Narendra Modi, Yogi Adityanath and Smriti Irani at a campaign rally in Amethi on March 3, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
SOMEWHAT GRANDIOSELY, the website rahulgandhi.in proclaims on Amethi: “Rahul Gandhi’s relationship with Amethi is not that of a leader-voter—it is strongly rooted in several decades of shared history. It is firmly entrenched in the close association and the deep bond he shares with the people of the district. From Rajiv Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi, the Gandhis have always chosen to represent the people of Amethi and have never shifted their constituency….” It says further: “Amethi has come a long way since the 1980s. Today, it is regarded as one of the most peaceful, self-sufficient regions in Uttar Pradesh and is an emerging educational and industrial hub. The people have repeatedly shown their faith and trust in the Congress party and as the party that has represented the district for several decades, we will continue to serve the people with dedication.”
Yet, for all the “several decades of shared history”, Rahul Gandhi, the last member of Parliament (MP) from Amethi belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family, had barely mentioned Amethi by name for 15 years in Parliament. For all the “deep bond” it apparently shared with the first family of Congress, the Amethi that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Smriti Irani battled to wrest from Rahul Gandhi in 2014—after two consecutive terms of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in power—was a train wreck, a sorry picture of a ‘VIP’ borough held by the Nehru-Grandhis since the 1980s practically seamlessly.
As Irani discovered to her dismay from the Planning Commission’s annals, it was a poverty-stricken region, lacking in basic necessities, infrastructure and employment opportunities, including electricity, toilets, water supply, even schools and industry. The reality of Amethi—which acquired the character of a boom town when the Oudh and Rohilkhand railway came in 1898 and was described as a “flourishing town” as early as 1903—was even more shocking; pockmarked roads lay strewn with the bitter shards of broken promises made by the Nehru-Gandhi family for decades. The Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds lay unutilised. The mostly absentee MP, Rahul Gandhi, had paid scant attention to the creation of employment opportunities and, in the last two decades, Amethi, town and tehsil of Amethi district, had witnessed the flight of hundreds of youth in search of jobs and livelihood elsewhere. Unemployment was soaring, industries non-existent, the place did not even sport a collectorate and the district magistrate operated from guest houses. Health facilities and services were missing and higher educational institutions lay crumbling and neglected. Sixty per cent of the electorate had no electricity in their homes and an even more horrifying statistic of 80 per cent had no toilets, guaranteeing basic health and hygiene. Some 44 per cent of the schools, or institutions that passed for schools, had no toilets for girl students. The per capita income of Amethi’s residents was only two-thirds of the average for the rest of India. A Rail Neer plant that was promised by the MP never saw the light of day, nor did the construction of the Malvika Steel factory. Farmers’ lands were taken over, ostensibly for a cycle factory that never came up.
When Irani decided to take on Rahul Gandhi in the so-called family bastion of Amethi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, most people saw it as an exercise in futility. But Irani, with the open backing of prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who addressed her as “sister” and boosted her confidence immensely, was determined to make a mark from the word go. And she did. After BJP’s 1998 victory in the seat, when Sanjay Singh fought on a saffron ticket, Irani’s heave-ho effort, backed to the hilt by BJP workers in the constituency and her own screen image of Tulsi, reduced Rahul Gandhi’s 2009 winning margin of 3.7 lakh votes to less than half, a feat that had been considered impossible.
So, when Narendra Modi chose Amethi to address a public rally in 2014, the battlelines to uproot the Nehru-Gandhi family from the seat were drawn. In a recent interview, Irani—who managed to wrest the seat convincingly from Rahul Gandhi in the 2019 General Election which returned Modi to power—even alleged that the Gandhi family took land from farmers for the construction of a medical college at Munshi Ganj but “instead built their guest house there”. Irani maintained: “This political family did politics from here for decades but kept people of the constituency poor so that they stood in front of them with folded hands…” And: “The Gandhi family always cheated [the] people of Amethi. They knew the people of Amethi had resentment against them and that is why he [Rahul] left for Kerala in 2019.”
