India’s biggest election prize: Can the Gandhi family survive Modi?

The pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli have stood by the first family of Indian politics through ups and downs. On May 20, they will be tested again.

India’s Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, second right, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, second left, greet their supporters during a roadshow on April 3, 2024 [R Satish Babu/AFP]By Sanjay KapoorPublished On 18 May 202418 May 2024

Amethi/Rae Bareli, India Irfan*, a tea stall owner, is convinced that change is afoot.

“There has not been much traffic on this road from Rae Bareli to Amethi ever since the Congress lost power in 2014,” he says, referring to two towns and a party that for decades have been synonymous with one family – the Nehru-Gandhis, or as they are more commonly known, the Gandhis.

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The first family of Indian politics has ruled the country for almost half of its journey since independence in 1947, with three generations of prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and grandson Rajiv Gandhi. And through ups and downs, when the Congress has been in power and out of it, Amethi and Rae Bareli, separated by 62km (38 miles), have for the most part stood by the family. They’ve served as safe constituencies for India’s grand old party in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which is India’s largest electoral prize: with 80 seats out of the nation’s total of 543 in the lower house of parliament.

In 2019, that tradition received a dramatic jolt when the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi – son of Rajiv – lost Amethi by 55,000 votes to Smriti Irani, a feisty minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which has been in power nationally since 2014. Rahul’s mother and former Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi, retained Rae Bareli for the party, the only seat it won in Uttar Pradesh as the BJP swept the nation, winning 303 seats overall.

Now, five years later, the towns are a tense microcosm of the national battle between the BJP and opposition Congress; between Modi and the Gandhis. Rahul is replacing his 77-year-old mother from Rae Bareli this time. BJP’s Irani is seeking reelection from Amethi. Each of them is expected to face tough competition from the other’s party. Amethi and Rae Bareli vote on May 20 in India’s giant election.

At stake are more than two seats: If the BJP wins Rae Bareli and retains Amethi, it will effectively have wiped out the Gandhi family and the Congress from Uttar Pradesh. Conversely, say opposition leaders, a Congress win in both seats could seed anti-BJP momentum in a state that often decides who rules nationally.

Irfan, from his vantage point of Tiloi town near Amethi and Rae Bareli, believes the political winds are blowing in the direction of the Congress. “Storm is building in both the cities, which will impact the entire state,” he says.

Yet, storms can be unpredictable – and Amethi and Rae Bareli know that.

A supporter of India’s Congress party wearing an outfit with portraits of former Indian Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, top, and Rajiv Gandhi, waves to the camera at an election campaign rally addressed by Rahul Gandhi in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, on March 6, 2014 [File: Rajanish Kakade/AP Photo]

Boost for the opposition?

In a video posted by the Congress party on social platforms, Rahul and his mother Sonia are seen leafing through old photos of the family visiting and contesting from Amethi and Rae Bareli, as they reflect on their family’s old association with the towns.

It is a decades-old bond. Feroze Gandhi, Indira’s husband and Rahul’s grandfather, won Rae Bareli in 1952 – independent India’s first election. Indira and Sonia won this seat subsequently, their stints interspersed by terms when their loyalists were nominated to contest from the town instead.

Only thrice has the Congress lost Rae Bareli. In 1977, a national opposition coalition toppled Indira’s government to come to power amid a wave of anger against the Congress over its imposition of a state of national emergency in 1975, when civil liberties were suspended and thousands of its political opponents were arrested. In 1996 and 1998, when the BJP was rising nationally and first came to power, it defeated the Congress here – though the Gandhi family was not in the contest on those occasions.

In Amethi, Indira’s elder son Feroze Gandhi lost the 1977 election but won in 1980. The Congress lost only once since then, in 1998, before Irani’s upset in 2019. Sonia and Rahul have both won from Amethi.

After his loss in 2019, many pundits had wondered whether Rahul would ever contest from the family pocket boroughs – or even from Uttar Pradesh – again. He had won from Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala in 2019 and contested from there again this time.

The Congress party insiders say he was unconvinced about contesting from a second seat this time, but was eventually swayed by pressure from Sonia, who was opposed to giving up the family’s bastions without a fight. Rahul’s sister Priyanka, who is now also a leader of Congress, decided against contesting.

With Rahul contesting from Rae Bareli, a longtime family friend Kishori Lal Sharma is competing against Irani from Amethi. It’s a scenario that could work for the opposition, say some of its leaders. In the days before the Congress decided on its candidates for these seats, Ameeque Jamei, a national spokesperson for the Samajwadi Party – the Congress’s biggest ally in Uttar Pradesh – had told Al Jazeera that if Rahul or Priyanka contested, the “opposition fight against the BJP will gain greater meaning”. He predicted that the Congress-led INDIA alliance that is challenging the BJP nationally could win up to 20 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats.

That is easier said than done. Rahul faces a formidable challenger in the BJP’s Dinesh Pratap Singh, who gave Sonia a tough fight in 2019, cutting her winning margin substantially. Singh has been unsparing in his criticism of how the Gandhis treat their bloodline. The party and family rarely even mention Feroze Gandhi, Rahul’s grandfather, whose grave is 100km (60 miles) from Rae Bareli.

“A person who cannot be that of his grandfather, how can he be yours,” says Singh.

Rahul Gandhi, right, and sister Priyanka campaigning in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, ahead of the 2014 national election [Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo]

Barbershop politics

On the ground, Rahul and Priyanka are barnstorming the otherwise sleepy cities of Rae Bareli and Amethi, in their own ways.

Recently, Rahul slipped into a local barbershop to get his beard trimmed. His videos of sitting in the barbershop went viral. Priyanka divides time between the two towns, holding road shows and corner meetings.

The Congress has also brought in other heavyweight leaders to strengthen its campaigns here with their experience and political guile. At Rae Bareli’s Shalimar Guest House, Bhupesh Baghel, the former chief minister of the central state of Chhattisgarh, is marshalling supporters. “Rahul has a lot of support in Rae Bareli. So, I don’t have to do very much,” he says.

Ashok Gehlot, the former chief minister of Rajasthan, is handling the Congress campaign in Amethi against Smriti Irani, who has doubled down on her accusations that the Gandhi family neglected the town and Rae Bareli for decades despite winning from there.

The Congress is counting on the support of two key voting blocs. Muslims constitute 22 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population. A Muslim leader from Amethi, Muhammad Alam, said many from his community could have considered voting for the BJP, but Modi’s recent attacks – including suggestions that the Congress would take Hindu wealth and give it to Muslims – had changed their minds.

Gautam Rane, a Dalit activist in Uttar Pradesh’s capital, Lucknow, says sections of the community, which sits at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy, are also shifting towards the Congress. The community has traditionally backed the regional Bahujan Samaj Party in the state. The Congress has used stray comments by some BJP leaders to suggest that the party wants to change the constitution and take away caste-based affirmative action benefits from the Dalits – a charge that the BJP has denied.

“This is Rahul Gandhi’s elections,” Rane says. “No one [else] matters.”

* Name changed to protect identity

Source: Al Jazeera