In the past 10 years, over 200 factories have closed down. It is amongst the 10 most backward districts in India. Craters on the moon are easier to navigate than its roads, it has the worst teacher-student ratio in Uttar Pradesh, and less than 1% of its eligible workforce got any employment from NREGA in 2012-2013. And its representative in Parliament has not asked a single question. Even by the most benign standards, Amethi has the remotest resemblance to a ‘VIP constituency’.
The baffling neglect of Amethi is, to an extent, symptomatic of how an inheritance-based regime can make state institutions almost defunct. It is even more inconceivable how, in a vibrant democracy like ours, a high profile constituency like Amethi has never seen a high profile contest. Amethi is iconic of the kind of politics where a mix of caste and loyalty can continue to reward legislative incompetence.
It is in this context that the vitriolic campaign by Narendra Modi against a dynasty assumes immense significance. The trademark characteristic of a Modi campaign has been his pointed attack at a system which he, and several others, perceive to favour dynasty over meritocracy. He took his barbs against the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to a logical conclusion by deciding to push the envelope and tearing into Rahul Gandhi on his own home turf.
While several senior non-Congress politicians before Modi have expressed their reservation about a family centric polity, no one had actually dared to shout it out loud in a fiefdom that is almost synonymous with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Ever since the 1990s, when India’s polity began a true bipolar trend, the leaders of major parties followed an unwritten Omertà code. The thumb rule was never to attack the top leadership personally or electorally in their individual constituencies. Irrespective of the BJP’s turbulent relationship with the Congress when it was in power the last time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee rarely mounted any personal attacks on Sonia Gandhi. Neither did the Congress, when it was in power during the 1990’s , ever follow a ‘stop Vajpayee’ agenda, which included using investigative agencies to legally ‘neutralise’ its principal opponent.
But the Modi campaign has appeared to break that Omertà code. Rarely before in India has a senior leader of Modi’s stature launched such a vitriolic campaign against family-controlled politics that it almost borders on being construed as personal. The last time an opposition prime ministerial candidate chose to campaign at the epicentre of a Gandhi stronghold was in 1999 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed a rally in Bellary.
But there is a marked difference between Vajpayee’s Bellary rally and Modi’s Amethi campaign. It was his opposition to a foreign-born citizen bidding for the prime minister’s post that drove Vajpayee to Bellary. In Modi’s case, it is his adamant desire to defeat the Congress dynasty which has taken him to Amethi.
Modi’s tea-seller-to-prime-minister story is almost akin to a rags-to-riches one. Very few leaders have been able to rise from virtual ignominy to a swell of popularity in such a short span of time. Modi’s emergence is, in many ways, also a source of inspiration to post-liberalisation India, which has seen the rags-to-riches phenomenon being played out in business, sports and cinema. Politics has remained one of the frontiers where merit and capability have always been overshadowed by caste or pedigree. Hence, for Modi to remain a creative disruption, it is imperative that he directly takes on the most powerful symbols of dynasty, even if his rally yields no electoral dividend.
For Modi, Amethi is iconic of the soul of his bête noire. If he is able to reach 7, Race Course Road and wrest Amethi from the Congress, he would have won the battle and the war. The Congress is well aware if it loses Amethi, but through divine intervention is able to form a UPA-III, it will still be counted a political defeat. And even the party appears to have come to terms that an Amethi win will not be a cakewalk in 2014. The unprecedented support that both Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have given to the Rahul campaign suggests that it is not business as usual. The party’s woes are compounded by the fact that, in 2009, the Congress won by a record 4 lakh votes, and hence, a narrow win for the Congress vice president in 2014 will be counted as a BJP victory.
Given that Amethi has always been a Congress bastion, and the family has decades-old ties with the constituency, the BJP’s odds of actually winning the seat are still low. But the fact that India’s most powerful dynasty is fighting tooth and nail to preserve its fortress is some ways is a small triumph for democracy.
(The writer is a foundign member of the Citizens for Accountable Governance)