On 11 April, Smriti Irani, the union minister of textiles from the Bharatiya Janata Party, filed her nomination to contest the Lok Sabha elections from the Amethi constituency, in Uttar Pradesh. Slated to go to polls on 6 May, Amethi has been a Congress bastion for several years, and the party’s president, Rahul Gandhi, has been the member of parliament from the seat since 2004.
The BJP had polled merely 37,570 votes from Amethi in the 2009 elections. It fielded Irani against Gandhi in the next general election. Irani’s aggressive canvassing brought up the party’s vote share to an impressive 300,748 votes, only around one lakh short of Gandhi’s winning tally.
For the upcoming election, Irani is once again pitted against Gandhi. In the following extract from “Role of a Lifetime,” the cover story of The Caravan’s November 2016 issue, Rohini Mohan traces Irani’s campaign in the 2014 general election, and how she continued engaging with the constituency despite losing.
In the 2014 general election, the BJP chose Irani as its candidate for Amethi. When she came to campaign, Umashankar Pandey, the BJP’s election agent in Amethi said, the BJP workers assumed that she would lose even worse than she had before: “ladengi, haar jayengi, bhaag jayengi”—she’ll fight, lose and run. Several BJP members told me it was Modi’s idea to field Irani against Rahul Gandhi. “Modi and Amit Shah”—who was then in charge of the party’s Uttar Pradesh campaign—“are a team in themselves, and they don’t think any constituency is lost before it’s fought,” said the person in Gandhinagar close to senior BJP leaders. Amethi and neighbouring Rae Bareilly, another Congress bastion, he added, “are difficult to win, so they thought they’d get the most from it.” In Irani, the duo “saw someone who would give a good fight, and whom the media loved to chase.” A fierce campaigner would force Rahul Gandhi to spend more time in Amethi and less in other rallies across the country.
In the general election of 2009, the BJP had won an abysmal 37,570 votes in Amethi. Irani had little to lose: she would gain publicity from the electoral fight, but would not be ridiculed if she were defeated in a Congress stronghold. Unlike in 2004, this time, she had the advantages of both the wave of support that Modi was enjoying, as well as her own electioneering chops.