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A tough fight for Rahul

Priyanka Gandhi wants to contest if her party agrees

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05th-Apr-2019       
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Aunindyo Chakravarty :
You must have got that WhatsApp forward from a relative or a friend about Rahul Gandhi running scared, that he is worried about losing Amethi to Smriti Irani and that is why he has chosen Kerala's Wayanad as a backup. In WhatsApp World, Amethi is a tight contest, while Wayanad is a 'safe' seat.
The facts, however, as often happens, are entirely different. To understand that, we need to look at the numbers. Let's start with Amethi, the Gandhi family's pocket-borough. Sanjay Gandhi won it in 1980, and then his elder brother won the by-election in 1981 after Sanjay's death. Rajiv continued to hold the seat till 1991 till he was assassinated when it was passed on to Rajiv's close aide Satish Sharma, who won it in the 1991 by-election and then again in 1996. A former Gandhi family loyalist, Sanjay Singh, fought the 1998 Lok Sabha elections on a BJP ticket and defeated Satish Sharma by less than 24,000 votes.
But Sanjay Singh's luck didn't last. The Vajpayee government fell unexpectedly and there were mid-term polls the very next year. This time, Rajiv's widow Sonia was the Congress candidate. She trounced Sanjay Singh with a 48% vote margin. The Gandhis were back in business.
Since 2004, Amethi has been Rahul Gandhi's nursery: the seat from where the Congress party has been nurturing its plans for him to become PM. In his first election, when the BJP's "India Shining" campaign backfired badly, Rahul got 66% of the popular vote. His nearest rival, CP Mishra from the BSP, could get only 17%. The BJP was pushed to third position, getting less than 10% votes. Rahul did even better five years later, winning nearly 72% votes. The BJP candidate got less than 6%.
The Amethi Lok Sabha seat is made up of five assembly segments - Amethi, Gauriganj, Jagdishpur, Salon and Tiloi. In the 2012 Assembly Election in UP, the Congress Party lost three of these seats, and its overall vote-share fell to 30%. It was an early warning for Rahul that the next fight was going to be tough. And it was.
The Modi Wave of 2014 gave the BJP a massive boost across UP. In Amethi, Rahul's vote share dropped by 28% to less than 47%, and the entire vote shifted to BJP's Smriti Irani. Rahul, who had won in 2009 by a margin of 3.7 lakh votes, managed to retain Amethi by a sharply reduced margin of just a little over one lakh votes. Around 83,000 votes were shared between the BSP and AAP's star candidate Kumar Vishwas. Rahul was lucky that the SP hadn't put up a candidate against him: the party had won over 3 lakh votes in the five assembly segments of Amethi in 2012 and even a third of that could have cost Rahul dearly.
This time, however, Rahul has a much easier fight. The BSP-SP maha-gathbandhan has put up no candidate in Amethi and Raebareli to accommodate the Gandhis. In the 2017 UP elections, which the BJP swept, the party was ahead of the Congress in four of the five assembly constituencies that make up the Amethi Lok Sabha seat. But if you add up the opposition's votes, the BJP is far behind.
That year, the SP-BSP and Congress got a combined vote-share of 57%, while the BJP got 37%. So, if the assembly vote share holds, Rahul will have a 20% vote-share advantage over Smriti Irani. She will need more than a 10% swing over and above what she got in the 2014 wave election to defeat Rahul. Even if the BJP gains another 5%, Rahul will still win by a larger margin than what he did in 2014. You couldn't ask for a safer seat.
Wayanad, on the other hand, is a completely different story. It came into being in 2009, when new constituencies were demarcated. The Congress won it in both 2009 and 2014. In 2009, the party won by over 1.5 lakh votes, but five years later, the margin was reduced to about 20,000 votes or just 2.3%.
The Congress party's lead dropped further in the assembly elections in 2016. Wayanad has seven assembly segments - Eranad, Kalpetta, Mananthavady, Nilambur, Sultanbathery, Thiruvambady and Wandoor. In 2016, the CPI(M)-led LDF won four out of these seven seats, but the Congress-led UDF won a total of 4.7 lakh votes to the LDF's 4.5 lakhs. The lead of just about 17,600 votes amounted to just 1.6% of the total votes polled. So a swing of just 9,000 votes away from the Congress can cost it the Wayanad seat.
So once you get WhatsApp propaganda out of the way, it is clear that Amethi is a much safer seat for Rahul than Wayanad. Why then did the Congress president choose this 'marginal' seat in Kerala as his second seat? The answer probably lies in Rahul's post-poll calculations. The Amethi election is a de-facto symbol of a potential alliance between the SP, BSP and Congress after the elections. If Rahul leaves the campaigning to Priyanka, and stays away from attacking the SP and BSP, he leaves the door open for a possible coalition at the centre.
The Left, which was a crucial support for UPA-1, is of little consequence in 2019. It can, at best, win 12-15 seats across India. By positioning himself in a tough battle against the Left in Wayanad, Rahul has chosen to alienate a much smaller potential ally. In fact, even if the Left and Congress fight high-decibel battles against each other in Kerala and West Bengal, Rahul can be certain that the Left parties will back him when it comes to forming a non-BJP government at the centre.
Equally importantly, Wayanad sits right on the border of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Rahul's campaign in Wayanad will help him reach out to the other two southern states as well. Even after the Emergency, his grandmother Indira swept the southern states in the 1977 elections, when the Congress first lost power at the centre. It prompted her to fight the by-elections from Karnataka's Chikmagalur in 1978. Sonia Gandhi, too, has fought and won the Bellary seat in Karnataka.
But both Indira and Sonia Gandhi made only temporary forays in the South. Will Rahul do the reverse? Already, Priyanka Gandhi has said she is willing to contest if her party wants her to. The Congress grapevine suggests that if Rahul wins both Amethi and Wayanad, he will give up the family seat and Priyanka might fight from there in the by-elections. In that case, Rahul Gandhi would have positioned himself as a Northern leader with his heart in the South. It is a potential game-changer for the Congress in future elections.

(Aunindyo Chakravarty, Ex- Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels, now anchors Simple Samachar on NDTV India.)

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