Cong's Rae Bareli fortress seems impregnable but BJP goes all out to breach it

In this much in the news Lok Sabha constituency, the Gandhi name is the backdrop against which every political debate takes place -- whether for voters, for the Congress fighting to keep its bastion or for the BJP going all out for a win.
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi

Rae Bareli (UP) | In this much in the news Lok Sabha constituency, the Gandhi name is the backdrop against which every political debate takes place -- whether for voters, for the Congress fighting to keep its bastion or for the BJP going all out for a win.

Issues such as the Ram temple, the Modi factor, the government's free ration scheme, 'pucca' houses for the poor, stray cattle and the Congress' allegation that the BJP will change the Constitution if it returns to power are all part of the election discourse. But the Gandhi factor looms large over it all.

Such has been the Congress domination that it has lost Rae Bareli only thrice since Independence – in 1977, 1996 and 1998. Sonia Gandhi represented the constituency for four consecutive terms since 2004 and has now passed on the baton to her son Rahul Gandhi.

The former Congress president, who suffered a shock defeat at the hands of the BJP's high-profile minister Smriti Irani in the nearby family pocket borough Amethi, is up against the BJP's Dinesh Pratap Singh.

"Yahan toh panja chalta hai, yeh Gandhi family ka garh hai. Koi bhi candidate ho, Gandhi parivar hi jeetega. Yahan sirf margin ki baat hai (The Congress' hand symbol prevails here as this is the Gandhi family stronghold. Whoever the candidate, the Gandhi family will win from here, the only question here is about the margin of victory)," said rickshaw puller Sonu Pandey.

Ravinder Singh, a toy shop owner, agreed. In his view, Rahul Gandhi will "sail through" from here as the bond with the Gandhi family is above other things.

"Last time, there was a different sentiment prevailing in the country and still Sonia ji won by over 1,67,000 votes. So this time Rahul should have it easy. The only point of interest is the margin," he told PTI.

There is a flip side too.

Several BJP voters say the Ram temple sentiment may give the ruling party a fillip but are also aware of the herculean task at hand and concede that it is a daunting electoral contest for Dinesh Singh, who lost to Sonia Gandhi in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Alok Singh, a taxi driver in Rae Bareli city, said he will vote for the BJP. After all, it was only under the Modi rule that the Ram temple was constructed after centuries, he said. However, he also concedes that a victory for the BJP from here seems a difficult prospect.

"Though I am a BJP supporter and voter as I feel the Gandhis have ruled here for a long time and development that should have come has not happened, I don't want to be under any illusion... 99 per cent Rahul will win," he told PTI.

The party's move of fielding Rahul Gandhi from Rae Bareli instead of Amethi was seen by many as motivated by the fact that this is a relatively safer seat. Whether or not that was the party's motivation, the seat certainly has all the trappings of a Gandhi family fortress with most people vouching for the century-old ties between the Nehru-Gandhi clan and people of the area.

'Rae Bareli ke Rahul' has been the Congress catchphrase for his campaign here and the party has been stressing on the emotive connect going back generations.

On Friday, a campaign finale of sorts ahead of the May 20 elections, Sonia Gandhi addressed a rally and issued an emotional appeal.

"I am entrusting my son (Rahul Gandhi) to you. Treat him like your own as you treated me. Rahul will never disappoint you," she said at a large public rally in the constituency she represented for 20 years with Rahul Gandhi by her side.

Also at the rally was her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Though Rahul Gandhi and BJP's Dinesh Singh are battling it out at the hustings, much of the spotlight is on the Congress general secretary who is leading her party's charge in her family's electoral fortress.

Going by the adage, once bitten twice shy, the Congress does not want to leave anything to chance after the Amethi defeat last time.

Priyanka Gandhi has indeed run a spirited campaign in both Rae Bareli and nearby Amethi, where Gandhi family aide Kishori Lal Sharma is taking on the BJP's high-profile minister Smriti Irani.

In her campaign speeches here, she makes it a point to evoke the 103-year-old bond between the Nehru-Gandhi family, dating back to 1921 when Jawaharlal Nehru visited the area, and the people.

The BJP is putting up a tough fight too.

It knows the importance of being persistent as the nearby Amethi constituency had shown last time and is going all out to breach the fortress with Home Minister Amit Shah visiting the constituency twice in less than a week to campaign for Singh.

Singh has also been targeting the Gandhi family during the campaign and maintains that the Gandhis are not unbeatable here.

Sonia Gandhi fought on a Congress ticket but the SP, BSP and Apna Dal (Kamerawadi) faction supported her and she fought as the representative of four parties, Singh told PTI.

"Rahul Gandhi does not have the support of the parties that Sonia Gandhi did," he said.

Voices from the ground indicate that the free ration scheme and 'pucca' houses for the poor have also gotten traction.

Harilal, another battery-operated rickshaw driver, said, "We are getting free ration. I also got a pucca house. I don't know who will win but I will vote for the BJP." The BJP is determined to cause an upset but it seems a daunting task in light of the emotive connect of the Gandhi family with the electorate here.

Rae Bareli constituency comprises Bachhrawan, Harchandpur, Rae Bareli, Sareni, and Unchahar assembly segments.

Voting for the Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies will take place on May 20 and the votes will be counted on June 4 along with the rest of the country.

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