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October 2, 1999


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The Rediff Election Specials/ Archana Masih

Sonia may win or lose, but Priyanka has already won Amethi

Additional reportage: A Ganesh Nadar, Syed Firdaus Ashraf

Amethi is plastered with Sonia Gandhi. Long, colourful banners in Jagdishpur and Munshiganj run parallel to the road. Her pictures hang out of homes. Shops. Trees. A giant haath chhap balloon flies high above the Ram Lila ground. A nautanki troupe walks past with a harmonium-playing man singing slogans. Zany slogans dot the length of the constituency...

Nayi Amethi naya hujum, machi Priyanka ji ki dhoom...

Rajiv Gandhi ki pehchan, Sonia ka haath nishan

Sonia Gandhi came to Amethi only on the penultimate day of the campaign, the first time after filing her nomination. With her son Rahul, she made three quick stops in Amethi, Jagdishpur -- where the police found it wise to shut the Lucknow-Varanasi highway for an hour -- and Salon. Leaving her electoral battle single-handedly to her daughter Priyanka. And how.

From taking paratha bites in village huts, to stopping for jalebis at Acchelal jalebiwala and having laddoos and water at Asharfi Lal's mithai shop -- Priyanka has given a new flavour to canvassing in her father's former constituency. "These are just gimmicks to lure the people. But one thing even I accept -- she had Acchelal's jalebis which look so dirty that even we don't eat them," says Asharfi Lal's son Sunil Kumar.

Sitting beside the bench was her sister-in-law Michelle. Kumar, a RSS member, says Priyanka stopped by on seeing the BJP flags in his shop. "The bill came to Rs 32, she gave me 50," adds Kumar, explaining how his father was kept out of the shop for a while before Special Protection Group allowed him in.

Under framed pictures of BJP candidate Sanjay Singh, Priyanka sat in the shop for half an hour and asked them to vote for the Congress 'for a change'. Kumar and his father firmly believe that "Rajasaheb has done good for Amethi" and vouch for the BJP candidate.

Sanjay Singh of the erstwhile royal family of Amethi defeated Captain Satish Sharma to become MP for the first time in 1998. A long time MLA, Singh is perceived to be lagging far behind the Gandhi popularity. Few are his posters, fewer the hangers-on outside his majestic palace, and as luck would have it -- Atal Bihari Vajpayee could not make it to a meeting in the constituency which coincided with Sonia's rally because of bad weather.

"We do not believe in this superficial display of strength. I would rather spend the money on the community than on cut-outs and posters," says Singh's wife Ameeta. The petite former badminton champion has been an active worker in the constituency and is confident that people will choose her husband over an opponent thriving on transferred glory. "Sanjay Singh and me have built such a solid foundation in Amethi that no Gandhi can stand and leave their footprints on it."

In a neat room -- with 'Maharaj's office' written on a board outside -- Ameeta Singh sits under two beautifully composed pictures with Sanjay Singh, and goes on to explain how they have conducted mass marriages of 51 couples and have visited Amethi for over two weeks each month. "The days of absentee landlordism are over. In the last nine years, Sonia Gandhi was more interested in becoming a power centre in Delhi -- and had no time for Amethi," she says.

For the palace staff and many of Amethi -- Sanjay Singh remains Rajasaheb. Eighty-year-old Narmada Prasad is the palace watchman at the gigantic brass and wood gate. His forefathers had guarded the same gate -- a tradition Prasad says his son will continue after him. There are a few other palace workers donning 'Swadeshi apnao, videshi bhagao' T-shirts, among the many in Amethi who had received the saffron and white freebie distributed by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch bus doing the rounds of the town a day earlier.

"Sonia Gandhi is the easiest candidate for me. I know thousands of people here -- we are farmers and I know many people working in the fields. I belong here and have known familes for years," says Sanjay Singh after some Vishwa Hindu Parishad priests conduct a brief puja for him.

