• 18 Jun, 2024

India’s major election battleground: Can the Gandhi family outlast Modi?

India’s major election battleground: Can the Gandhi family outlast Modi?

The stronghold constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli have remained loyal to the primary political dynasty of India through various challenges. On May 20, their allegiance will face another trial.

In Amethi and Rae Bareli, India,

,A tea stall owner, firmly believes that a shift is occurring.

"Since the Congress lost power in 2014, there's been a noticeable decline in traffic along this route from Rae Bareli to Amethi," he remarks, alluding to two towns and a political party long associated with a single family – the Nehru-Gandhis, more commonly referred to as the Gandhis.

For nearly half of India's journey since gaining independence in 1947, the leading family in Indian politics has been the Nehru-Gandhis, spanning three generations of prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv Gandhi. Through the ebbs and flows of political fortune, whether the Congress Party has been in power or not, Amethi and Rae Bareli, situated 62km (38 miles) apart, have remained steadfast supporters of this family. These constituencies have served as reliable bastions for the Congress Party in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which holds immense electoral significance with its 80 seats in the lower house of parliament out of the nation's total of 543.

In 2019, this tradition faced a seismic shift when Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv, suffered a significant defeat in Amethi, losing by 55,000 votes to Smriti Irani, a prominent minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which had been in power nationally since 2014. While Rahul's mother and former Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi, retained Rae Bareli for the party, it was the sole seat the Congress won in Uttar Pradesh as the BJP achieved a sweeping victory, securing 303 seats overall.

Now, five years later, these towns symbolize the intense battleground between the BJP and the opposition Congress, as well as the clash between Modi and the Gandhis. This time, Rahul is contesting from Rae Bareli, replacing his 77-year-old mother. Irani of the BJP is seeking re-election from Amethi. Both anticipate stiff competition from their rival's party. The elections in Amethi and Rae Bareli are scheduled for May 20, amidst the vast canvas of India's electoral process.

More than just two parliamentary seats are at stake here: If the BJP succeeds in winning Rae Bareli and retains Amethi, it would effectively eradicate the influence of the Gandhi family and the Congress from Uttar Pradesh. Conversely, opposition leaders argue that a Congress victory in both constituencies could ignite anti-BJP momentum in a state often regarded as a bellwether for national politics.

Irfan, observing from Tiloi town near Amethi and Rae Bareli, perceives a shift favoring the Congress. "A storm is brewing in both cities, which will reverberate throughout the state," he predicts.

However, storms can be capricious—and Amethi and Rae Bareli are well aware of that fact.

Is this a potential advantage for the opposition?

In a video shared by the Congress party across social media platforms, Rahul and his mother Sonia are depicted reminiscing over old photographs of their family's visits to and electoral campaigns in Amethi and Rae Bareli. They are seen reflecting on the longstanding connection their family has had with these towns.

This bond spans several decades. Feroze Gandhi, the husband of Indira and the grandfather of Rahul, emerged victorious in Rae Bareli during the 1952 elections, marking the first electoral contest of independent India. Following Feroze's victory, both Indira and Sonia secured this constituency in subsequent elections, with periods in between when their loyal supporters were fielded as candidates from the town instead.

Only on three occasions has the Congress faced defeat in Rae Bareli. The first was in 1977 when a coalition of opposition parties seized power nationally, capitalizing on public resentment towards the Congress following the imposition of a state of emergency in 1975, during which civil liberties were suspended and numerous political opponents were detained. The next instances were in 1996 and 1998, during the ascent of the BJP on the national stage, leading to their victories here – although the Gandhi family did not participate in those elections.

In Amethi, Feroze Gandhi, the elder son of Indira, experienced defeat in the 1977 election but emerged victorious in 1980. Since then, the Congress has only suffered one defeat, in 1998, prior to Smriti Irani's unexpected victory in 2019. Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have secured victories in Amethi.

Following his loss in 2019, speculation arose regarding whether Rahul would contest from the traditional strongholds of the family or even from Uttar Pradesh again. In 2019, he had won from Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala and chose to contest from there once more this time around.

Insiders from the Congress party reveal that Rahul initially harbored doubts about contesting from a second constituency this time but ultimately yielded to pressure from Sonia, who was adamant about not relinquishing the family's strongholds without a fight. Rahul's sister, Priyanka, who is also a prominent figure in the Congress, opted against contesting this time.

With Rahul Gandhi contesting from Rae Bareli, a historic family associate, Kishori Lal Sharma, is pitted against Irani in Amethi. Some leaders of the opposition view this setup favorably. Before the Congress finalized its candidates for these constituencies, Ameeque Jamei, a national spokesperson for the Samajwadi Party – the Congress's principal ally in Uttar Pradesh – stated to Al Jazeera that if Rahul or Priyanka were to contest, the "opposition's struggle against the BJP would carry more significance." He anticipated that the Congress-led INDIA alliance, challenging the BJP at the national level, could secure as many as 20 out of Uttar Pradesh's 80 seats.

However, turning this optimism into reality is no simple task. Rahul confronts a formidable opponent in the BJP's Dinesh Pratap Singh, who gave Sonia a rigorous challenge in 2019, significantly reducing her winning margin. Singh has been relentless in his criticism of how the Gandhis uphold their lineage. The party and the family seldom mention Feroze Gandhi, Rahul's grandfather, whose resting place lies 100km (60 miles) from Rae Bareli.

Singh remarks, "A person who cannot emulate his grandfather, how can he be a representative for you?"

Salon Politics

In the grassroots, Rahul and Priyanka are energetically canvassing the usually tranquil towns of Rae Bareli and Amethi in their unique styles.

Recently, Rahul casually visited a local salon for a beard trim, causing a stir as videos of his visit quickly spread across social media. Meanwhile, Priyanka is splitting her time between the two towns, conducting road shows and engaging in community meetings.

The Congress has also enlisted the support of other influential leaders to bolster its campaigns in these areas, drawing upon their expertise and political acumen. At the Shalimar Guest House in Rae Bareli, Bhupesh Baghel, the former chief minister of Chhattisgarh, is rallying supporters. "Rahul enjoys considerable support in Rae Bareli, so my role here is relatively minor," he remarks.