India's Gandhi dynasty battles to hold seat in family bastion

AMETHI, India Tue May 6, 2014 4:54pm EDT

1 of 2. Rahul Gandhi (in white), India's ruling Congress party vice president, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are showered with rose petals by their supporters upon Rahul's arrival to file his nomination for the general election at Amethi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in this April 12, 2014 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Pawan Kumar/Files

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AMETHI, India (Reuters) - At a shabby government health center in the rural bastion of India's ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, mothers cradling sick babies sidestep dogs sleeping in unlit corridors.

There is no power, there are no nurses on duty and only two doctors - one suffering from a crippling neurological disease - trying to treat 60 to 70 patients a day in sweltering heat.

Few places in India illustrate more clearly how loyalists' support for the ruling Congress party, and the Gandhi family that leads it, has been tested than Amethi, its traditional stronghold around 300 miles southeast of New Delhi.

Many people in a constituency that has elected the Gandhis to parliament since 1980 feel they have been left behind and voters are getting angry, threatening family scion Rahul's bid to retain the seat when locals cast their vote on Wednesday.

"We are with the Congress party, we have always been from the time of our forefathers," said Arun Sharma, a local barber. "But we are not happy. Rahul just comes and waves from his car, and goes away."

Congress leaders disagree, and counter that to a large extent, Rahul's hands are tied.

Uttar Pradesh, the northern state of 200 million people where Amethi is located, is run by a regional party that, while loosely allied to Congress, has ruled mainly in the interests of its low-caste supporters.

The state plays a critical role in building roads and providing power, and lobbying efforts by the Gandhis to secure better amenities for Amethi have often proved ineffectual.

"These health centers and schools - these are the responsibility of the state government," said Rita Bahuguna Joshi, former head of the state unit of Congress and now running on a party ticket from Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh.

"It is the non-cooperation of successive governments that has been the problem. Rahul makes every effort, but they don't implement them. They want to show him in a poor light."

Nonetheless, Hindu nationalist candidate Narendra Modi senses victory in the five-week election that ends next week, and his opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is striking at the heart of the Gandhi family in a bid to weaken it.

Modi, who opinion polls show is favorite to be India's next prime minister, has campaigned on a platform of economic growth while criticizing what he views as state handouts by Congress that India can ill afford.

He has also stepped up personal attacks on Rahul, 43, mocking him as a pampered princeling who has failed to back up talk of empowering India's poor with results.

"The question is are they really interested? The arrogance of the family has gone sky-high," Modi thundered to applause at an opposition rally in Amethi on Monday.

"You didn't ask for Mercedes cars, you didn't ask to go to America, all you asked for was drinking water, jobs for your children," he added, taking the fight to the Gandhis in their own back yard.

"But the mother and son couldn't be bothered," Modi said in his most direct attack yet on Rahul and his mother, head of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi.

GANDHIS' MIXED LEGACY

Adding to pressure on Rahul and Congress, the BJP has put up a well-known television actress to run against him in Amethi. In the past the opposition would tend to field weak candidates, reflecting the futility of the exercise.

Now, youths wearing saffron-colored BJP headbands roam the area on motorbikes shouting slogans in support of Modi, a rare sight in a constituency where the Congress party flag was the only one visible for years.

Scattered among Amethi's wheat fields stand shuttered cement plants that Rahul's father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated. Many schools lack teachers and seven out of 10 homes have no toilet.

Sharma, the barber, quit his job at a factory making car windshield wipers because he was earning only 70 rupees ($1.16) a day, less than the minimum wage.

Abdul Ansari, who had come to the barber shop, said his extended family had 20 children and none of them had received an education because the government school had closed.

They could not afford the dozens of private schools that had opened up, some of them in garages.

"The children are on the streets all day, doing nothing."

It is hardly an advertisement for a party that has championed the poor since Rahul's great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, led India to independence in 1947.

ENTER PRIYANKA

In an interview with the Times of India on Tuesday, Modi said that if Congress' tally dropped to below 100 seats in India's 543-seat lower house - which would be its worst ever result - the Gandhis may face a threat from their own party.

Responding to the onslaught by Modi and the BJP, Congress has deployed Rahul's sister Priyanka, a natural politician in the mould of grandmother Indira, to lead a rearguard campaign in Amethi over the past two weeks.

Party leaders remain reluctant to countenance the possibility of personal defeat for Rahul. Allies also say he is working hard behind the scenes to reform Congress and prepare it for future battles.

"Rahul is here for the long term. In fact he is operating at multiple levels," said Jairam Ramesh, a federal minister and a confidant of the family.

"From day one he has made it clear, in internal meetings as well as outside that, while he is fighting the 2014 election, he is also seeding the future Congress."

Indian political experts also say that Congress has suffered setbacks in the past and bounced back.

"The Gandhi family is the glue that holds the party together, that stops the party from crumbling into factions," said Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu newspaper.

(Editing by Douglas Busvine and Mike Collett-White)

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Comments (1)
rvga wrote:
The claim (by Priyanka Vadra) that the State Government did not do the development work requested in the constituency is false, he said. To begin with, the Samajwadi Party has excellent relations with the Congress, and if indeed it had not done work that was requested, then Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi should furnish evidence about specific requests made by them. The truth, he said, is that the family is lying. He added that when the BJP comes to power at the Centre and requests the Samajwadi Government in the State to help implement an irrigation scheme in the district, the State Government and the local MLAs, be they SP or BSP, and the district magistrate, will all rise to the occasion. “You cannot cry and say, ‘you knew my father,’ does the country run like this?” he chided.

Debunking Rahul Gandhi for alleging that he (Modi) practiced the politics of anger, and that he (Rahul) had taken after his father, Rajiv Gandhi, the BJP veteran asked the crowd if he should respond to this. To their loud affirmations, he pointed out that when Rajiv Gandhi was a mere general secretary of the Congress and Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, he went to Hyderabad and the Chief Minister came to receive him personally. For no good reason, Rajiv Gandhi insulted and publicly humiliated the elected Chief Minister T Anjaiah who was twice his age; so who does the politics of anger, he asked.

Unlike Congress, BJP will answer to you: Modi to Amethi

A second incident involves his mother, Sonia Gandhi. After initially claiming that she had no interest in politics, when she decided that the time had come to ensure the family interests and was rebuffed by the party, then her associates entered the party office at night and physically threw out the elected president Sitaram Kesri, who was an elderly gentleman and a backward caste “like me”. Worse, when the former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao died, Sonia Gandhi did not allow his body to be brought to the party headquarters in Delhi, or the cremation to take place in the capital. As for Rahul Gandhi, he said, he had insulted the Prime Minister when he was abroad by tearing up an ordinance approved by the cabinet, calling it “nonsense”.

May 06, 2014 10:47pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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