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Game is on: Priyanka’s campaign sets up Gandhis’ virtual ‘grudge match’ against Irani in Amethi

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Priyanka Gandhi and Smriti Irani campaigning in Amethi Lok Sabha constituency

Priyanka Gandhi and Smriti Irani campaigning in Amethi Lok Sabha constituency

Amethi: Elections in Amethi are unfolding like a slow-burn Alfred Hitchcock thriller with BJP’s high-profile Smriti Irani and the relatively unknown Kishori Lal Sharma of the Congress locked in a fierce contest heading towards a difficult to predict climax.

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What should be a conventional ending has turned out to be a nail biter with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s spirited campaign for the Congress scripting possible twists and turns in the absorbing electoral battle.

Irani was the quintessential 'outsider', albeit from the BJP powerhouse, in 2019 when she beat former Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the constituency long considered the party’s very own. Five years later, Rahul Gandhi has moved to nearby Rae Bareli and Gandhi family aide Sharma is up against the incumbent BJP MP’s star power.

It should be an easy contest but it isn’t. As people discuss the Ram temple, Modi factor, the Priyanka Gandhi connect and everyday struggles, that’s the word on the street in this constituency where no Gandhi family member is contesting for the first time in 25 years.

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“If Rahul Gandhi would have been here it would have been different. This is an unusually silent election. Nobody is divulging who they are supporting and for what reasons but this has been a Gandhi family stronghold,” said Ahmed Maqsood, who owns a tailoring shop in the Wahabganj market in Jais on the outskirts of Amethi town.

“The Ram temple has been constructed after 500 years of struggle. Our vote is for Ram temple and the BJP. Candidate does not matter, this is a national election,” added Amarnath Sharma, wearing a scarf with Jai Shri Ram embroidered on it, in the town’s main market.

Though Irani and Sharma are battling it out at the hustings, the spotlight is on Priyanka Gandhi as she leads her party's charge in her family's electoral fortress breached last time.

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The Congress general secretary has been targeting Irani for coming to Amethi with the sole intention of defeating Rahul Gandhi and not for the development of the area or for the people.

The drama and suspense over the Amethi battle began early on. Though Irani was named in the BJP’s first list of candidates for the Lok Sabha polls, the question on everyone’s mind was whether or not Rahul Gandhi would contest from Amethi again.

The Congress kept everyone guessing till the last minute and announced Sharma’s candidature only hours before nomination filing was to end. That Sharma has been an MP representative for the Gandhis and has worked in the area for over 40 years stands him in good stead.

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The initial anticlimax soon wore off among the people as Priyanka Gandhi set shop in Rae Bareli vowing to win that constituency and wrest the family borough from where the party suffered the 2019 shock loss.

It may not be a direct Irani versus Rahul Gandhi ‘grudge match’ but it is certainly one that is shaping to be a memorable electoral battle.

Many are calling it a "silent election" in which the voters would proverbially make themselves heard on result day on June 4.

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A Gandhi family member may not be contesting but their shadow looms large and Sharma makes it clear in his speeches that he would be a guardian for the constituency on their behalf.

"If elected I will work as an MP and will keep Gandhi family's 'amanat' safe…amanat mein khayanat nahi karoonga (there will be no breach of trust)," Sharma has said often.

He also says that a win for him would be a win for the Gandhi family, evoking the 103-year-old bond between the Nehru-Gandhi family, dating back to 1921 when Jawaharlal Nehru visited the area, and the people.

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The spotlight firmly on her, Priyanka Gandhi is strategist, orator and mass mobiliser as she drives the campaign in Amethi and nearby Rae Bareli to maximise her party's chances of victory in the two seats.

Familial ties of the Gandhis with the voters, a latent Ram temple sentiment, the Modi factor, free ration scheme, 'pucca' houses for the poor, stray cattle and the Congress' allegation that the BJP would change the Constitution if they return to power are all part of the election discourse.

A group of people sitting at a shop in a market in Amethi, point out that the Ram temple construction is a major achievement of Modi.

Devinder Singh, who owns a shop in the market, says the Ram temple construction is ingrained in the minds of the people and their vote would be on that basis.

In the Tiloi assembly segment close to Amethi town, Amitabh Singh agrees but adds that this time it is about correcting the “mistake” of last time and it is the Gandhi family that has given the seat its identity.

“Sharma ji is an old hand and has served for years. He knows everyone and Priyanka Gandhi’s energetic campaign is likely to see him through even though the contest is very tight,” says Singh. Rahul Gandhi had trailed in Tiloi in 2019.

An issue raised by almost everyone in this largely rural constituency is that of stray cattle and the government’s apathy towards the issue.

Kamlesh Yadav, from Shahgarh village which is dominated by Yadavs and Brahmans, says stray cattle destroy their produce and they have hardly enough to feed their family.

“The government says it is giving 5 kg free ration but is that enough? We are hardly able to sustain ourselves as most of our produce is destroyed by stray cattle,” he says.

Some government schemes, locals say, have had a significant impact and won the BJP support.

In an area dominated by the Pasis, a Scheduled Caste, many people hail the government for providing them ‘pucca houses’.

“We will vote for the BJP. We are getting rations and have gotten a pucca house, what else do I need. Modi ji is my choice,” says Lal Chand Pasi.

However, a section of the SC and OBC community is also concerned about reservations and the Congress’ charge against the BJP that it was calling for ‘400 paar’ as it wants to change the Constitution.

“This election is to save our Constitution and our rights,” according to Pawan Yadav, a shopkeeper.

Many are afraid to share their preferences and there is talk of an undercurrent which may swing the election. But most people agree that the contest is tight and a dead heat is on.

Abdul Quddus, a tea shop owner, sums it up best.

“The BJP MP is the one in power and therefore has the edge but the high octane campaign by Priyanka Gandhi and Kishori Lal Sharma’s work in the area has made the contest very close”.

“The election is on a knife’s edge and it could be anybody’s game,” he concluded.

In 2019, Irani beat Rahul Gandhi by more than 55,000 votes in Amethi, which comprises the five assembly constituencies of Tiloi, Salon, Jagdishpur, Gauriganj and Amethi.

Voting for the Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies will take place on May 20 and the votes will be counted on June 4 along with the rest of the country.

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