No Mandir or Hindutva, BJP’s Maneka Gandhi banks on work for second term from Sultanpur – ThePrint – Select

No Mandir or Hindutva, BJP’s Maneka Gandhi banks on work for second term from Sultanpur – ThePrint – Select

She presides over this darbar every morning when she is in Sultanpur from 7 am to 9 am — her team is ready with phones for her to dial the necessary authorities and ask them to help out whoever comes with their problems.

Everybody is welcome. When it’s breakfast time, anyone who is left behind, including local leaders, is treated to a sumptuous breakfast. Maneka then gets ready to hit the ground, and reminds people about how she is the one leader who has always been available for them.

Unlike most BJP leaders, her Lok Sabha poll campaign does not feature religion or Hindutva or the Ram Mandir. It is usually a laundry list of the work that has been done in Sultanpur specifically, since she took charge in 2019.

“I had come here to become a mother. What does a mother want? All of us want the same thing — that our house becomes prosperous and people inside it are happy. We want this for you,” she tells people, before she reminds them of the work that has been done in her constituency.

At 67, Maneka, already the longest serving MP currently, is fighting her 11th Lok Sabha election this year. Out of the 10 she has contested, she has won eight. She is the wife of the late Sanjay Gandhi, son of former prime minister and Congress leader Indira Gandhi.

While Uttar Pradesh has been the state from where most Gandhi family leaders have fought, with Congress leaders Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi still not having declared their candidature from Amethi or Rae Bareli, and Sonia Gandhi now a Rajya Sabha MP from Rajasthan, ironically, Maneka is the only Gandhi who is fighting the election from the state — as of now.

Her son Varun Gandhi, an MP from Pilibhit, a constituency held by either Maneka or him since 1996, was dropped by the BJP.

“I am not aware of the reasons why he was not given a ticket,” Maneka told ThePrint when asked about him. “He was hugely popular in his constituency, and I hope whatever he does and wherever he goes, he will do good for the country.”

Both Maneka and Varun were conspicuously absent from Pilibhit earlier this month when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his first public meeting there, urging people to support Jitin Prasada, UP’s public works department minister and BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from the constituency.

Yet, Maneka goes about her campaign in Sultanpur, where she is hugely popular, as usual.

“We have not seen an MP like her… Anybody who goes to her with the smallest matter has it resolved,” says Bajrangi Prasad, a farmer, as he looks at Maneka’s campaign from afar. “She visits the constituency at least twice a month.”

It is a perception shared by several people, and it is this perception that Maneka is revolving her campaign on. Across the 12 gatherings she attends from morning to evening, she tells both ordinary voters and BJP workers that when she came to Sultanpur in 2019, the people of the constituency were suspicious of her.

Aap sab ko laga main bhi antarashtriya neta hoon, jo aaungi aur chali jaungi (you all must have thought that I would turn out like the other politicians who would visit and disappear),” she says, amid hushed giggles. “Lekin maine Sultanpur ko ek maa ki tarah sajaya aur uski seva kari (but I have decorated and served Sultanpur like a mother).”

Maneka had won the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Sultanpur, a constituency she represented for the first time, by a sliver — just about 14,000 votes. This time, she wants her victory margin to be in lakhs.

Maneka Gandhi in Sultanpur | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

“I have got so much done from the administration despite just a 14,000-vote victory. Imagine what I’ll be able to do with a victory (margin) of 3 lakh,” she tells the crowds.

For this, she has a clear plan, which she shares with BJP workers in the multiple mandal meetings she attends through the day.

“The constituency has 19 lakh voters. About 12 lakh will actually cast their vote. We need 8 lakh votes to win — it is not much. At every booth, we need 400 of 1,000 votes, that’s just 100 families. You all need to ensure that we get those,” she tells BJP workers in meeting after meeting.

Also Read: Praising Modi, sharing stage with local BJP leaders, 2024 ushered in a ‘softened’ Varun Gandhi

Less Hindutva, more development 

On her way to each gathering, inside the car, Maneka’s passion for the environment takes over. She recounts the history of the trees around her, identifying each one of them. However, the moment she steps out of the car, she is Sultanpur’s Mataji.

“She is your Mataji, isn’t she?” a BJP leader travelling with Maneka asks the crowd before her address. The crowd responds with a resounding approval.

She told ThePrint that the name has now stuck with the people, and that’s what they remember her as. “I sometimes wonder if I’ll have to change my name to Mataji Gandhi,” she says, chuckling.

In her rallies, Maneka lists the things she has done for the constituency over the last five years — building an international sports training complex, a radio station, long stretches of roads, a Krishi Vigyan Kendra, a medical centre, three trains a day to Mumbai and one that runs to and fro from Lucknow to Sultanpur every day, and changing over 500 transformers across the city.

She also talks about the central schemes with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has “transformed” people’s lives.

One of her biggest achievements in the constituency has been to obliterate the Bahubali rule of former legislator Chandra Bhadra Singh alias Sonu Singh, who had fought the election against her in 2019 on an SP-BSP ticket.

“Before Manekaji came, no government bus could ply in Sultanpur. There were only private buses of Sonu Singh, and they would charge whatever they wanted,” says Ranbir Singh, another farmer. “Since she came, there are only government buses.”

“Vote for people and the party that will work for you, that has worked for you,” she urges people. “Vote for your own good.”

Religion, or even Hindutva, or Ram Mandir are conspicuously absent from her campaign. In fact, what she tells voters over and over again is this — “I never ask your caste or religion, all I ask is what I can do for you.”

It’s a statement that resonates with voters at the local level. “Hindutva and Ram Mandir have their own place… but during elections, we have to see how we have benefitted,” says Singh, the farmer.

Yet, Maneka has made a small temple in Sultanpur’s Dhopap for the people of her constituency. “You all used to say that we want a mandir like Faizabad too, so I made one for you in Dhopap,” she tells the crowds — giving precedence to local religiosity over national Hindutva.

“I have no caste backing, godfather, or money floating around for me,” she tells ThePrint. “This is the only way I know how to work… after so many years as an MP, I feel politics should be an extension of you.”

Asked how she feels about how people’s demands from their political representatives have changed over the 40 years she has been an MP, she says: “They have not changed at all.”

“They still want the same things they did in the 1980s — roti, kapda, makan (food, clothing and shelter), jobs, or the police to listen to them,” she says. “People often come with the most basic requests and demands. They want the police to lodge an FIR for them, and they’re not listening… as an MP, if you can make that connection with the people, they will vote for you.”

Even as she goes about trotting from event to event, her cavalcade is stopped by a local family, whose son was murdered two days ago.

“Only you can do something, sansadji (parliamentarian),” they say to her.

Before concluding her day, Maneka makes sure to stop by at their house and sit with the family, assuring them of prompt police action and making a few calls to get them private security.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also Read: With Varun Gandhi out of the picture, PM Modi to canvass for BJP’s Jitin Prasada in Pilibhit

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