Amethi and Rae Bareli | Twin power centres

With Rahul Gandhi, who lost to Smriti Irani in 2019, contesting from Rae Bareli, a Gandhi family pocket borough, and the BJP’s redoubled efforts to win both seats, the constituencies remain at the centrestage of the election battle in Uttar Pradesh

Updated - May 05, 2024 10:08 am IST

Published - May 05, 2024 05:03 am IST

There are no major distinctions that distinguish Amethi and Rae Bareli from any of the other 541 Lok Sabha seats.

There are no major distinctions that distinguish Amethi and Rae Bareli from any of the other 541 Lok Sabha seats. | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

There are no major distinctions — geographical, religious or caste-based — that distinguish Amethi and Rae Bareli from any of the other 541 Lok Sabha seats. They suffer from the usual deprivation that the nation too suffers from, with voters complaining about creaking infrastructure and delayed projects. And yet, no other two Lok Sabha constituencies have occupied the political centrestage for so long in Independent India.

Two of the country’s Prime Ministers — Indira Gandhi from Rae Bareli and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi — made their electoral debut from here. So did two former Congress presidents — Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, both from Amethi. And since Gandhis continued to contest from these seats, they also became a theatre for gladiatorial contests for those wanting to challenge them. It has also been the stage on which family dramas publicly played out.

Also Read | Rahul Gandhi’s political journey from Amethi to Rae Bareli in 20 years

The Gandhi family’s association with the region began with Feroze Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s husband who fought from Rae Bareli in the first general elections.

In his book, Feroze: The Forgotten Gandhi, author Bertil Falk details how Feroze came to contest from Rae Bareli. Falk writes that Feroze, who was from Allahabad, found it impossible to contest from his home seat with many renowned contenders. “The Congress tickets for the constituencies in Allahabad were earmarked for Jawaharlal Nehru and Masuriya Din.” Feroze had to seek out another constituency. His friend and mentor Rafi Ahmad Kidwai stepped in to look for an alternative. Together, they zeroed in on Rae Bareli. Feroze won this seat twice — in 1952 and 1957. Seven years after his death, in the 1967 general elections, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister, made her Lok Sabha debut from Rae Bareli.

Never before had an incumbent Prime Minister lost their own seat. But in 1977, Rae Bareli was witness to it when Raj Narain defeated Indira Gandhi in the post-emergency polls by a margin of 55,200 votes. The seeds of her defeat were sown in the 1971 contest between the two. Narain lost the polls by 1,11,810 votes but he wasn’t ready to concede just yet. He appealed against the electoral verdict, alleging that Indira Gandhi had used bribery, government machinery and resources to gain an unfair advantage in the election. He specifically charged her of using government employees as election agents and of organising campaign activities in the constituency while still on the payroll of the government. On June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty and declared the election in Rae Bareli as “null and void”. Within weeks, Indira Gandhi declared Emergency.

Family feud

It is not only politically seismic events that shaped these two constituencies. They have also been the venue of messy family dramas. In 1977, Indira Gandhi’s younger son and her political heir Sanjay Gandhi made his electoral debut from Amethi. But neither the country nor Amethi could forget his role in the Emergency months. He lost the polls by over 75,000 votes.

But in 1980, after a short and chaotic reign of the Janata party, both Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi comfortably won their respective seats. Sanjay, though, did not have time to relish his victory. Five months into his first Lok Sabha term, he died in an airplane crash. His widow Maneka, who was not yet 25, the minimum age to contest elections in India, was keen to take on his mantle. But Indira Gandhi wanted her elder son Rajiv to fill in the vacuum left behind by Sanjay.

In his book 24 Akbar Road: A Short History of The People Behind The Fall And Rise of The Congress, political commentator Rasheed Kidwai notes that after Rajiv Gandhi filed nominations for the Amethi bypoll in 1981, Ms. Maneka “tried hard to edge him out”. Mr. Kidwai mentions Mohammed Yunus, a former diplomat who was close to the Gandhis, said that since Ms. Maneka was not even 25 at that time, “she wanted Indira Gandhi to amend the Constitution to let her in but the Prime Minister refused”. A year after Rajiv Gandhi’s bypoll victory in Amethi, Ms. Maneka Gandhi visited the constituency, declaring it her “rightful political home” and resolving to fight her brother-in-law tooth and nail.

She founded the Rashtriya Sanjay Manch along with Akbar Ahmed, and fought the general elections from Amethi against Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. Ms. Maneka argued that if Indira Gandhi could opt to contest from Rae Bareli, a constituency that her husband represented, then she should have inherited Amethi, which Sanjay won in 1980. However, the tide was in favour of Rajiv Gandhi as he led the Congress to a landslide victory, winning 404 seats out of 514. In Amethi, he defeated Ms. Maneka by over 3.14 lakh votes. Ms. Maneka never contested from Amethi again.

Kishori Lal Sharma, who the Congress has fielded from Amethi for the 2024 polls, entered the scene around this time. To purge Amethi of Sanjay’s loyalists who were now working for Ms. Maneka, Rajiv Gandhi brought his own team, Mr. Sharma being one of them.

The phrases “pocket borough” and “bastions” are used casually for the two seats even though the ground has been shifting for a long time. Congress’s grasp on Uttar Pradesh has been steadily slipping for the last four decades. Since 1989, the Congress has not been in power in the State. Their tally has been reducing and in 2022, it hit its lowest ebb with the party winning only two seats in the 403-member Assembly. Rae Bareli and Amethi are not untouched by this downslide.

Declining support

In 2022, the Samajwadi Party won six out of the 10 seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi Lok Sabha constituencies. The BJP won four. The Congress failed to open its score.

In terms of absolute votes polled, the Congress is in a pitiable condition. The combined votes polled for the Congress in five assembly segments of Rae Bareli was only 1.4 lakh, while the SP got 4.02 lakh and the BJP 3.81 lakh. In Amethi too the Congress performed equally badly. Here, while the BJP received 4.18 lakh votes and the SP 3.52 lakh votes, the Congress stood a distant third with 1.42 lakh votes.

The Gandhis have been dependent on the benevolence of the party in power in the State for long but this changed in 2017 when the BJP’s Yogi Adityanath government came to power with absolute majority. The courtesies that were so far extended were withdrawn. In 2014, Rae Bareli and Amethi were the only seats that Congress won. But in 2019, BJP leader and Union Minister Smriti Irani defeated Rahul Gandhi by a margin of 55,000 votes.

The political equations have drastically changed since then. To fortify their presence in the two seats, the BJP has gone out of their way, to bring lawmakers from the Congress and the SP onto their side. This manifested in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. Out of the six SP MLAs who cross-voted in favour of the BJP or abstained, three were from Amethi and Rae Bareli. Now, with Rahul Gandhi seeking a mandate from Rae Bareli and the BJP’s renewed focus on the seat, the battle lines are drawn.

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