A close associate of Sanjay Gandhi -- a black and white poster size picture of Indira's younger son still hangs in his office -- Singh was first elected to the assembly in 1980. A twice serving MLA, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1990, but parted ways with Rajiv in August 1987. Till then Singh is understood to have assisted Rajiv in looking after the constituency.

Both Singh and his wife claim they are not unnerved by the tumultuous response to Priyanka. Her temporary home at the Sanjay Gandhi hospital guest house has been thronged by visitors and vehicles since she and her husband Robert Vadra arrived. Some have travelled great distances for a word with her, others want to meet the Gandhi damaad (son-in-law) and have waited for a hearing for days...

Brajendra Kumar Sahany has travelled from Sambalpur in Orissa. With a file containing a laminated letter from Rajiv Gandhi, pictures with Indira and Rajiv and a letter from Oscar Fernandes as testimonials to his undying loyalty to the family, the school teacher has been coming to the guest house each day from September 25.

Like him, the blind and aged K S Nigam from Bombay has not been able to get past the SPG and the Congress workers co-ordinating the campaign. "If I don't get to meet her, I am going on a bhookh hartal (fast in protest)," says Sahany whose son Neel Madhav is a signalman in the armed forces posted in Baramulla.

"It is these policemen and the Congress coterie here that are making it absolutely difficult to meet her. It is insulting," says Anil Singla, district Congress president of Sonepat in Haryana who had stopped by especially to meet Priyanka.

BJP workers in Ghosi had told that they had no qualms in joining the Congress if Priyanka were to enter active politics. But Ameeta Singh squashes any such possibilities: "Priyanka is like a baby. As a Amethi native, I welcome her. After all she is Rajiv's daughter -- people will throng for her, but this euphoria will not necessarily translate into votes."

A constituency represented once by Sanjay Gandhi and four times by brother Rajiv, Amethi hardly bears a 'prestigious' stamp. Its dusty, village-like character -- its small wooden shops, the unruly mesh of naked wires, stagnant drains and almost daily power cut of nearly 5 hours -- come as a rude surprise. The BJP maintain that over 200 of the big and small projects started in Rajiv's time have been shut down and the constituency has been languishing since.

"After Rajiv's demise Sonia nominated Satish Sharma. He is to blame for the sad state of affairs. These are all private sector firms who had come in. He should have helped then solve their problems, he didn't," says Sanjay Singh. His wife maintains that the Rs 20 million MP fund was also not utilised by Sharma.

One of Captain Sharma's achievements was that he provided nearly every house here with a gas cylinder during his tenure as Union petroleum minister. The people of Amethi say nearly 150,000 gas cylinders were distributed in the constituency.

Says Dharmendra Bahadur Singh, a paanwallah, "No house in Amethi is without a gas cylinder. This was his only achievement. He never visited our constituency during his tenure as an MP. So, we didn't vote for him when Rajasaheb stood against him in the election."

Officials at the Block Development Office in Amethi reveal that apart from prominent industries like HAL, BHEL and Malvika Steel, many small time projects like dairy and gas bottling plants could not go beyond their inauguration.

Giving full credit to Rajiv for the Amethi railway platform and bus depots, the locals do not have anything else to credit the Congress for. "The Congress did bring in some industries, but the labour mostly came from outside. I will not vote for them because they didn't benefit our own children," says a local shopkeeper.

Locals in Amethi are quick to surround journalists. A uniform opinion here is that after Rajiv Gandhi's death in May 1991 never have they been made to feel as important.

"Where were all these journalists ten years ago? Seems they had forgotten us. It is only now that you see helicopters back in our skies and celebrities coming to see us. Why? Because Soniaji is contesting. So, it is in the interest of Amethi that she wins this seat. And therefore, most people will vote for her," says Dharmendra Bahadur Singh.

