttar Pradesh, is so low-key here and you are told that Dwivedi has been bought over, that he is a candidate in name only and does not even bother to campaign. "The Congress candidate is also a Brahmin, so they bought Dwivedi over, to avoid splitting Brahmin votes," Radhakrishna Tiwari, owner of the city's biggest electrical shop, says.

That is social engineering at work for you. Brahmins constitute the majority of the 2,62,000-plus voters in the region, and are estimated at around the 40 per cent mark. Muslims comprise around 20 per cent, and the perception here is that they have returned to the Congress fold.

The caste break-up would appear, on the surface, to put the Congress in pole position. But against that, the party appears to have goofed twice over. The first mistake is in choice of candidate. Throughout Amethi township, people only have good things to say about outgoing Congress MLA Ram Harsh Singh. "Even though he was a Thakur, he gained the support of the Brahmins and even a proportion of the Muslims," Tiwari explains. "And he was always accessible to us -- I don't know why the Congress has not given him the ticket this time."

Current Congress candidate Ashish Kaushal, owner of a paper mill, is a non-entity in the region. Even hard-core Congress supporters, while chanting the Sonia mantra, confess that they didn't know much about the man till he was given the ticket. "But it doesn't matter," a Congress sympathiser adds. "We are voting for Soniaji!"

SONIA Gandhi holds the key to this constituency. On the one hand, there is the enormous goodwill she enjoys by virtue of her status as Rajiv's widow -- a factor difficult to quantify. And on the other, there is the equally enormous heartburn stemming from the fact that she has been something of an absentee landlord.

Shagufta Anjum, who manages one of her family's two cloth shops while her husband manages the other, has voted Congress since 1984. And for the first time, she says, she is beginning to rethink. "See, if you are my family member and living with me, I will be worried even if you catch a small cold. But if you have gone off to America and I don't hear from you, I won't be as worried if someone tells me you are ill."

That bit of homespun analogy is in fact quite representative of the local mindset. "If Sonia were contesting herself, then no question -- we will return her to Parliament with an even greater majority than last time, we owe the Gandhi family so much," Anjum says. "But when she is merely asking for votes for someone else, well, it is different -- we have to think. And the worst part is, she is not even coming here to ask for votes!"

If the Congress loses Amethi, this -- the Sonia Gandhi no-show -- will be the single biggest reason. Because everywhere you go, that is the talking point -- where is Sonia?

At 4pm on Sunday, February 17, there is no indication that the Congress president is due to visit the constituency. When we ask Chandresh Kumari, the Mahila Congress chief tells us, "Oh, she IS coming, we JUST received word, she will be here around 12 tomorrow."

No one else, not even the five Congress workers in the party office, know this. How come? "Oh," says Kumari, "security, you know. Her programmes cannot be revealed till the last minute."

As a reason, that is as specious as they come. Because in the marketplace, EVERYONE knows Sonia Gandhi is due to address a meeting on Monday (Feb 18) in the adjoining Gauriganj constituency, barely 40km from Amethi. Later on Sunday night, around 9pm, the Congress office in Lucknow confirms this programme, and maintains that they have no word of Sonia's visit to Amethi.

"See, people here are angry," says Anjum, "that she can come to a place so close, but can't be bothered to come here."

THE REAL fun, though, is in the villages. We land up at one, on the border between Amethi and Gauriganj. Stop at a roadside teashop. Introduce ourselves as journalists. And within minutes, a crowd gathers and the fur begins to fly.

Initially, it is question and answer -- but within minutes, order is abdicated, chaos reigns as arguments and counter arguments fly back and forth while we watch and listen, bemused. Here is a sampling:

'Why do you keep saying Sonia hasn't come? She has an entire nation to look after, don't you know that? You want her to sit in your house all the time?'

'As if Rajiv Gandhi didn't have to look after the country! Sonia is not even prime minister, and she doesn't have time for us?'

'Whatever we have -- these roads, the Sanjay Gandhi hospital, the railway station, the bus depot -- we owe to the Gandhi family, don't forget that! How can you suddenly run after a girl who was nobody till yesterday?'

'All right, Soniaji can't come here, herself. But at least can our representative meet her? Our previous MLA, has he managed to see her even once? In Rajivji's time, he used to keep aside time to meet people from Amethi -- but now, even our MLA can't get to see her, Sonia's chamchas drive him away. What is the use of electing someone from the Congress if he can't even get to see her?'

