On BJP margins, Maneka Gandhi keeps Ram Temple at bay, woos Muslim vote

android, on bjp margins, maneka gandhi keeps ram temple at bay, woos muslim vote

Maneka Gandhi at a public meeting organised by BJP ally NISHAD Party chief Sanjay Nishad. (Express photo)

Maneka Gandhi at a public meeting organised by BJP ally NISHAD Party chief Sanjay Nishad. (Express photo)

She may be the outgoing Lok Sabha’s longest-serving MP, but for Maneka Gandhi, this bid for a ninth term in Parliament is one of her most crucial fights. Pushed to the margins of the BJP, with her son Varun Gandhi denied a ticket, Maneka must win Sultanpur to sustain her political legacy – and that means keeping the minorities, who constitute about 17% of the voters in the constituency which votes on May 25, close.

So, there is no mention of the Ram Temple in her speeches, while that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is kept to the minimum, unlike the campaigns of other BJP candidates. Ayodhya is hardly an hour’s drive from Sultanpur.

“I have not made it (the Ram Temple) an issue here,” Maneka acknowledges, adding that she is talking about her work and promising to do “more and more”. “At the end of the day, people just want their problems to be looked at and want a personal relationship (with their representative). Over the last five years, I have made such personal relationships with visits to every village… There are just local issues here… I work for everybody.”

Referred to as “Matashree” or “Mata ji” by people in the constituency, Maneka had a relatively narrow win from Sultanpur in 2019, by about 14,000 votes against a local influential leader, Chandra Bhadra Singh, fielded by the Samajwadi Party-BSP combine. It was her first contest from Sultanpur, after moving here from Pilibhit, vacating the latter seat for son Varun.

android, on bjp margins, maneka gandhi keeps ram temple at bay, woos muslim vote

Vote share in the Sultanpur constituency

Vote share in the Sultanpur constituency

This time, Maneka is facing OBC rivals from both the main fronts. While the Congress-SP candidate is Ram Bhual Nishad – the Nishads number about 2.5 lakh in the seat – the BSP has fielded Uday Raj Verma, a Kurmi.

Apart from OBCs, the big group in the seat are SCs, forming about 21% of the voters. The BSP has won Sultanpur twice in the past.

On a Saturday morning, as she is about to set off for her latest campaign meeting from Shastri Nagar area in Sultanpur – she has held 600 so far, as per her count – Maneka is told that local Muslim leaders have come to meet her. She immediately steps out to greet them, adding: “I need your help. I have done so much for everyone. So whatever are your old vengeances, why not keep them aside in this election? Why not become friends?”

There are others hoping to meet her and convey their grievances, including a young girl who wants help for a tooth implant, having lost her teeth in an accident.

android, on bjp margins, maneka gandhi keeps ram temple at bay, woos muslim vote

Maneka before setting off for a campaign meeting from Shastri Nagar area in Sultanpur. (Express photo)

Maneka before setting off for a campaign meeting from Shastri Nagar area in Sultanpur. (Express photo)

Among top BJP leaders, Narendra Modi or Amit Shah have not campaigned for her, while Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is coming in for his first rally on Wednesday. Shah had campaigned for her in 2019. On Saturday, BJP partner and NISHAD Party chief Sanjay Nishad and the BJP’s Dalit face, Asim Arun, both of whom are ministers in the Adityanath government, campaigned for Maneka.

She is happy with the party’s backing, the sitting MP says. “Everyone is working hard.”

Some people are also here from Pilibhit, which she represented seven times in Parliament, to help her. Varun, who is believed to have been spurned by the BJP after a series of attacks against the Modi government, will be here on May 23, the last day of campaigning. Maneka says he wanted to come earlier but “has been busy with other engagements”.

In any case, Maneka says, Sultanpur is a very “well-managed constituency”. “We monitor everything very closely, we did it in Pilibhit as well. We ensure that people’s work gets done.”

android, on bjp margins, maneka gandhi keeps ram temple at bay, woos muslim vote

Guddu Mali at his flower shop

Guddu Mali at his flower shop. (Express)

In the heart of Sultanpur city, Guddu Mali, 35, who is setting up his flower shop for the day, agrees. “Matashree has got a lot of work done here, especially widening of roads. Sultanpur looks like a city now. Moreover, she is available for people like us.”

But if local businessmen and vendors seem to have little to complain about, labourers who stand up to four hours in scorching heat near the Badhmandi crossing for some work to come their day say they want “parivartan (change)”.

“Sab kaam shaher mein hua hai. Humari taraf to cycle chalihe (All the work has happened in the city area. We are for the cycle or SP),” says Sunder, 45, standing in a small group, all of whom are here from the Lambhua area of Sultanpur.

Virendra Chakravarti, 27, says they struggle to find work. “Many of us returned to our villages after the Covid lockdown, but have failed to find much work. I used to work in Ghaziabad at a gas cylinder agency. Now, I am forced to work here as a painter. We earn Rs 400-Rs 450 for a day’s work, and even that is once in 10-15 days.”

Looking at the crowd of about 100 labourers around him, Chakravarti adds that on an average, about 25 of them get picked up in a day.

Keshav Prasad Maurya interview | ‘If BJP cadres not as enthused, it is due to lack of strong Opposition. Whom should they fight’

Belonging to the Kumhar caste group, Chakravarti adds that as a Hindu, he is happy about the Ram Temple. “But the government should first address our issues,” he says, listing cleaning of the local Sharda Canal apart from jobs.

An elderly labourer, who doesn’t want to identify himself, butts in to say: “Jitega kamal, chahe puri duniya cyclewa pe de de (The BJP will win, no matter if the whole world votes for the SP).”

Did Maneka pay any attention to the other Gandhi campaign nearby, in Amethi and Rae Bareli, led by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra? Maneka smiles: “They need to look more seriously at issues. You should lead with your head, and not your feet.”

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