It is payback time for the ruling family of Amethi. Or so they believe. Dislodged from their exalted position after Sanjay Singh was trounced in the Lok Sabha elections, his wife and former badminton player, Ameeta Singh, is trying to wrest control of the constituency from the Gandhi family.
It is a grudge match like none other in the Assembly elections. Mr. Singh and the Gandhi family were on the same side since Sanjay Gandhi first contested the seat in 1980, but he fell out with Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. He then sided with the Janata Dal in an unsuccessful attempt to get the former Prime Minister defeated in the 1989 parliamentary polls but ended up with a bullet wound after being involved in a shootout. With the Gandhi family staying away from politics after Rajiv's Gandhi's death, Mr. Singh was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1996, but three years later Sonia Gandhi came back to reclaim the seat.
Ms. Singh of the BJP, now in the role of the `Rani' of Amethi, is trying to do what in local parlance is called "sendh maro" (lay siege) to a constituency that has for over two decades been a stronghold of the Nehru-Gandhi family. She portrays herself as the "true home-grown bahu" as opposed to "those who have used the constituency to get elected and then forgotten about it". This is the message she is trying to hammer home at meeting after meeting. "You deserve a representative who will be here to share your sorrows and problems each day of the year," she says, alluding to Ms. Sonia Gandhi's inability to spend much time here.
Ms. Singh is using the elections to position herself to mount a bigger challenge to the Gandhi family in the next Lok Sabha elections, and she makes no bones about it. "The people have seen my work as the zilla parishad chairperson. If I can win the elections and there is a favourable government in Lucknow, I will work day and night. I promise you the next parliamentary polls will be very different for Ms. Gandhi."
The main charges she makes against Ms. Gandhi and her family are of neglecting the constituency and, ironically, lack of development. "Amethi helped them become leaders, what did they give in return?'' She admits that the constituency attracted investments worth Rs. 16,000 crore during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure, but incredibly credits all development work in the area to her husband. "It's true that this area received investments close to Rs. 16,000 crore, but it was primarily because my husband was with them and he organised it all,'' she says without batting an eyelid.
The thrust of her campaign centres on the Congress president's inability to devote time to Amethi. She accuses Ms. Gandhi and her daughter, Priyanka, of not being around when needed, while she and her husband are always around. "I try to drum it into their heads that they have a representative who doesn't have time for the constituency. They deserve better. Too bad if as chief of her party and Leader of the Opposition she has other responsibilities as well."
As we travel across the constituency in her car, she points out every person who waves at her or greets her. "I am touched by their affection,'' she says, but bristles when asked if it is out of fear for her husband's reputation. "People have just given my husband a bad name; it is not fair to damn him for life just because of one incident."
She loses no time in pointing out that this time the Congress is banking on strong-arm tactics. "Look at their candidate. His main qualification is that he shot at my husband." She accuses the Congress of trying to play the Brahmin card by giving its ticket to Ashish Shukla, but adds in the same breath, "I am a Brahmin by birth but married to a Thakur."
As far as she is concerned the present battle is over and done with; it is the main round she is waiting for. "I will be there,'' she says defiantly. This may see her through when the Gandhi family is not actively involved in the campaigning, but will it be enough when Ms. Sonia Gandhi or Ms. Priyanka hit the campaign trail?