‘Fire & ice’: A clash of contrasts in Amethi as poll battle hots up | India News

All those who had a sense of anti-climax on May 2 after drooling over the prospect of a juicy Smriti Irani-vs Rahul Gandhi rematch, can rest assured: Amethi is still the battle to watch out for, Rahul or no Rahul.
Irani, Union woman and child development minister, who had registered one of the most talked-about victories of 2019 Lok Sabha elections against Rahul here, has been working in the constituency and strategising for the past few years for a return bout with the Gandhi scion.However, after keeping up the suspense till the eleventh hour, the three-time former Amethi MP shifted to neighbouring Rae Bareli to nurture his mother’s constituency.
The battle for Amethi was left in the hands of Kishori Lal Sharma, a Gandhi family loyalist for 40 years. Being the representative of the Gandhis in Amethi and Rae Bareli, Sharma is a familiar face for voters and that’s a big plus. On the flip side, familiarity also brings a burden of history.
Rahul’s move initially didn’t go down well with Amethi voters, especially Congress supporters, who were looking to amend their “2019 mistake”. However, with time, and vigorous micro-level campaigning by Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, there’s a gradual build-up of ‘mahaul’ (atmosphere) for Sharma.


Amethi’s Bond With Congress
Carved in 1967, Amethi has seen 16 elections, with a non-Congress candidate winning just thrice. Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, started the family’s bond with the seat in 1980, when he made his Lok Sabha debut from here. In the bypoll that followed Sanjay’s death in a plane crash, his elder brother, Rajiv, emerged victorious and continued to represent Amethi till his tragic death in 1991.
Thereafter, Gandhi family associate Captain Satish Sharma held the seat till 1998 when he lost to BJP’s Sanjay Sinh. In 1999, Rajiv’s widow Sonia made her electoral debut and won the seat. She left it in 2004 for son Rahul, who continued to win till 2014. His loss to Irani in 2019 was a big jolt. But did that affect the family’s ties with the place?
“The truth is Amethi remains Congress’s bastion… the voters may have got carried away in 2019 but they have now realised that an outsider can never replace the family,” says Deepak Singh, ex-MLC and Congress campaigner.
“Whatever good that’s happened in Amethi has come directly or indirectly through Congress,” says Govind Shukla, a shopkeeper in Gauriganj.
Speaking on Amethi’s relationship with the Gandhis and Congress’s prospects in 2024, Ram Kumar, a food stall owner, says: “Congress is like a family to Amethi voters. How long can one stay annoyed with a family member.”
“Relationships are to be nurtured with love. Even if Congress leaders do nothing for us, they talk to us warmly,” adds homemaker Vimla Devi, another Congress backer.
Congress supporters, who are still in good numbers in Amethi unlike the rest of the state, appear to be warming up to Rahul’s ‘envoy’ as the candidate.
BJP’s Dare
Irani, who rose through the ranks in the party since she joined BJP in 2003, made headlines when she was pitted against Rahul in 2014. Her opportunity in that election was anti-incumbency against the then UPA govt. BJP had done some homework and the math spoke of an opening in Amethi.
Earlier, in the 1990s, when BJP started taking Amethi seriously, the party secured 21.3% vote share in 1991, 23.9% in the 1991 bypoll, 28.9% in 1996 and 35.1% in 1998. The share, however, declined in the ensuing decade, falling to just 5.8% in 2009.
Sensing that an ‘x-factor’ was needed to increase BJP votes in the seat, the party took a calculated risk and fielded Irani. She secured 34.4% votes in her maiden election and was duly rewarded with the HRD berth in PM Modi’s cabinet despite losing the poll.
Thereafter, her continued engagement with the constituency, coupled with effective poll management and rise of the BJP bandwagon created history, pushing Rahul out of his home turf.
For the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Smriti was named in the first list and her campaign started even before the election schedule was announced. All prepared, Smriti repeatedly dared Rahul to contest from Amethi again. She also got a house constructed in Amethi, performed ‘grih pravesh’ in Feb and camped in the constituency.
Twist In The Tale
Congress, however, kept the suspense alive over the party’s candidate till the eleventh hour when Sharma emerged as the party’s pick from Amethi. “The Congress’s move took the BJP cadre by surprise. The arrival of Priyanka Gandhi, who said it is a matter of pride for her to campaign for a committed worker, to some extent blunted the BJP’s dynastic politics pitch,” says S K Awasthi, a local political observer.
“He knows the place like the back of his hand. His close connection with the constituency is an advantage,” says Swaminath Shukla, who has been watching politics in Amethi for over two decades.
Distinct Styles
While Irani has a firebrand image, Sharma is known for his simplicity and calmness. In Irani and Sharma, the choice is between “fire and ice”, according to several Amethi residents. They say her style of connecting with voters often reminds them of PM Narendra Modi’s proactive approach.
During his campaign, on the other hand, Sharma is highlighting his local connection and begins his address by saying, “Main Amethi ka neta nahi, beta hoon (I am not a politician from Amethi, I am the son of Amethi)”.
Local Issues & Expectations
Kusum Verma, a teacher, says she is not sure which way the voter will go. “Amethi is a Congress bastion but the party’s prospects aren’t that strong nationally.” Satish Barwal, a medical store owner, differs. “The message from Amethi resonates in the country,” he says.
For some, the election is a matter of identity. “Amethi doesn’t define the identity of Rahul or Congress alone, people from the city also get attention in the rest of India. When Congress lost in 2019, many people at my workplace in Maharashtra accused us of betrayal,” says Apurva Singh.
Local issues have also found resonance. Many are unhappy over closure of Sanjay Gandhi Hospital (a unit of Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Trust) by the administration. “The hospital was functional. People, not only from Amethi, but also from parts of Rae Bareli and Sultanpur benefited from it. Its closure gave Congress a chance to target BJP,” says Alok Srivastava, a resident.
In their speeches, BJP and Irani talk about govt welfare schemes, which have traction among the poor, Ram Mandir and national security issues. As V-day draws closer, star campaigners from both camps are set to troop in to turn on the heat.

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