This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26th Feb 2017.
The youngsters in Amethi, just like the rest of Uttar Pradesh, are expressive, opinionated and politically alive. One does not have to ask obviously intrusive questions to gauge their mood. Once the interaction begins, they decide the flow and most of the questions in your scribbling pad are covered without your asking them. However, during a good 20-minute conversation with dozens of millennial voters, in which they spoke of pertinent election issues and influential leaders, there was one point they had to be reminded to touch upon: Rahul Gandhi.
Almost all of them then responded with a wry smile and said, “The less said about him, the better.”
Indicative of the mood in the rest of the country, in his own Lok Sabha Constituency of Amethi, Rahul Gandhi is not even considered important enough to be criticised or mentioned. It is by and large applicable to the Congress too, where the electorate hardly mentions the grand old party as a factor in Uttar Pradesh.
And rightly so. A pocket borough of the Gandhis, Amethi is a dustbowl (to put it leniently), where millennial voters are still facing the problems they have grown up with.
Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Shri Sai Shivram Girls Education College in Gauriganj constituency of Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet. “We have to go into the farm fields,” she rued. “It is even more dangerous for girls, because the security situation for women is not great here either. The toilets have been built for the well-off, influential people. But our demands fall on deaf ears.”
The complaints regarding lack of sanitation facilities are not limited to the remote villages, but are heard even up to the town. Ranjit Rao, 21, said even in his village of Banvaripur, which is right on the outskirts of the town Amethi, they do not have a toilet.
While there are no two opinions about the fact that Amethi is one the least developed VIP constituencies, and is even worse than Rae Bareli, a report published by Livemint in 2014 showed that it did not fare well even when compared to the rest of Uttar Pradesh, which lags behind in the juxtaposition with the rest of India. The report highlighted 12 socio-economic indicators on which Amethi fared worse than the state, which included important aspects like access to tap water, electricity, toilet, LPG, literacy and so on.
Add to that the crisis of unemployment faced by the youth, and Amethi becomes a perfect recipe for students to think of migration. Hardly anyone expressed the desire to stay put, saying they do not think the place would improve anytime soon. “If it had to happen, it would have happened by now,” said Ranjit, who is currently teaching primary school students to make a living, while preparing to apply for the job of Uttar Pradesh police. “If I do not get it, I will migrate to Delhi, where my father works in a private company.”
Ranjit further complained the vacancies in the police force of UP go mostly to the constituencies where SP is strong. “They consider Class 12 marks for the job,” he said. “In Mainpuri, Etawah, Pratapgarh etc, students end up fudging their marksheets and get through, which is why Amethi lags behind.”
Whether the allegations are true or not, it conveys the hapless youngster’s plight in attempting to make a decent living. The incompetence of Rahul Gandhi as an MP, and the inability of the previous state governments to develop Amethi, has been cashed in by Narendra Modi, who continues to wield his popularity over the electorate. The critics and experts have dissected all the angles of demonetisation to prove it was an ill-thought, poorly executed scheme that only disturbed the lives of millions while achieving little, but it hardly matters to the electorate going to polls. The fact is, an economic disaster has proved to be a political masterstroke.
In Poonam’s remote village of Ultagadha, where lush green farmlands and fragile huts occupy the periphery of potholed roads, she said every Sunday her family of five gathers to listen to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. She belongs to a farming family and the way Modi speaks about farmers in his speeches, she said, appeals to her. “He reaches out to the poor,” said Poonam. “Notebandi attacked the rich who used to misuse honest tax payers’ money. He has delivered in Gujarat as well and he should be given a chance to govern UP. Not that I have a problem with Akhilesh, just that Modi is better.”
Poonam has never stepped out of UP, yet is familiar with the “development” in Gujarat. “My brother showed the videos and images of Gujarat he received on WhatsApp,” she divulged.
In spite of not declaring the CM candidate, the BJP seems to be riding, and riding well, on Modi’s back to displace Akhilesh Yadav, who also remains popular among the youth. In UP, there are close to 25 lakh first-time voters, which has added another dimension to the polls. The parties have gone out of their way to woo the youth, and Modi and Akhilesh are the men to do it for their respective parties. While how the battle culminates in the rest of UP would be known only on March 11, in Amethi at least, the man from Gujarat has the edge, mainly because he has no baggage of anti-incumbency, and, just like Rae Bareli, the alliance has not been able to negotiate successfully.
Out of the five constituencies in Amethi that go to polls on 27 February, Congress had won only two in 2012 assembly elections. But the Lok Sabha constituency is a bastion of Congress party. With both parties claiming the upper hand, they have ended up competing against each other at two of the five constituencies – Gauriganj and Amethi Sadar. With votes being split between them, BJP would automatically gain more, as BSP had not made a mark in 2012 in Amethi.
In Amethi Sadar, the battle between “maharaja” Sanjay Singh’s first wife and second wife is most keenly watched. Garima, the first wife, contesting on a BJP ticket, is striking an emotional chord with the electorate while campaigning for “justice” against the “man who wronged her”. Sanjay, influential in Amethi, is busy backing Amita, the second wife, who is contesting from Congress, the party that sent him to Rajya Sabha.
With Rahul Gandhi hardly bringing much to the table in his own constituency, another factor drowning out Akhilesh’s popularity is his candidates. The electorate speaks highly of Akhilesh but say his MLAs indulge in hooliganism. For example, in the Amethi Sadar seat, the candidate Gayatri Prajapati, is a rape accused. After the directives of Supreme Court, UP police charged him with separate cases of gangrape and attempt to rape another woman and her minor daughter. When Akhilesh held a rally in Amethion Monday, Prajapati was conspicuously absent.
Selling chow mein in the heart of Amethi on bustling narrow lane running parallel to the Ramleela Maidan, Ashish Kumar Agrahi, 24, said people fear walking out of the ATM after withdrawing cash. “While he has done some commendable work, law and order has worsened under Akhilesh,” said Ashish, who lives with his parents, and has stayed back to help them because his elder brother migrated to Lucknow to work as a property dealer. His father runs a pani puri stall on the same street and the two of them make 500 rupees of profit per day.
Ashish has passed his intermediate exams, but due to lack of employment opportunities, he has been running the chow mein stall for the last eight years. He said some of the people vote for the Congress because of the earlier generation, but the current lot lacks empathy. “You must have come here with high expectations from Mumbai,” he said, pointing at the Tehesildar House. “It was built during Rajiv Gandhi’s time. My parents tell me it has not even been painted since then.”