Listening to him, many people nod their head. But there are Sanjay Singh supporters who get annoyed at the paanwallah. "What have Rajivji, or for that matter Sonia or Priyanka done for us? Nothing!" shouts an angry voice.

The crowd is soon divided in two parties. 70 per cent Congress. 30 per cent BJP.

Says Paresh Kumar, a post graduate student, "Unemployment always existed in Amethi even when Rajiv Gandhi was here. In fact, Sonia Gandhi came only thrice to Amethi in the last nine years. Moreover, she came to neighbouring Sultanpur to address a meeting once, but did not bother to come here. What can you expect from her?"

The Gandhi detractors say even when Congress MLA Ram Harsh Singh has not been able to go close to Priyanka, how could Amethi's residents meet Sonia or her daughter. "Our problems can be solved only by Rajasaheb. Moreover, Priyanka only roams in cars whereas Rajasaheb -- we can go and meet him personally anytime," adds Paresh Kumar.

Bracing in defence, the Sonia camp says that Sanjay Singh could only be chanced upon at election time. He was never present in Amethi to listen to their woes.

Meanwhile, the scene at the local Congress office is lethargic. Plastic cups bob up and down in the rain water collected in its compound. Inaugurated by Rajiv, the office has a giant size picture of Rajiv and Sonia. Indira and Feroze Gandhi occupy the opposite wall. And old time Congress worker Bharat Pal Singh reveals he had no clue about the day's programme as it was directly being coordinated from the guest house.

Outside, one of the participants of a Congress cycle rally reveals he, like the rest, was paid Rs 75 for an eight-hour stint.

Suresh Kisan Vashishth, on the other hand, is a different, albeit unique example. Robed in saffron, 'Chakradhari' Vashishth left his home in Bijnore and has been travelling on a cycle rickshaw with a chakra spinning in his right hand. "This is my crusade against the videshi invasion," says the old man and swears to stay put in Amethi till the results are announced.

Sonia Gandhi's other two opponents are sporting enough to put up a cheerful front. The Samajwadi Party's Kamrud-Zamah 'Fauji', a former soldier -- and the party's candidate last year -- is hoping to cash on the free Urdu tuitions provided by SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to 1,100 Muslims and the goodwill generated by providing jobs as peons to several locals. "People are scared of the Raja of Amethi, so they openly do not show support for the SP," says district general secretary Gayatri Prasad Prajapati.

Of the five assembly segments -- Amethi, Gauriganj, Jagdishpur, Salon, Tiloi -- three are held by the BJP, one by the Congress, and one by the SP. The SP MLA recently joined the Congress.

The Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded Parasnath Maurya. "We will win if the BJP does not indulge in booth capturing," says advocate Abhay Raj Yadav, Maurya's chief election agent. Party workers in the thatched hut BSP office have given a list of 25 booths to the EC which will 'definitely' be captured. "Even we have arranged for our goons to counter theirs. As for the Congress, they are gutless," says Yadav matter of factly.

Congress activist and the creator of many imaginative Gandhi slogans Jagdish Piyush refutes this contention. Piyush, who has published many booklets on the Gandhis and publishes a booklet every year on Rajiv's birthday, is sure that booth capturing will not be easy this time. "I think the public also won't get bullied this time," says the poet who lives on the premises of his petrol pump.

After having met Sanjay Gandhi in 1977, Piyush became a full time Congress supporter subsequently and has coined some of their most popular slogans. Editor of a local paper, his recent edition of Amethi Samachar compares Priyanka to Lenin! 'You'll next compare me to Mao,' Priyanka told Piyush.

But for now Priyanka Gandhi rides high in Amethi as she fights her mother's battle for the seat her father won in 1981, 1984, 1989, 1991. "We expect Rajivji's dream to be fulfilled once Soniaji wins from Amethi," says advocate V P Mishra. Whether Sonia Gandhi is victorious or vanquished, her 27-year-old daughter has already won Amethi.

The Rediff Election Specials

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