Modi waves while Gandhi simpers silently inside his SUV

The different styles on display in the electorates of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi reflect what is happening in India's drawn-out election, writes Jyoti Malhotra

Amethi and Varanasi are two high-profile constituencies that are widely expected to elect Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and the BJP’s Narendra Modi respectively.

And yet, as India endures its longest-ever election campaign, the distance between Amethi and Varanasi, across the central-eastern axis in Uttar Pradesh, is expanding into a yawning ideological chasm.

In recent days, the country’s main parties have attacked each other in a particularly brutal fashion. Rahul’s sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, campaigning in Amethi, taunted Mr Modi for declaring that he had a chest large enough to absorb all the country’s problems, asking if it wasn’t more important to have a compassionate and secular heart instead. In turn, the BJP accused Priyanka’s husband of using inside information to buy large tracts of land before selling it on at a profit.

Visiting Amethi a few days before Priyanka’s arrival, villagers and townspeople were seething with resentment at the manner in which Mr Gandhi had treated his constituency. At the ubiquitous tea shops, young people and old, from all religions, castes and creeds, complained of being passed over.

One older man recalled with pride how Mr Gandhi’s father, former prime minister Rajiv, treated the people of Amethi like part of his extended family. How, after his assassination in 1991, Sonia Gandhi had inherited Amethi, in turn handing over to her beloved son in 2004.

But what was once a pampered constituency has been relegated to a backwater, caught between the seeming indifference of its high-profile parliamentarian and the deliberate disregard of the opposition governments that have run Uttar Pradesh these past two decades.

A reclusive Mr Gandhi has shied away from listening to the life stories of Amethi’s citizens, his shyness interpreted as indifference. When he does drop by, people said, it is to wave from behind the tinted windows of an air-conditioned SUV.

In contrast, the frenzy with which Varanasi greeted Mr Modi a few days ago when he arrived to file his nomination, seems to have set the tone for a pro-BJP wave spreading across this eastern Indian region.

The importance of Varanasi cannot be underestimated. It is not only the heartbeat of Hindu civilisation, but also the centre of a politically charged region that has thrown up philosophers, socialists and revolutionaries over the centuries. If the BJP is to colour this region saffron, it must invoke the stories steeped in mythology around the gods and goddesses littered around this land, as well as embark upon more practical strategies that add up the caste combinations to religious feeling. The goal, of course, is persuade widely varied groups to get out and vote for Mr Modi.

Back in Amethi, Priyanka’s concerted campaigning seems to be bearing fruit. She has admitted to the fact of bad roads, the intermittent supply of electricity and lack of water to cultivate the fields. But she insists, everywhere she goes, that her brother is in Amethi for the long haul and just like their father, Rajiv, will never let the people down. She lists the development works her brother has done, implying that Amethi would be letting down the Gandhi-Nehru family if they preferred the BJP candidate Smriti Irani, a former actor, to her brother.

In the face of Priyanka’s charm offensive, Amethi’s anger is petering out, but it won’t disappear.

This is the main difference between the 2014 election and the past. Amethi may have been the family bastion, but it cannot be now taken for granted. Mr Gandhi will win Amethi, but with a much-reduced margin.

As for Varanasi, that result is also a foregone conclusion.

Mukhtar Ansari of the Qaumi Ekta Dal, a Muslim political party, has withdrawn his candidacy in favour of the Congress party candidate Ajay Rai, so as not to split the Muslim vote against Mr Modi. Certainly politics makes strange bedfellows.

And despite the increasingly high-voltage campaign conducted by the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, Mr Modi is not only predicted to win Varanasi, he is also expected to abandon Vadodara, the other constituency from Gujarat from which he is also likely to be elected. With 80 seats in Parliament, Uttar Pradesh has always taken itself seriously.

Both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, fighting to win the throne of Delhi, know that only too well.

Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi

On Twitter: @jomalhotra

Published: May 4, 2014 04:00 AM

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