It could have been any sweltering summer afternoon in North India. The sweat had drenched my green t-shirt and in front of me was Kaptan Yadav, managing the affairs of a brick kiln outside Ginnor, one of the 1200 villages that lie in Amethi, Rahul Gandhi’s constituency.
“The party I vote for,” he said, in a reference to the Samajwadi Party, “is not putting up any candidates; so naturally my vote shall be for the Congress”. But Rahul has not “done” anything for Amethi—spent only 65% of the MPLAD, barely bothered to speak in the Lok Sabha, much less raise matters of importance for Amethi. and simply not used the leverage of the Dynasty to wrest very important concessions for his constituents. “Gandhi parivaar ko vote dena yahaan ki parampara hai” comes the reply from Kaptan Yadav through an almost feudal obeisance.
It is the second day of Rahul Gandhi’s “whirlwind tour” of the constituency. Busy with the task of projecting the Congress throughout the nation, Gandhi can scarcely take out time for Amethi. And when he does, it culminates into a heap of small rallies and road shows spread across the few towns and endless villages of Amethi. Nothing in comparison to Narendra Modi’s blithering attack in a meet numbering more than 150000 people in Gauriganj on Monday.
Meanwhile, Kumar Viswas has stationed himself in the dynast’s bastion for over four months. His constant travelling, and door-to-door campaigning may not have earned him enough media attention but certainly has earned the respect of the locals, if not their votes. “Doctor Sahib (refering to Kumar Viswas) has really worked hard; and I trust him to be honest, sincere and hardworking,” says Satish Kumar Misra from the kasba of Musafirkhana. He impressed by his dedication and has made up his mind to vote for AAP.
Amethi is a poor constituency, in a region that ranks amongst the poorest in the country. Grazing through its countryside, one can catch hold of the same squalor—villages with thatched roofs, filthy kasbas with urine-carrying sewers depositing at the side of the highways—that characterises much of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Signs of prosperity—modern factories or exceptionally fertile lands—are missing. Derelict old steel mills lie abandoned. Indeed the educated guess seems to be that agriculture, state hand-outs and occasional electoral tourism (like yours truly) form the bedrock of the local economy.
Yet, Amethi, the “VIP” seat, has elected for ten years the man who may become the prime minister someday, and his family of prime ministers for a good part of the 20th century. It seems only natural that residents have the right to expect much out of their high-profile candidates. Or as an AAP worker points out, “elect someone who lives with us, remains with us and can do something for us”.
However, as the pathetic and squalid state of the constituency attests, little has been “done”. Besides, increasing railway connectivity, and setting up college institutes and training centre, locals report no visible change made by the “Gandhi parivaar” over the course of the past ten years. And now thanks to the “Modi wave”—an inspirational ‘leher’ hitting the unemployed but aspirational young—and the dogged campaigning of Kumar Viswas, Amethi really is embroiled in a heated battle.
Amethi is just another one of the impoverished districts that needs what every other backward district needs—better governance and industrialisation. Better governance, so that all the money that comes in from the Centre or states for roads is spent on roads, not pocketed by local contractors. And industrialisation—because that is the surest way to enrich a place with good jobs. More often than not, the two go hand-in-hand. Better governance increases chances of businesses prospering, whereas a richer populace tend to be more vocal towards local governmental authorities.
While decrying the inefficacy of “Rahul Bhaiyya”, Narendra Modi asked Amethi’s populace to “give Smriti Irani seven months” to see drastic improvements. But can a Lok Sabha Member of Parliament, with no real administrative powers, really make a significant dent in governance and prosperity of his constituency? Especially if domestic institutions like the regime of the District Collector, local panchayats and municipalities or the state government, are dysfunctional.
For instance, even if someone other than Rahul Gandhi gets elected—say, for instance, Kumar Viswas—can he really turn his constituency into Shanghai single-handedly. The two real powers of a Member of Parliament that have an immediate consequence in his constituency, are the expenditure of the MPLAD funds and consistent inquiry and scrutiny of the national executive in the name of his district. While Rahul Gandhi has failed on both counts miserably—his MPLAD fund is at least 35% unspent, and he has asked 0 questions in the parliament—will Viswas be able to achieve anything of significance, even he fulfills on these two counts significantly. Probably not.
Let us examine this hypothesis more closely. The basic tooth-and-nail governance of ensuring land registry and other corrupt-free local offices is under the control of the District Collectors, who in turn are answerable largely to the Vidhan Sabha or the chief ministerial administration. Similarly, while the 73rd and 74th Amendments may have created a host of local bodies, state governments have considerable sway in the powers and funds allotted to them (unless the Central government specifically includes their participation in their schemes).
Kumar Viswas, as a member of parliament, can do little here save for a few facilities built using the MPLAD fund, and repeatedly petition the Central government or the State government for a certain kind of scheme or executive action. And even if Viswas gets something passed—the implementation of the scheme or project shall be under the same officials and bodies that Viswas has little control over. Or as Amit Lal Gupta, owner of a paints shop in Gauriganj notes, “Kumarji is hardworking and honest, but he will not be able to do anything since he probably won’t have any power in the Centre”.
The situation may only slightly change if the elected member of parliament is in the ruling coalition—as Smriti Irani may be in a possible Modi administration. But, in her fight for sops from the railways, road transportation or a ministry focused on rural development, she will be contending with the wishes of perhaps ten other more powerful member of parliaments wishing to satisfy their own constituencies.
Similarly, when it comes furthering the economic modernisation and inviting investment in manufacturing, the story can’t end at Amethi’s borders, and needs to take into account the entire eastern Uttar Pradesh as a region. Because, one cannot create a Singapore in the middle of Africa. Again the onus shall lie with the state government or well-designed large-scale infrastructure project calibrated by the central government.
In other words, if regional and local institutions do not work, there is very little a member of parliament can do to improve the lot of Amethi. This is not to excuse Rahul Gandhi’s abysmal record—he has not bothered use the leverage he has as the member of Congress’s supreme family, nor lived up to an average MP’s standards. This is just to warn that those pinning all hopes on Smriti Irani or Kumar Viswas, may be disappointed again. They should try fixing Lucknow first.