That last argument comes from Ram Sevak Singh, the village pradhan. And it is the ONE argument that has the assemblage putting aside its disagreement and nodding approval -- Amethi, Singh's predecessor O P Singh tells us, had special privileges. Deputations from here could go and meet Rajiv Gandhi at any time and he would find time for them. Not anymore. "Our MLA, Ram Harsh Singhji, hasn't managed to meet Soniaji even once during these five years," O P Singh mourns.

They all agree on one thing -- that if Sonia were contesting, it would be a walkover. And, adds Ram Sevak Singh, "if Priyankaji is standing from here, then she will get every single vote, it will be a record 100 per cent polling," he avers.

Priyanka, in this part of the world, is iconic, with people talking admiringly of how much like her grandmother she is. "She has Indiraji's style and Rajivji's ability to connect with people," says Singh. "Initially, she used to come here, at least once every two months, but now even she is missing, god knows why they have all forgotten us!"

ABSENCE obviously has not made Amethi's heart grow fonder. And stepping neatly into the vacuum is BJP candidate Ameeta Singh. Or 'Rani' Ameeta Singh, as she prefers to be known.

Ameeta Singh -- the former national badminton champion and widow of slain badminton star Syed Modi -- cuts quite a swathe in this part of the world. Amusingly, in the spectacular palace that houses Ameeta and her husband, Amethi's Raja Sanjay Singh, the latter has all but been reduced to a non-entity.

Thus, the little office set into the outer wall of the palace tells its own tale. Formerly, it used to sport a board that read 'Maharaja's Office'. Now, that board has been replaced by one that reads 'Rani Ameeta Singh's Office'. Somewhat removed from that is a smaller one styled 'Dr Sanjay Singh's Office'. Not 'Maharaja Sanjay Singh', mind you -- merely 'Doctor'. Here, and elsewhere, the signs are unmistakable -- she is the rani, while the former Congress MLA and Rajiv Gandhi confidant, who fell out with the Congress in 1997 and, a year later, trounced Congress nominee Captain Satish Sharma for the Lok Sabha seat, is -- well -- a prop.

The town still buzzes with stories. Of how she "wormed her way into" Sanjay Singh's affections. Of how she cut out their rani, Garima Singh. Of how she caused the gates of the palace to be shut in Garima's face when the latter once came to visit her children, who now live with Sanjay and Ameeta Singh.

But, add the locals, the resentment is slowly melting. "Garimaji has gone away from here, she doesn't visit us any more," says Ram Naresh Yadav, taking a break from transporting a tractor-load of sugarcane to share a cup of tea at a roadside stall. "And Ameetaji has of late been doing good work here, trying to get our problems solved. That is what we need -- someone who is there for us, who is there to listen to our problems. And when you look around, she is the only one left -- the Congress doesn't bother."

The area's biggest problem is arrested development. During the Rajiv Gandhi era, besides the construction of roads and bus depots and railway platforms and a well-equipped hospital, plans were made, foundation stones laid, for a variety of industries in both the public and private sector.

Following his death, these projects -- including prestigious ones such as Hindustan Aeronautics and BHEL -- have been stillborn. "Only the foundation stones are left," mourns Yadav. "If those factories had come up, they would have meant work for us, for our children. But now, we have nothing."

But if Ameeta Singh wins, how will things improve? "Well, they are saying that if the BJP wins the elections and forms the government, then Rani Sahiba will certainly become a minister."

In this feeling of desolation bordering on despair lies the Achilles heel of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Amethi wants it so bad, you can feel the collective wanting as a palpable presence. Importance -- which was theirs once -- is what they miss today. And the prevailing mood is that they will side with anyone who will give them that shot at importance again.

Postscript: The story has a sequel. On the morning of February 18, the UPCC headquarters in Lucknow knew only that Sonia Gandhi would address a public meeting in Jayas, adjoining Amethi.

There was no information of any plan to visit Amethi itself.

At noon, status quo remained -- the Jayas meeting was scheduled for 1pm.

The same evening came word to the contrary -- on touching down at the helipad, Sonia Gandhi on the spur of the moment decided to go, in motorcade, to some of the outlying villages around Amethi.

"She was greeted by tumultuous crowds," the UPCC spokesman in Lucknow assured us.

Having touched base -- and done her pranaams -- at a few of the villages, the Congress president drove back to Jayas, to address the meeting. And left immediately thereafter, without ever touching Amethi proper.

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