AMETHI, India (AP) — Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most famous modern political dynasty, filed nomination papers in the family stronghold of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh state, hoping to hold onto a key seat for a fourth consecutive time in national elections that begin Thursday.
Gandhi was flanked by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who is running as a Congress candidate from Rae Bareli, another city in Uttar Pradesh. He was also joined by his sister, Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress party manager of the eastern half of Uttar Pradesh, and her husband, businessman Robert Vadra.
Thousands of party workers accompanied the Gandhis in a massive road show Wednesday, carrying flags with the Congress’ party symbol — an outstretched hand — and dancing to drum beats. Others stood on balconies or climbed onto vehicles for a better view or to toss flower petals.
“Treat it just as a victory procession,” said Congress worker Rajesh Prajapati.
But while Gandhi will likely prevail in Amethi — which he has represented since 2004, and which was previously represented by Sonia Gandhi — the victory of his party in Uttar Pradesh is far from assured.
India’s most populous state is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP trounced Congress in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, winning 71 of the 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, that were contested.
On the campaign trail, Modi has blasted the alleged corruption within the Congress party, which began with Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi ruled the country for about a half a century after India won independence from Britain in 1947.
Modi and his followers have painted him as a “chowkidar,” or “watchman” who has taken a hard stance against the corruption of previous governments.
“Narendra Modi can abuse my mother, father, grandmother and grandfather if he wishes so. But he should debate with me for 15 minutes on the issue of corruption,” Gandhi told reporters Wednesday.
Amethi is a small, impoverished district of about 1.3 million people, according to the last census, 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Lucknow, the state capital. Over decades of Congress rule, the local government had helped create new industries and factories, but many of these closed after promised government subsidies failed to materialize.
The BJP has taken the district’s economic straits as an opening.
The Modi government’s Textile Minister Smriti Irani ran for the Amethi constituency in 2014. Even after losing to Rahul Gandhi, she has nurtured the constituency in the last five years, visiting the area frequently and appropriating government funds for roads, water and electricity projects.
Irani’s growing presence in Amethi has given BJP workers hope that she can beat Gandhi this time. The BJP has even coined a slogan: “Ab ki baar Amethi hamaar,” which translates to “This time, Amethi is ours.”
As the Gandhis’ slow-moving convoy approached the government office where Rahul Gandhi’s nomination was filed, people jostled for a sighting, to the annoyance of Narain Dubey, a resident having tea at a roadside shop.
“Why is this commotion and what for? He is MP for last 15 years from this constituency. What has he done for Amethi and you are climbing on one another to have a glimpse of him,” he said.
Dubey’s remarks were met with anger. One young person turned to him and shouted: “Chowkidar chor hai,” meaning “watchman is a thief,” Rahul Gandhi’s oft-repeated line referring to an ongoing investigation into the Modi-led government’s purchase of military aircraft.
Gandhi earlier this month also announced he was running for a seat in Kerala state in southern India, offending some supporters in Amethi.
“Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad is an insult to Amethi because this gives an impression that Gandhi family is looking for a second option,” resident Surendra Tiwari said, adding that he wasn’t sure whether to vote for him again.
India’s elections, the world’s largest democratic exercise, will take place on seven days over a six-week period. Vote counting is scheduled for May 23.