Rahul Gandhi represented Amethi in Parliament from 2004 onwards, after his mother and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi moved to Raebareli and vacated Amethi for him. Despite decades of being the Nehru-Gandhi pocket borough, Amethi and its segments of Tiloi, Solan, Gauri Ganj, Amethi and Jagdishpur, decorated only by the cobwebs and dust of ephemeral grandeur, were frozen in the frame of a boom-to-bust region. A news report at the time described Amethi thus: “Amethi, with its 728 villages, is obviously stuck in a time warp. Radios have given way to televisions, cycles to motorcycles. But beyond that, it hasn’t seen many changes since the day of Rajiv Gandhi.”
Most of Sonia Gandhi’s MP funds were dedicated to keeping the basics—handpumps, electrification, drains, school walls. Defeating Sanjay Singh in 1999—Sonia Gandhi defeated Singh by three lakh votes—she had held on to the seat till 2004. During this time, though, few of the fast lanes to modernity that Rajiv Gandhi had rushed to Amethi after he took over the seat in June 1981—at the behest of his mother and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi following the death of his brother Sanjay Gandhi—still stood. He had remained Amethi’s MP for a decade until 1991. After his death, though, the convention centres, the computer-sporting schools, the LML Vespa factory at Salon, the Samrat Bicycles and Usha Rectifiers units at Gauri Ganj, the printing press at Jagdishpur, Malvika Steel, all vanished, one by one, into the labyrinths of time. Thousands of jobs vanished with the industries.
As MP for Amethi, it seemed Rahul Gandhi had his task cut out, especially during the decade of Congress-led UPA rule. Put industries back in Amethi and bring employment to youth in the constituency? Forget that, the new MP and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family proved a disastrous failure, it appears, even at getting guaranteed basic employment for the neediest in his constituency. Most shockingly, in 2014—a whole decade after he took over—only a paltry 3 per cent of the eligible families had benefited from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), that much-vaunted 100-day employment guarantee programme launched nationwide by UPA. Going by those statistics, there was apparently a very poor demand from the needy people of Amethi for the world’s largest demand-based job guarantee programme. Surprisingly, this was the very scheme whose launch in all the districts of the country Rahul Gandhi had sought to claim proprietorship of by dissing then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s major role in rooting for it much before his own intervention. In fact, three years after he became MP from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi’s acolytes, led by Sonia Gandhi’s political advisor, the late Ahmed Patel, had sought to take all credit for a decision to implement NREGA in 500 districts pan-India after a meeting with Manmohan Singh. This, although Singh was already rooting for it and was in discussion with both the rural development ministry headed by the late Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and the finance ministry, headed by P Chidambaram, over spends for the programme.
But Amethi, that so-called family borough, continued to languish in poverty despite all that petty political gains-wringing from NREGA at the expense of the real drivers. Having loosened the bricks of the key load-bearing walls in the Nehru-Gandhi home borough as early as 2014, Irani was able to wrest it from the family in 2019, after putting in steady work on the ground to transform the constituency from the boondocks it was to a seat that showcased development. That win, expectations of which had sent Rahul Gandhi scurrying to contest from a second ‘safe’ seat, Wayanad in Kerala, was especially significant given that Amethi had voted for Congress every time since the creation of the district 1967, except for some years in the 1970s and the late 1990s.
Just how decisive this win was in exposing the myth of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s hold on its so-called pocket borough is a short read in recent decades of political history. Since the entry of the family in the seat in 1980 with Sanjay Gandhi as its representative, it had backed various members of the entitled family for all of three decades. Sanjay Gandhi had himself contested from Amethi first in 1977 and lost miserably to a Janata candidate while Congress received a huge drubbing countrywide, post-Emergency. He succeeded in beating his rival in the next election but died that very year. In 1981, Indira Gandhi proposed her elder son Rajiv Gandhi’s name for contesting from Amethi and he took oath as MP from Amethi in 1981 and held the seat until his assassination a decade later in 1991 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Till 1998, the seat was held by Rajiv’s friend, Satish Sharma, who was later defeated by BJP’s Sanjay Singh. From 1999 to 2004, Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow, held the seat. Her son, Rahul Gandhi, began representing Amethi in 2004.
