It was April-May last year with the 2019 general election just days away. The BJP candidate Smriti Irani, recall local residents, moved from one village panchayat to another, handing out saris, dhotis, food ration and reportedly even cash in the constituency. She won the election, defeating Rahul Gandhi.
Fast forward to May, 2020. Posters appeared in several parts of Amethi, asking about the whereabouts of the missing MP. Where is she, the posters asked. It did not help her cause when it was reported that she was busy playing ‘Antakshari’ with her friends during the lockdown. There was no bar on union ministers from moving around the country. But at a time when many constituents needed her the most, she had gone missing.
The lockdown at short notice in March had put a rude brake to the economy and ruined the informal sector. Workers and the self-employed found themselves without their daily earning. They ran out of cash, were thrown out of their accommodation and millions took to the highways to begin their long and arduous walk home. The coronavirus was playing havoc and the administration, caught napping, had a hard time organizing quarantine centres, free ration and find some employment for people. People were going hungry and depended on the government or on charity. But where was the high-profile MP from Amethi?
It was Rahul Gandhi, confirmed several residents, who reached out and enquired about their welfare and well-being of his former constituents. He sent truckloads of ration, sanitisers, soap and other essential commodities to the constituency so that people could tide over the crisis.
“This is the difference between Smriti Irani and Rahul Gandhi. Smriti Irani– the present MP – is imperious and treats people of Amethi as her subjects while Rahul Gandhi treats everyone from Amethi as his family member. Rahul Gandhi’s relationship with Amethi is not that of a leader and his voters. He shares a much closer bond with the people in Amethi,” says Deepak Singh, Congress MLC.
Gandhi, who represented Amethi for 15 years, lost the parliamentary seat to BJP’s Irani in 2019 but for the people of Amethi he is still their leader.
“Even now if we are in distress of some kind and need help, we turn to 10, Janpath in New Delhi and invariably receive the help we need; but it is much more difficult to communicate with Mantri ji (Smriti Irani is Union Minister for Textiles, Women and Child Development). If she wanted, she could have helped us in many ways during this crisis, but she is accessible to a small group in Amethi and works as per their bidding,” says Navin Arora, a trader. Vested interests around the minister, he says, are making money and misguiding her about the needs of the constituency. The coteries around her, we suspect, got the contract to supply sanitisers in Amethi but people quickly found it to be spurious. The joke that went round was that it was actually water mixed with ‘Gomutra’ (cow’s urine), recalls Arora.
Ansuman Prajapati, a student of Ranveer Ranjanya Post-Graduate College in Amethi, asked what difference has come about in the constituency during the last one year, said that the world over Amethi was known for its association with the Nehru-Gandhi family. “Rahul Gandhi might have lost the 2019 election but he never deserted us; nor has Amethi forgotten him,” he claimed.
“Just as in times of crisis people call their near and dear ones, similarly, when people of Amethi are in distress, they call Rahul ji,” he said and added: “how many instances can you cite of constituencies where people, when in pain, fall back on the leader they had voted out ?” The articulate student added that it could be rare in not just Indian electoral history but also elsewhere in the world.
Rahul Gandhi cut his political teeth in Amethi, which has been a stronghold of the Gandhi family. He was barely 34 when he contested the election in 2004 from Amethi and won. It was a constituency represented by both his father and uncle. Amethi's association with the Gandhi family began with Sanjay Gandhi contesting from here in 1977 – he lost but contested again in 1980 and won. After that Rajiv Gandhi won from Amethi three elections in 1984, 1989 and 1991. In the 1991 by-polls, necessitated following assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the seat was retained by Satish Sharma of the Congress who won again in 1996 but lost to BJP in 1998. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi won the seat and vacated it for Rahul in 2004.
Talks with a cross-section of people reveal that in the 15 years he represented Amethi in Parliament, Rahul Gandhi helped turn the constituency into an emerging educational and industrial hub.
People also remember the eye camps he organised at regular intervals and how industries like BHEL, SAIL, Rail Neer were set up. He also used funds from MPLAD and other government schemes to construct roads and highways connecting Amethi with different parts of Uttar Pradesh and the rest of the country.
“Amethi has suffered following his defeat because several projects which were initiated during his term have been stalled. The IIIT has been shut down and the plan for a Food Park in Jagdishpur has been cancelled. Hindustan Paper Mills has been shifted to Maharashtra,” said Zaheer Khan, a Corporator in Jais.
Khan, though a Samajwadi Party supporter, says he had voted for the Congress in the last election. “I had no option because SP had not fielded a candidate. But when I look back, I have no regret and today I have little hesitation to say I will vote for Congress in future elections because the way Rahul Gandhi came forward and helped us. He is in touch with people here,” he said.
Though Smriti Irani is the textile minister, it was Rahul Gandhi who provided the material for women to stitch face masks. Deepak Singh says over one lakh women Self Help Groups were enlisted to carry out the job.
“Mind you, these women are not Congress workers. They are villagers who came forward and stitched masks and earned some money. The little money they earned helped them to tide over the crisis,” he said.
Manish Kumar, a government teacher in Amethi, quipped, “Our Hindu scriptures say that one identifies friends and foes in a crisis.”
The pandemic, he claimed, had made people of Amethi realise who is a friend in need.