India elections 2019: BJP's Smriti Irani seeks to end Congress hold on Amethi

Irani is trying to stop Rahul Gandhi winning a fourth successive term from Uttar Pradesh district

Indian television actress and politician Smriti Irani (L) and actor Jackie Shroff attends the wedding of Indian businesswoman Isha Ambani with Indian businessman Anand Piramal in Mumbai on December 12, 2018.  Isha Ambani, whose father is tycoon Mukesh Ambani, wedded Anand Piramal, son of Indian billionaire industrialist Ajay Piramal, in the Ambanis' 27-storey home in Mumbai. / AFP / -
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Many residents of Amethi say they will back the Bharatiya Janata Party when their turn comes to vote on May 6, turning their backs on the main opposition Congress party that this district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh has supported for decades.

Postmen, insurance agents and local businessmen say they want change and will back Smriti Irani, the BJP candidate, who they refer to as "didi", or elder sister.

Ms Irani, textile minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, posed a strong challenge to Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader who has represented this constituency for the past 15 years, in the last parliamentary election.

Mr Gandhi won by a margin of 107,000 votes in 2014, but this time around Ms Irani's supporters say they have the Congress on the back foot.

“If a person cannot manage his own constituency how can he manage the country?” asked Rahul Lohiya, the head of Amethi’s business association.

“People will vote for someone who will develop this place. Those who think Amethi is always for the Gandhis are making a big mistake.”

BJP supporters say Mr Gandhi’s decision to contest from a second constituency in Wayanad, in southern Kerala state, shows that he is worried by the challenge posed by Ms Irani and chose a safer seat.

The Congress dismisses this, saying the Gandhi family's ties with Amethi cannot be broken since Mr Gandhi's late father, Rajiv, a former prime minister, and his mother Sonia have also represented the district. Mr Gandhi's decision to contest from Wayanad is a strategic move to woo southern voters, party leaders say.

“This is not just a relationship of a leader with a voter, it is a deeper relationship, like that of a family member. The people of Amethi will ensure Smriti Irani is defeated,” said Akhilesh Pratap Singh, a Congress spokesman.

Thousands of people gathered in Amethi for a rally in support of Ms Irani on Thursday, as voters in other parts of Uttar Pradesh and the rest of the country began casting ballots in the first stage of the general election.

Although the seven-stage election has begun in some areas, campaigning is allowed to continue in other regions until two days before polling day.

The centre of Amethi town was filled with orange placards bearing pictures of Mr Modi and the lotus, the BJP's electoral symbol, as people beat drums to welcome fellow supporters to the rally site. They returned home disappointed as the event was cancelled when Ms Irani had to suddenly return to New Delhi.

A day earlier, the same bamboo poles were decorated with flags displaying an open hand – the Congress election symbol – as Mr Gandhi, accompanied by his mother and his sister Priyanka and her two children, submitted his forms to seek election from Amethi for fourth time.

Residents had kind words for Mr Gandhi’s father, Rajiv, who was assassinated in 1991.

“He took care of farmers, brought people from other states to teach us about irrigation. He changed our lives,” said Rajendra Singh, a farmer.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and sends the largest number of MPs – 80 – to India’s lower house.

The BJP nearly swept the state in the 2014 election, helping Mr Modi win the country’s biggest mandate in more than three decades. Heavy losses in this state could prevent the BJP returning to power for a second term in New Delhi.

Opinion polls conducted before voting began show that low farm prices and high unemployment may hurt the BJP’s chances.

Well aware of the attention on a community that could either cement ties with the Congress or vote for change, people readily shout slogans for their favourite candidate when they see media vehicles.

“Victory is Rahul Gandhi's,” a man yelled from a small pharmacy as reporters passed by on their way to cover Ms Irani submitting her election papers.

“Didi hain toh mumkin hain [Elder sister makes everything possible],” chorused others wearing BJP caps.

Each party ticks off a laundry list of their candidate's achievements, from setting up schools and clinics to building roads and factories.

It is difficult to gauge whether the BJP will make inroads into this Congress base, but Ms Irani’s meetings with farmers, workers and women in Amethi’s villages, promising development and progress, has changed some voters' minds.

They say that when the times comes to make their choice by pressing a button on an electronic voting machine, they will press the one next to the lotus symbol.

“I did not vote for Didi then, but this time I will press the lotus. She stops to talk to people like us; Rahul Gandhi has no time,” said Ravindra Mishra, a post office worker.

“She was new to us in 2014, we didn’t know her. We have known the Congress for long enough.”