Pilibhit: Even staunch BJP voters in Pilibhit concede Maneka Gandhi’ chances of a successful come-back would have been doubtful had it not been for her party’s 'Modi for PM' campaign.
A former Union minister and animal rights activist, Gandhi has been elected Member of Parliament from Pilibhit five times between 1989, when she contested on a Janata Dal ticket and in 2004, when she won as BJP’s candidate.
Pilibhit's dwindling economic prospects, the absence of quality higher education institutes, the poor state of its roads and the unfulfilled demand to link the district to the broad-gauge rail network have made it difficult for Gandhi with every new election to ensure her seat in Parliament from Pilibhit.
In 2009, she successfully beat the anti-incumbency factor, say political observers, by shifting out of Pilibhit to Aonla and introducing her son Varun Gandhi, who sealed his victory with highly controversial 'hate speech' that he gave during campaigning. Five years on, Maneka has changed her seat again, returning to Pilibhit from Aonla, a seat she had won in 2009 by a slim margin of 7,000 votes.
Senior local journalists see Gandhi's and Varun's decision to vacate their incumbent seats as a 'strategy' to escape people's anger and bank on the freshness and Modi factors respectively to see them through.
That Gandhi's personal stock in Pilibhit is falling is evident from reactions of residents who have been her loyal voters.
Says Sumit Gupta, who own the popular sweet shop in one of Pilibhit's markets, "The strong candidate today is clear. In all the villages that I am in touch with, it is all about Modi, Modi and Modi. Individually, there is no one candidate people are taking about. Everyone wants Modi."
What about their five-time MP? "Maneka is also there. But overall, this election is running in the name of Modi." Asked about her chances of winning had there been no 'Modi wave', Gupta said, "It would have been a very tough fight."
Gupta, however, defends Gandhi's 25-year-record as MP of Pilibhit. "There are many reasons why development has not happened here. There is no support from the government either from the state or Central government. While she may not have been able to develop Pilibhit, she has never prevented any work from being done here. She has the support of the public. Otherwise, why would she keep winning?" he said.
That said, there is no escaping the Modi factor on the streets of Pilibhit. At Gandhi’s roadshows too, flags and posters featuring Gandhi and Varun, their sitting MP, are drowned out in the sea of the saffron 'Modi for PM' caps.
Says Manjit Singh, owner of an electronic store, in the city, "Maneka will win this election 101 percent. This time there is a lot of hope that the BJP will form the government." Is she riding on the Modi wave? Without hesitation, Singh replies, "Absolutely. All the credit goes to him."
However, Singh comes to Gandhi’s defence when asked if the public of Pilibhit are angry with her. "People are angry with everyone. At least, she didn’t siphon off public funds in the name of making roads etc. Besides, she has personally spent a lot for the people. She has helped people who have gone to Delhi from here. She has funded the medical expenses of the poor. She has distributed cycles. People say she failed to deliver on her promise bring broad guage. But unless her party is in power, she has no power."
Responding to whether there is a contest at all between her and any of the other candidates, Singh says, "This time BJP will win, no one else has a chance. There is no contest. Not because the other candidates are weak but because there is a wave, the Modi wave."
What if there was no Modi wave? "It would have been difficult for Maneka. She would have won but with difficulty," says Singh.
Outside Pilibhit city, in Bisalpur, for instance, where Gandhi carried out a road show on the last of campaigning, questions about her prospects invariably return to the topic of Modi. Not to mention, talk of Gandhi’s neglect of Pilibhit and speculation about behind-the-scene ‘political setting’ that ensures her victory.
"She asks for our vote in the name of development. But what we see in Pilibhit is not vikaas (development) but vinaash (ruination). You can see the problems with your own eyes. There are no factories, no good education, the roads are bad. She forgets about Pilibhit after she wins election," says Dharmendra Gangwar, a public sector employee.
