Despite her appeal, there's visible fatigue with the Gandhi family in Amethi
A greying Jagdish Piyush arrives at 9. 30 am at the heavily guarded Munshiganj guesthouse and hands out Priyanka Gandhi's itinerary for the day. A family loyalist, he's made a career out of composing paeans to the Gandhis. His latest offering is “Maya ki Lanka, Jalayegi Priyanka” (Priyanka will set Mayawati's Lanka on fire). Has Priyanka changed at all, I ask. “No, she's just the same,” he gushes, “wahi tapalta, wahi tezi, wahi khilkhilana” (the same sharpness of repartee, sparkle, and tinkling laughter). Having done his bit, he speeds off in his battered little Maruti to Priyanka's first halt, where he, along with other family loyalists, will ensure the seats are filled before the star campaigner arrives.
At 10.45 am, the gates swing open and a cavalcade of vehicles, including an ambulance, bursts on to the road. Seated next to the driver in a white SUV is Priyanka. As they flash past, the gathered journalists and TV crew leap into their cars and vans, as do local Congress workers: the vehicles drive dangerously fast, overtaking each other from both sides to keep up with the official convoy. Suddenly, a Congress-flag flying Tata Safari crashes into an oncoming tempo; all the cars behind it come to a screeching halt. Locals start stoning the Tata. Calm is soon restored, and the media cars race to catch up with the official cavalcade.
At Bhawanigarh, Priyanka stands up to speak: she is picture perfect, the marigold garlands setting off her casually draped green Chettinad sari, matching the green arches and flags fluttering en route to announce Milad un Nabi, the Prophet Mohammad's birthday. It's February 4 and she is rustling up support for the Congress, in brother Rahul Gandhi's parliamentary constituency of Amethi. People must vote Congress so that the MLA and the MP are from the same party, and the MLA can't block the use of central development funds, she says. Jagdishpur is held by the Congress, but Priyanka is speaking at a spot which was, before delimitation, in Bahujan Samaj Party-held Issauli.
At smaller meetings, her tone is intimate, sometimes bordering on the patronising, as in Tirhut, where she takes a political science class. “What's the coming election about?” she smiles. Confused, someone responds: “A Congress election?” “No,” says Priyanka. “It's Rahul's election,” a hopeful voice adds. Finally, a Congress worker decides he's had enough: “It's an Assembly election.” But Priyanka is not deterred. “What's a Legislative Assembly? Who are you electing?” she now asks. “Somebody who will serve us,” is the answer. Pleased, she continues, “Has your MLA served you well?” And then comes the shocker: “No, neither the MLA nor the MP has served us well.” Now she is all sweet and conciliatory. She wags a finger and cajoles the crowd, “Come on, Rahul has come here twice.” “No,” is the firm response. “Ok, he came to the nearby village — I will convey your grievance to him.”
Standing on the sidelines are Congress workers, looking worried. Even though the party holds the Jagdishpur seat, they say they will have to work very hard to get Radhey Shyam Kannaujia, octogenerian sitting MLA Ram Sewak's grandson, through. A worker grumbles: “We organised a meeting at Para Bazaar in Issauli; Kishorilal Sharma [the Gandhi manager in Rae Bareli and Amethi] wouldn't allow Priyankaji to stop there.” He looks glum: “We just lost 10,000 votes.” Indeed, Mr Sharma's name springs up frequently in conversations with party workers, who say he blocks access to the Gandhis.
Priyanka has not lost either her dazzling good looks or her only too obvious charm or, indeed, the effortless way she can adapt her speech, delivered in flawless Hindi, to suit the mood and place: if she spots many women, she talks of their empowerment through self-help groups. And at the Madarishah mazhar at Inhauna, local Muslims shower her with rose petals. But there is a change. The frenzied crowds have been replaced by polite patience, the unquestioning adulation by disenchantment: like a seasonal bird, locals complain Priyanka comes only at election time to “picnic” and to hand out (metaphorical) “lollipops” before she returns to her children in Delhi. In Jugrajpur, after she has left, I ask locals who they are voting for: “Congress” says one, “for Rahul's sake.” I sit down, and then the grievances pour out — the potholed roads, the lack of electricity, the skyrocketing prices of fertilisers, the fact that they are being forced to sell paddy in the open market for Rs 7 a kg, even though the Centre's minimum statutory price is Rs 10: “Even the government refuses to pick up our paddy; officials say the grains are not fine enough.” We'll vote for the Samajwadi Party,” says Talukdar Singh “it's the only farmer-friendly party.” But if the men are immune to Priyanka's charm offensive, the women are sold: “We will vote for the panja (the hand),” they smile, “it doesn't matter what the men say.” There is a visible fatigue with the Gandhis in both Amethi and Rae Bareli, which I had visited earlier: the only one who escapes criticism is Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The party currently holds seven of the 10 assembly segments across the two VIP parliamentary constituencies, but Congressmen say they are sure only of retaining Amethi and Unchahar, and possibly one more.
At Issauli, the halt Priyanka doesn't make, local Congressmen continue with their speeches. I ask a bystander who's come: “Maneka Gandhi?” he offers, before he's interrupted: “Priyanka Chopra,” a young man offers, bites his tongue, and amends it to “Priyanka Gandhi.” Do a Google search for Priyanka and the first name that springs up is that of the actress, the second that of the Gandhi daughter.
But that this could happen in Amethi, the family's ‘home', is telling.