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A flutter in Amethi

Print edition : Jan 03, 2003 T+T-

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's visit to Amethi, mother Sonia Gandhi's Lok Sabha constituency, turns out to be a political event of some significance.

IF the Congress (I) was secretly hoping that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would be its partner in the State for the next Lok Sabha elections, especially after having saved her government from the onslaught of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) recently by staying neutral, its hopes were dashed. Mayawati made her choice clear when she called upon the people of Amethi to defeat Congress (I) president Sonia Gandhi in the next Lok Sabha election. The BSP leader left no one in doubt as to where her sympathies lay although she was only reiterating her stand that her party would continue its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh.

Interestingly, these signals came soon after a visit by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the daughter of Sonia Gandhi, to Amethi, the latter's parliamentary constituency. Although Priyanka is in charge of Amethi, the visit to the constituency, her first since the last Lok Sabha elections, was an unexpected event. She had campaigned extensively for the party in the elections.

During her four-day tour of the constituency in the last week of November, Priyanka interacted with party workers and visited people's houses to enquire about their well-being. It was then that she came across a Dalit, Shambhu Nath, in Punnpur village, who told her that his house had been demolished by a local BJP politician, Babban Singh, and that the police refused even to register a first information report (FIR). This prompted Priyanka to march to the police station and lodge an FIR.

This incident caught the attention of Mayawati, who immediately deployed a huge posse of administrative and security personnel to prevent Priyanka from taking out a march to the Dalit's house in order to rebuild it. Tension built up in the area when Congress(I) workers flocked to Amethi in response to Priyanka's call. Later, sensing trouble, Priyanka cancelled her programme, but not before the district administration agreed to rebuild Shambhu Nath's house at another location.

The surge of popular response to Priyanka's sympathetic gesture to a Dalit man's cause alarmed Mayawati, who consider the community to be her captive vote bank. After Priyanka's departure from Amethi, Mayawati hurriedly organised a press conference where she ridiculed Priyanka's initiative as "a political drama" in order to mislead the Dalits in the constituency. Mayaywati described Priyanka's visit as part of a "larger conspiracy" by Sonia Gandhi to foment trouble in the region and create tension between Dalits and upper castes because, she said, the Congress(I) had realised that it was losing ground in the State.

The extent of Mayawati's worries was visible when she declared that she would hold a "savdhaan rally" (caution rally) in Amethi on December 11 to prevent Dalits from being "misled" by Sonia Gandhi. She said that Sonia Gandhi had won the last Lok Sabha election by misleading Dalits into believing that the Congress(I) and the BSP had a tacit understanding in Akbarpur and Amethi. Akbarpur was the constituency from where Mayawati herself contested. At the rally, the first ever held by the BSP in the constituency, she said: "The Dalits were misled into voting for her. If you people would not vote for her, she would not see the entrance of Lok Sabha in the next election."

Mayawati declared Amethi as a separate district, even though no administrative work in this regard can be done now as the delimitation exercise is under way in the State. She also announced a Rs.20-crore-package for the development of the district, renamed the Amethi stadium as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Stadium, and declared that Gauriganj would be the district headquarters. She named the newly created district Shahuji Maharaj Nagar. But reports from Amethi suggest that the people are by and large unimpressed by her generosity. Hardly anyone in the area knows who Shahuji Maharaj was. Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj, the late 19th century king of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, has become a popular BSP icon as he is believed to be the first Indian ruler to have introduced job reservation for Dalits and other backward communities. According to reports, even her own partymen were heard saying "What was wrong if she had let Amethi be Amethi? Who knows Shahuji here?"

Mayawati seems to have a fascination for the name Shahuji Maharaj during her earlier stint as Chief Minister she had renamed Chitrakoot, a Hindu pilgrim centre, as Shahuji Maharaj Nagar, despite protests from the then BJP leader Kalyan Singh. When he took charge as Chief Minister six months later, one of the first things that Kalyan singh did was to revert to the old name of Chitrakoot. This was cited as one reason why Mayawati withdrew support to the Kalyan Singh government. Reports from Amethi also say that people, cutting across party lines, have disapproved her attack on Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi, who share a special bond with Amethi. Her remark that "Priyanka Gandhi came to camp here last month only as part of a Congress conspiracy to enact a drama to defame me," failed to draw applause from the crowd, as did her explanation that the Dalit himself was at fault and had encroached upon the land that belonged to a Thakur. "Priyanka Gandhi gave the episode a different colour to project herself and her party as a champion of the Dalit cause," Mayawati said at the rally. The crowd remained indifferent even when she announced the sops.

Mayawati may have been prompted to retaliate against Priyanka because 31 per cent of the voters in Amethi constituency are Dalits. But the fact that the BSP polled only 5 per cent of the votes in the last Lok sabha election as against 67 per cent of the Congress(I) despite the party's pro-Dalit agenda, speaks volumes for the support the Gandhi family enjoys in the area.

CONGRESS workers both in Lucknow and New Delhi are upbeat about the whole affair. They see this as a clear signal of Congress(I)'s increasing support in the State. Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee Chief Arun Kumar Singh Munna said: "It is clear to everybody that Priyanka has made a lasting impression on the voters, especially Dalits, in Amethi, and we hope that she would continue her good work in the days to come." In New Delhi, Congress(I) spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said it was clear that Mayawati was nervous of the tumultuous response to Priyanka.

Priyanka herself has refused to comment on her sudden interest in Amethi. Sonia Gandhi, during the Congress(I) Chief Minister's conclave at Mount Abu in November, had refused to give a clear reply on the issue of political initiation of her children, saying: "They are both grown up. They have been brought up to take their own decisions." This, however, has further fuelled speculation whether it would be Rahul or Priyanka who would finally don the mantle.

While Rahul has so far kept himself away from politics, Priyanka has been associated with her mother's parliamentary constituency since the beginning. In fact, she used to visit Amethi regularly during Rajiv Gandhi's time and even then used to draw delirious response from the crowds. During the 1998 Lok Sabha election, when the Congress(I) was arguably at its nadir in Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka drew crowds when she went to campaign in and around Amethi. One of the most popular slogans in Amethi during every election has been Amethi ka danka, bitiya Priyanka (the clarion call from Amethi is for Priyanka).

Priyanka is her mother's chief adviser on political matters. Her recent foray into Amethi, after all, may not be an incident in isolation. It could actually unfold a larger political plan on the part of Congress as Lok Sabha elections approach. As Sonia Gandhi has already demonstrated in Jammu and Kashmir, she is capable of springing surprises, and the next one could well be in Uttar Pradesh.

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