If her record as a politician is so bad, why do voters keeping voting her back? "Ahead of each election, they come up with a spin to influence people. This time it is the Modi factor. Last time, they turned the election into a Hindu versus Muslim issue,” says Lokesh Gangwar, who runs a mobile-recharge store in Bilaspur, referring to Varun Gandhi’s inflammatory speech that totally polarised the electorate and saw him win 4 lakh votes defeating his rival by a margin of nearly 2 lakh.
"On polling day, it will become a Hindu-Muslim election. This time it is the Modi effect," says Kakku Bhai, who runs photo studio.
In Bilaspur’s Muslim basti, which Gandhi’s road show strategically avoided, there is a mix of resignation and hope for what the election results will bring.
"Last time when she came, she had promised everyone jobs. But we never saw her after that. We cannot afford to travel to Delhi to see her. We want her to leave Pilibhit. We want a new leader. We are backing Phool Babu this time. He is the only one who has the potential to defeat her…We are trying to bring a change. If not now, perhaps in the next election," says Rashan Lightwala, who does decoration work at public functions, referring to BSP candidate Anis Ahmed, a former minister and local MLA.
The Muslim (3.5 lakh) and the Dalit community account for about a third of the Pilibhit’s electorate (16 lakh). The Kurmi (3.5 lakh) and the Lodh-Rajput (2 lakh) community have traditionally voted for Gandhi.
Commenting on the BJP’s strategy in Pilibhit in 2014, senior journalist Sandeep Singh says, "In the past, Maneka has always fought the election on the development plank. Her slogan used to be ‘vikas ki aandhi, Maneka Gandhi’. But in this election, that slogan is zero. This time, BJP has made Modi factor their plank."
Singh talks about how Gandhi, when she first arrived in Pilibhit in 1989 had challenged the caste domination. "Eight times this seat has gone to a Kurmi candidate. But when Maneka came in 1989 she broke that domination. The Kurmi and Lodh-Rajput community voted for her. She came with a reputation of being the Gandhi family daughter-in-law. She was perceived as a big political personality. So people felt she would be able to make a difference. She won by huge margins…But the development agenda remained just that. It remained on paper. If you look at the ground realities, no work has been done."
Decoding Gandhi’s knack for winning elections, Singh says, "True, she is not a popular or mass leader. But for Pilibhit she is considered a big personality and she has a celebrity quotient that she has exploited well. Whether she performs or not, people are influenced by her…Where ever she goes, her supporters manage to convince the public that without Maneka, there is no possibility of development in Pilibhit."
On her demolition of the Opposition, the senior journalist says, "The Opposition was never of her calibre. If the Opposition also had a national leader there would have been some contest. But only local leaders have fought against her here. So there was no big impact on Maneka."
In every election, Singh says, Gandhi has managed to prop up or exploit a temporary wave just before the election to turn the tide back in her favour.
"In 2009, there was Varun’s inflammatory speech. There was a lot of anger against Maneka but suddenly the election turned. In 2004, she campaigned on the strength of bringing broad gauge to Pilibhit. People believed her. And now, in 2014, Maneka is riding the Modi wave. She tried to focus the campaign on herself but she realised it could prove costly and she has decided to take Modi’s support."
When Firstpost asked Gandhi, at a brief meeting during her roadshow in Bisalpur, about whether there was a Modi wave in Pilibhit, a smiling Gandhi seated on a red open jeep, said, "It is a BJP wave." Asked how it felt to be back in Pilibhit, all she granted was, "Good."
With voices drowned out by the beating of drums and a wildly cheering crowd, her response to the next question on the state of development in Pilibhit was, "I can’t hear you." Lucky timing, perhaps.
In an election where the result in Pilibhit as always is a foregone conclusion, contestants in the fray—Samajwadi Party’s Budhsena Verma, BSP’s Anis Ahmed and, the one who has been most in the news, Congress party’s Sanjay Kapoor—are doing all they can to live down the ‘weak’ candidate tag. Rejecting talk of ‘political match-fixing’ in Pilibit, they insist that this time Pilibhit will vote for change and unseat Gandhi.
Thanks to Modi, Gandhi can be rest assured that that time has not yet come.
Updated Date: Apr 16, 2014 19:07:50 IST