Indian Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani. Photo: AFP/Arindam Dey
Indian Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani. Photo: AFP/Arindam Dey

Union Textile Minister Smriti Irani is on track to once again contest the high-profile constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh in the upcoming 2019 elections. Amethi, which is the stronghold of the Congress party, has been represented by party President Rahul Gandhi since 2004.

Irani took a trademark pot shot at the opposition leader and Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi while attending a ceremony at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Shillong in May:

“In Amethi, he (Rahul Gandhi/Congress) lost every Assembly seat, every local election in the past four years. What could be his chances of coming to power….when he is guaranteed to lose elections in his own constituency.”

The Union Textile Minister, who never misses an opportunity to ridicule Gandhi, has lately focused her attention on the “lack of development” in Amethi. The two politicians’ rivalry runs deep. Not only are they in opposing parties, but Gandhi beat Irani when she stood against him in the 2014 general election. Ironically Irani, who was a popular television actor before plunging into politics a decade ago, has yet to win an election for the Lower House.

A close fight in 2014

It was thanks to Irani that Amethi witnessed a pitched battle in the 2014 Lower House elections. Despite losing the contest, Irani managed to reduce Rahul’s victory margin by more than two-thirds, from around 370,000 votes in 2009 to 107,000 in 2014.

Naturally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wishes to pit her once more against Gandhi in his home territory. The BJP has poured all its resources into the battle, and a victory for Irani would be historic.

Irani worked in Amethi, insists BJP

BJP claims Irani hasn’t left the constituency since her defeat in 2014. In fact, both the BJP and Irani have actively courted the constituency ever since that loss. The party snatched three out of four Assembly seats from Congress in Amethi district during state polls and also won local elections last year.

Party spokesperson Harish Srivastava credits Irani with several key projects: “Amethi didn’t have a collectorate before. Irani ensured establishment of the same. We got a new railway line, a highway which crosses through Amethi, (the) Agriculture Science Centre, a soil testing centre, an Army school, an FM radio station, a skill training centre (as well as) the Satellite Centre of Ambedkar Central University among others.”

He further claims, “Land for a central school is acquired and (the) community health centre is upgraded to district hospital. We built a bridge in Pipri village whose residents didn’t cast a vote in anger in the last election.”

Irani herself frequently boasts of her works in public speeches, “In four years, over 80 development works have been undertaken, including 550 million rupees for cleanliness and to make villages open defecation free. People will testify as to how this area had been deprived of development till now.”

Will she win?

Despite their hard work, BJP insiders say Irani’s victory is doubtful. “But we need to put up a heavyweight and aggressive leader like Irani to challenge Rahul, Modi’s bête noire,” says a senior leader.

“Even if Rahul is forced to spend three days in his constituency to counter Irani’s influence, it would impact the Congress party’s overall campaign plan pan-India. And if she manages to increase her vote count, Rahul will be mocked for the next five years,” a senior BJP leader said.

The 2019 contest in Amethi is likely to be a two-horse race. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party may skip the contest if a grand alliance of parties is forged. The Aam Admi Party might be in the fray though its 2014 candidate Kumar Vishawas was the third runner up.

BJP’s Amethi strategy is well thought of. “The party inducted an MLA, Suresh Pasi, as minister in the Uttar Pradesh Government. Another Uttar Pradesh minister Mohsin Raza is the guardian minister of Amethi, (there) to woo 20% of the Muslim population,” Sandeep Gupta, a local told Asia Times.

The party has also been working closely at caste-level and has inducted many Dalit and “backward” caste leaders since 2014 as they constitute nearly 70% of the population. Furthermore, it has poached several Congress party leaders.

Srivastava insists, “The work under the Modi government is notable. Amethi people especially youngsters can’t ignore it. Social media has helped to spread our work. Irani will win this time.”

But political analyst Ramesh Dixit doesn’t think so. “She will put up a good fight but (is) unlikely to pip Gandhi, for Amethi has (long) been a Congress fiefdom. Amethi voters are well aware of Gandhi family’s work. BJP’s fake propaganda won’t work.”

What has Rahul Done?

Congress presents a four-page curriculum vitae of Rahul which lists projects brought about during his mother Sonia’s and father Rajiv’s tenure in Amethi. This includes various highways and roads, plants of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Ordinance Factory, Paper Mill, Flying academy, Footwear design institute, Institute of Petroleum Technology, nursing school, Institute of Hotel Management and others.

Deepak Singh, Congress Legislator and Gandhi’s confidante, claims, “The BJP government has done nothing in Amethi except for high pitch speeches. The projects party claims as theirs were approved long before they came to power.”

“In fact, some projects such as a paper mill, a food park, a skill training institute and Indian Institute of Information Technology have either been scrapped or shifted to other places just for political gain. People would reject Irani for the same reasons,” alleges Singh.

Singh also claims, “BJP even dragged Rahul’s non-profit to the court which led to closure of the office of the women’s self-help group. Local media reports extensively on these issues but Delhi-based scribes are biased towards the Congress.”