The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi's day-long, whirlwind tour today of Amethi-Rae Bareilly-Sultanpur constituencies provided the cutting edge to her party's campaign in the area. Faced with a stiff challenge in her family stronghold, Ms. Gandhi, through her effort, sought to turn the tide in her party's favour.
The campaign in the area had been flagging in the absence of both Ms. Gandhi and the star attraction in these areas, her daughter Priyanka Vadhra. However, by this evening, when Ms. Gandhi's roadshow ended, the Congress challenge was alive and kicking. The large and responsive crowd at Ms. Gandhi's rally in Jais, and the turnout all along the route indicate a change in the public mood.
Amethi and the neighbouring Lok Sabha constituencies of Rae Bareilly have been Congress strongholds. Though the party won only two Assembly seats out of 10 in the two constituencies in the 1996 Assembly polls, it wrested the parliamentary seats in the last general elections. Ms. Gandhi won the Amethi seat in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections by a record margin of over 3.15 lakh votes and led in each of the five Assembly segments, while Satish Sharma was elected from Rae Bareilly.
However, this time around, the party is facing a stiff challenge from the BJP-BSP and the SP. Prior to Ms. Gandhi's rearguard action, of the 10 Assembly seats that fall in the prestigious parliamentary constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareilly, the party had the edge in only three constituencies namely, Sareni, Rae Bareilly Sadar and Jagdishpur. The main reason for the tough fight was the absence of the Gandhi family from the campaign.
Travelling by car, Ms. Gandhi today covered each of the Assembly segments, getting down at several places to interact with the people. She even cast aside her security cordon at places to mingle with the people, especially women. She tried to explain her absence so far, telling the people that as party chief, she had to campaign throughout the country and had left the area to them out of confidence that they would continue to extend their patronage to her candidates.
Going by the tremendous demand from party workers and ordinary people of the area, Priyanka Vadhra is a major draw here. Ask any Congress worker and they will tell you, " if she had come here only for a couple of days, we would have won all the seats in the area.'' In a State where people tend to vote on caste and religious lines, she appears to have the charisma to cut through the divide . " Us Bachi ki tho baath hi aur hai, pehle woh phir jaati aur dharam (That girl is something special, and where she is concerned, caste and religion come later,'' says Vijay Dube, a shopkeeper in Gaurigang. A huge cheer went up, at the public meeting in Jais , when Ms. Gandhi deftly explained the absence of her daughter. " She needs your prayers and blessing as she is expecting once again''.
The party has a fight on its hand in the prestigious Amethi seat, where the BJP has fielded Amita Singh . Her husband Sanjay Singh was trounced by Ms. Gandhi in the last parliamentary elections and now he is waging a determined battle to avenge the defeat through his wife. The Congress candidate, Ashish Shukla, who was preferred over the sitting MLA from the area, Ram Harak Singh, is proving unequal to the task of taking on Mr. Singh. Mr. Shukla's best bet, like that of most of the candidates, lies in Ms. Gandhi turning the tide.
In fact, some of the problems faced by the Congress in the area is, according to party workers, of its own making. Long time party workers feel that with Ms. Gandhi too busy in Delhi , the party does not have anybody capable of taking on its rivals. Most of the party workers believe that the "family'' should have paid more attention to the zilla parishad elections where Sanjay Singh's wife was elected the ZP chairperson.