As Irani discovered to her dismay, Amethi was a poverty-stricken region lacking in basic infrastructure and employment opportunities, including electricity, toilets, water supply, even schools and industry. The mostly absentee MP, Rahul Gandhi, had paid scant attention to the creation of employment opportunities
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In 2019, the reign of the Nehru-Gandhi family ground to a halt after Smriti Irani trounced Rahul Gandhi by garnering almost 50 per cent of the vote compared to only about 45 per cent raked in by the latter. In one fell swoop, the myth of the family that had kept the voters of Amethi in thrall melted into thin air. “Amethi should have been low-hanging fruit, easy for the picking, given how little the Nehru-Gandhis actually did for the constituency. But it wasn’t. So strong was the family’s hold that it had practically institutionalised a sort of Stockholm syndrome among Amethi’s poor voters, even when wringing political popularity based on the loyalty of those very voters who had voted for Rahul Gandhi three times in the last 15 years. Irani was scoffed at, heckled, jeered at by Gandhi family supporters in a petty display of authoritarianism in the world’s largest democracy. But she persisted for five years, building an impressive portfolio of people-sensitive development, skinning her knees and knuckles in the run-up to the 2019 polls, and winning trust all along,” a BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh asserted.
The intensified political tug-of-war over Amethi and servicing its people ensured that its residents finally began to witness the fruits of long-denied development. Forget the moribund Rail Neer factory, Irani’s efforts have ensured the recent inauguration of a ₹ 700 crore Coca-Cola plant in Amethi. Over the last three years alone, projects worth ₹ 1,500 crore have been approved. The 65-year-old Unchahar-Amethi railway line, promised by every generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family but never fulfilled, has finally been fast-tracked. For the first time ever, Amethi has got a medical college and offices for the chief medical officer (CMO) and the district magistrate. Amethi now has a Kendriya Vidyalaya and the Gauriganj-Amethi railway station is being renovated and the long-pending demand for the Tiloi bus stand is fulfilled. A trauma centre, a Sainik School, Krishi Vigyan Kendras and the launch of a Passport Seva Kendra have all upgraded the services profile of Amethi’s residents noticeably. There has also been a massive infrastructure boost. Seven new power substations and the renovation of eight old substations ensure uninterrupted power today; 207 km of new roads under the PM Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) now connect Amethi to the state and national highways. Since 2014, the Fursatganj airport is being developed and an AK-203 rifle factory has been established. From merely 2,200 beneficiaries of MGNREGA, today Amethi counts 2,77,303 beneficiaries; and electricity, toilets and girls’ schools with toilets in the constituency are at 100 per cent. From Ayushman Bharat to the chief minister’s health scheme, from the PM Ujjwala Yojana to the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, and so on, most Central and state programmes are being linked aggressively on the ground to the people of Amethi and transforming their daily lives. And, a full 75 years after Independence, Amethi is being connected to the Purvanchal Expressway, on its way to becoming an integral part of the expressway industrial corridor.
The story of Amethi, as a microcosm, was the story of India—a nation that Congress ruled for decades, all the while milking political gains and making heroes of its own at the expense of development and ordinary people’s prosperity. But since one cannot fool all the people all of the time, 2019 proved a turning point. The people of Amethi, clearly, have discovered the benefits of voting for the ruling party in the state and at the Centre and for a driven, determined MP, rather than placing all their bets on a self-proclaimed ‘royal’ from the Nehru-Gandhi family whose crown has begun to lose its shine.