If Rahul Gandhi loses the Amethi seat to Smriti Irani, it will be the biggest upset in the 2019 general elections. Photo collage by Asia Times Staff / Agencies

In an unexpected turn of events as results were declared for India’s general elections, main opposition party Congress’s chief Rahul Gandhi lost his Amethi parliamentary seat to Union textile minister and Bharatiya Janta Party leader Smriti Irani. It is one of the biggest catches for the BJP, which won the elections, as the seat is considered to be a Congress fortress.

Gandhi lost his home turf Amethi, from where he had been elected to the parliament since 2004, to Irani by 54,731 votes. It was a historic victory for Irani after she lost the polls to Gandhi in 2014. This time the Congress chief polled 412,867 votes (43.8% vote share) while Irani bagged 467,598 (49.7%) votes.

It’s scant consolation for Gandhi that he is also contesting from another, safe constituency called Wayanad, which is in Kerala, where he won by some 400,000 votes, a huge margin.

The Amethi seat is loaded with symbolism. It is the same constituency in which Irani gave Gandhi a tough contest and received over 300,000 votes in the 2014 general elections. The resolve shown by the actor-turned-politician appears to have worked in her favor. Her victory will increase her stature within the BJP and she might bag a bigger ministerial portfolio in the second season of the Modi government.

Irani stayed put in Amethi for several months campaigning and interacting with the locals. On the other hand, Gandhi, due to his national duties as the Congress president, spent most of his time campaigning across the country. His sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra mostly handled the campaign for him in the region. Gandhi’s defeat is also a big defeat for Priyanka and her campaign strategy as well.

After her victory, Irani tweeted thanking Amethi voters saying “It is a new morning for Amethi with a new determination” and that people have voted for her with the “faith in development” of the place.

Targeting Gandhi, Irani had earlier said that the Congress president had become “a missing candidate” after remaining a “missing MP” in Amethi.

Incidentally, Irani faced huge criticism over her educational qualifications due to discrepancies in her election affidavits, which were filed for various elections. Ahead of this election, she had finally admitted that she had passed 12th grade (final class in high school) and did not graduate from college as mentioned in previous poll affidavits that landed her in court.

History won’t repeat

The Congress has lost the Amethi seat only twice since the independence of India in 1947.

In 1977, Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi—the son of former prime minister Indira Gandhi—lost his first parliamentary polls here. In 1998, Congress candidate Captain Satish Sharma lost to Sanjay Singh of the BJP, who has now joined Congress.

“Both were unusual defeats though,” says Hemant Tiwari, a political analyst. “In 1977, the loss was mainly because of the anti-Indira Gandhi wave in the post-Emergency period while in 1998, the candidate didn’t belong to the Gandhi family.” The Emergency was an infamous 21-month period from 1975 to 1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency across the country.

Vote share

Gandhi made his electoral debut from Amethi in 2004 when his mother Sonia Gandhi moved her constituency to Rae Bareli, a seat formerly represented by Indira Gandhi herself.

He won with over 66% of the votes in 2004. The vote share increased to nearly 72% in 2009. But 2014 general elections saw both the vote share and winning margin reduced drastically.

His vote share in 2014 was 46.71%, which was the lowest ever for a Congress candidate from the Gandhi family in the Amethi parliamentary constituency. Rahul Gandhi’s winning margin over Irani was little over 100,000 votes. He had won the 2009 election by around 270,000 votes.

Things have changed in the BJP’s favor ever since.

In 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress failed to win a single assembly seat within the Amethi parliamentary constituency, which comprises five assembly segments. Among the five segments, the BJP won Amethi, Tiloi, Jagdishpur and Salon assembly seats while its ally Samajwadi Party emerged victorious in the Gauriganj constituency.

Against this backdrop came Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest also from the second seat, Wayanad in Kerala. This virtual admission that he was running scared gave currency to the campaign theme of the BJP that ground was slipping from under the Congress president’s feet in Amethi.

The BJP has not reduced the pressure on the Congress leadership even for a day since Irani lost the last parliamentary polls to Gandhi. In the last month or so, Irani has been virtually camping in the constituency for extensive leg work. Moreover, her efforts to draw water from a hand pump to douse a fire in a village won many hearts. Lending her more support, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah have also addressed rallies in Amethi to boost Irani’s campaign. All of these together seem to have paid off as Irani appears to be defeating her arch-rival in this key seat.

In Uttar Pradesh, even as BJP faced double incumbency at the center and state government, it managed to win 62 out of 80 seats in the state that sends the highest number of MPs to the parliament. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has swept the general elections with 351 out of total 452 seats.

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