India’s Rahul Gandhi taunted by Modi for not contesting seat lost in 2019 – ‘he’s scared’

Besides Rae Bareli, Rahul Gandhi is seeking to retain his seat in the Wayanad constituency in the southern state of Kerala.

If the politician wins from both constituencies, he will have to resign from one of the seats where elections would be held again under Indian laws.

Rahul Gandhi filing his nomination papers in Rae Bareli, India’s Uttar Pradesh state, on May 03. Photo: INC/EPA-EFE

Hours before Rahul Gandhi’s announcement, Indian television channels were abuzz with speculation that he would file his papers to run in Amethi and his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would contest in Rae Bareli.

Amethi and Rae Bareli have traditionally been Congress’ strongholds in Uttar Pradesh. Polling is under way over seven phases in the northern state, a crucial battleground for any party as it accounts for 80 seats – the highest among Indian states.

Congress has chosen to field Kishori Lal Sharma – a Gandhi family loyalist – as a candidate for Amethi. Priyanka Gandhi has yet to indicate if she will contest in the elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attacked the decision by Rahul Gandhi, saying he was “scared to fight in Amethi against Smriti Irani again.”

Irani, who held two ministerial roles, also criticised the Gandhis, saying the family had given up on their party’s stronghold in Amethi.

“I want to tell him [Rahul Gandhi], don’t be scared, don’t run away,” Modi said.

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Several residents of Amethi have expressed disappointment that no member of the Gandhi family is contesting the constituency in the election.

“If Priyanka Gandhi were to contest Amethi, it would be a tough fight for Smriti Irani,” said Vijay Kumar, an owner of a TV repair shop.

“Whatever development work in our constituency has largely been done by different members of the Gandhi family. We have hardly seen any improvement in the last five years under the BJP.”

Among the developments overseen by the Gandhi family in Amethi were a major hospital and a petroleum technology institute, according to residents who spoke to This Week in Asia. Nonetheless, some residents credited Modi and the BJP for building modern highways and providing reliable electricity across India.

Kumar said Sharma would not be able to win Amethi for Congress. “To field Sharma in front of a powerful candidate like Smriti Irani is like putting a man in front of a rampaging tiger.”

Deepanshu, a garment seller who went by a single name, said there had been considerable support for Congress in this election in Amethi but voters were wondering why Rahul Gandhi decided not to wrest back the seat that he lost previously. “It makes you wonder whether he is confident.”

Rahul Gandhi with his sister Priyanka in Amethi. Photo: AFP

Vikas Yadav, a delivery driver, said he would vote for Congress given its long history in Amethi. “We have always supported Congress in Amethi because of our strong ties with the Gandhi family. We will support whoever they nominate for Amethi.”

The links binding the Gandhi family to Amethi and Rae Bareli span decades.

Sanjay Gandhi, son of the late former prime minister Indira Gandhi, was an MP in Amethi for just several months until he died in a small plane crash in 1980. His older brother Rajiv Gandhi, later became MP in the constituency for almost 10 years until 1991, when he was assassinated.

Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow, served for almost five years in Amethi until 2004. She was succeeded by her son Rahul Gandhi, who was the constituency’s MP for 15 years until his electoral defeat in 2019.

After serving Amethi, Sonia Gandhi became an MP for Rae Bareli for almost 20 years until last month. The family’s links to Rae Bareli went as far back as the early years of India’s independence when Feroze Gandhi, husband of Indira Gandhi, served the constituency from 1952 to 1960.

Congress probably decided to field Rahul Gandhi in Rae Bareli given his mother’s long association with the constituency, political analyst Sandeep Shastri said. He also could benefit from Sharma’s extensive experience as a campaign manager in Rae Bareli.

“I think there was a little diffidence [in Rahul] in going back to Amethi after losing the last election.”

BJP supporters at an election campaign rally in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: EPA-EFE

In an article in the Times of India, R Jagannathan, a senior journalist who has served as editor of various news publications, said that Rahul Gandhi’s move to contest in Rae Bareli would free him from the pressure of campaigning against a strong incumbent in Amethi and allow him to focus on campaigning across India to improve the overall showing by Congress.

But Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an independent political commentator, said Congress had made a mistake by asking Rahul Gandhi to contest in Rae Bareli instead of Amethi.

The stakes had risen considerably given Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 defeat in Amethi, Mukhopadhyay said. “It will pin him to the [Rae Bareli] constituency because he cannot afford to lose in Uttar Pradesh again. They have been cornered by the BJP.”

By also contesting in Rae Bareli and trying to retain his seat in Wayanad, Rahul Gandhi would have less time to campaign nationally, Mukhopadhyay said.

“It will appear to people that he is a coward and is running scared of the BJP.”

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