Exactly five years ago, at the onset of the summer of 2014, the BJP surprised everyone by announcing Smriti Irani as its candidate from Amethi. Irani was BJP’s giant killer, to take on Rahul Gandhi, heir of ruling Congress and prince of India’s mightiest political family.
Amethi was Congress’ first family’s Pocket borough since the 1980s. The constituency has the distinction of sending Sanjay Gandhi, Rajeev Gandhi (four terms), Sonia Gandhi and whosoever it named, for example, Satish Sharma and Sanjay Singh. Rahul had won twice from Amethi, his victory margin in the election prior to 2014 was over 3.70 lakh votes. Congress had been projecting him as the future of the nation.
Smriti was tasked to take on the Gandhi scion on his home turf, which even the BJP, its supporters and Sangh Parivar thought was impenetrable. It was a challenge not many would like to take. She was a complete outsider to Uttar Pradesh. A television actor-turned-politician, Irani had contested one parliamentary election from Chandni Chowk against Kapil Sibal and lost it badly. She belonged to a community, Parsi (by marriage), which perhaps didn’t have any voter in that backward area called Amethi. It was brave on part of BJP and Irani to go to a state where caste was a guiding and in some cases the abiding principle of politics.
But Irani had the grit and appetite to take the challenge, and stamina to pursue it relentlessly to succeed. Over a period of time, having worked in various posts in the party — secretary, Mahila Morcha chief and vice-president — and as a Rajya Sabha MP and campaigner, Irani had proved that she was a fighter and had a propelling capability to leave a mark.
Her beginning in Amethi was tentative. Two persons who believed (who mattered most) in her capacity were Narendra Modi, the then prime ministerial candidate of BJP and Amit Shah the then general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh.
Kumar Vishwas, who was then with the Aam Admi Party, had made an early beginning in Amethi. And the people in the constituency lent an ear to him. That made it clear that a big segment of the constituency was willing to accept somebody else as their leader, provided they had the right quality, grit and the strong backing of a strong party, to give Rahul a run for his money. Vishwas had great oratorical skills but didn’t have the party.
Irani with her energetic presence, sharp oratorical skills and the backing of BJP came as a person which the people, perhaps, had wanted to see for several decades. Still, not many in Amethi and outside the constituency believed that she may win.
Amethi had been a living example of how leaders, and that too the topmost leaders of the party which ruled India neglected their constituency and believed that only cosmetic work and occasional presence would ensure their victory in perpetuity. She was there to challenge that.
Though she had lost, as the result showed, she caused a great deal of scare in the Congress camp. Rahul’s victory margin was reduced from 3.70 lakh to 1.07 lakh.
Those in the rival camps dismissed her as a one time phenomenon in Amethi and believed that she may not return after the 20014 election. But contrary to their beliefs, Irani made Amethi her second home, preparing for 2019 elections, and taking up a series of developmental projects in the region.
Her name figured in the first list of BJP’s candidates for Lok Sabha, which was released on Thursday evening. No surprises this time. It was taken that she may be the candidate to challenge the Congress president.
The difference between Irani’s candidacy in 2014 and 2019 is noteworthy – this time around, the BJP and its sympathisers believe that she may win to write one of important chapters in India’s political history.
In the last five years, what Irani has done very effectively is, as they call “gherabandi (fencing)” of Amethi and Rahul Gandhi. Recently, a manufacturing unit for AK-203 Kalashnikov rifles, an India-Russia joint venture, was inaugurated in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Union Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman. Ironically, Rahul had laid the foundation stone for the arms factory in 2007 but not much had moved from there because there were a series of confusions.
By visiting Amethi to open a unit as big as this, Modi has clearly displayed his intent and purpose, how he values Irani as a leader and Amethi as her constituency.
In the upcoming election for the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, Smriti has a strong start. She has already made Congress worry, forcing the party to look another seat for Rahul in Karnataka or in Maharashtra. One after another, senior Congress leaders from south and west India are offering a seat to Rahul in their state.