Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh has described Rahul Gandhi as a ‘shatir’ (expert) ‘shatranj ke khiladi‘ (chess player) while announcing the party’s decision to field him from Raebareli. The decision to forego Amethi and opt for Raebareli is being projected as the masterstroke of a grandmaster. Raebareli, which elected his grandfather, grandmother, and mother to Lok Sabha several terms since 1952, is seen as a safe bet for Rahul Gandhi compared to neighbouring Amethi, where he lost to Smriti Irani in 2019 after being its MP for three terms.

Shatranj Ke Khiladi, a 1924 vintage short story by Munshi Premchand, portrays the 19th century’s decadent feudalism in Awadh (Raebareli is in the Awadh region). In 1977, the year Raj Narain defeated Indira Gandhi at Raebareli, maestro Satyajit Ray produced an epic movie based on the story. The film was shot in Lucknow while the Lok Sabha election was on; it was released soon after.

The present state of the elite of the Indian National Congress is perhaps reflected in Premchand’s story, which showed how the upper strata of Awadh was extremely self-centred, oblivious of the reality on the ground. 

The story centred around two Nawabs of Lucknow who engaged themselves in checkmating each other while the British took over the reins. The self-destruction of the ruling class was poignantly portrayed by Premchand.

The eleventh-hour announcement of Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in the early hours of May 3 ended speculation over the prospect of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra entering the poll fray. It is said that she herself was not keen to contest. Her husband Robert Vadra, on the other hand, had expressed his desire to throw in his hat more than once in recent days, insisting it was popular demand that he should contest. The Congress never commented on his claims. On May 3, Vadra accompanied his wife to Raebareli and was a prominent face of the Rahul Gandhi entourage, which included Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. Ashok Gehlot too was present. No prominent face of the INDIA bloc accompanied Rahul Gandhi when he filed his nomination.

The dominant ally of the bloc, Samajwadi Party (SP), and its workers welcomed Rahul but its representative was absent when he filed his papers, unlike the President of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), who had accompanied him in Wayanad.

In Wayanad, Congress had requested IUML, whose flag resembles Pakistan’s flag, to keep its standard away from the pre-nomination road show. On IUML’s insistence, Congress flags were also kept away. Both Congress and SP flags were displayed in Raebareli, though there was no road show. Akhilesh Yadav, on whose insistence the Gandhi family entered the contest from UP, was busy campaigning elsewhere. More than the INDIA bloc, Akhilesh Yadav is keen on projecting his PDA (Pichhda-Dalit Alliance).

The BJP was quick to gibe that Rahul Gandhi had shied away from Amethi, where Gandhi family loyalist Kishori Lal Sharma, a former confectionary shop owner from Ludhiana who had been a constituency manager in Amethi-Raebareli for four decades, has been fielded. Addressing a rally in Bengal’s Bardhaman, Narendra Modi echoing Rahul Gandhi’s clarion, “Daro mat (don’t be scared)”, added, “Bhago mat (don’t scoot)”.

The choice of Sharma can be viewed from two perspectives. One, the Gandhi family rewards its loyalists. Perhaps the relevant perspective is that after three jolts-in Ahmadabad East, Surat, and Indore – where party candidates switched to the BJP making the contest irrelevant, Sharma was the safest bet. Apparently, no prominent reliable face was available within the state of Uttar Pradesh to be entrusted with the task of unseating Rahul’s bete noire, Smriti Irani.

Rahul’s legendary aloofness was all too apparent. Usually, a prominent candidate approaches the Returning Officer’s podium to file his papers, accompanied by a posse of local leaders as well as national faces and a lawyer. Rahul abruptly walked up to the podium and handed in his nomination. Then he looked around to find that his team was nowhere. Sonia Gandhi slowly walked up, followed by Mallikarjun Kharge, who was helped by Robert Vadra. Priyanka made up the rest of the team. Ashok Gehlot was kept away. So were leaders of the UP Congress.

Rahul Gandhi, usually prolific in his jibes at the BJP while interacting with the media, avoided the Press altogether. He did not issue a statement explaining why he had opted for Rae Bareli while abandoning Amethi. He didn’t visit Amethi even once after the 2019 shock. He flew off to Pune after filing his papers. Priyanka handled the media in Amethi and Raebareli.

In Wayanad, Rahul had described the constituency as his ‘home’. His candidature from Raebareli has caused distress in the Kerala constituency, which voted on April 26. Voters there may wonder if the MP they elected in 2019 – even as he lost Amethi – will remain with them if he wins both seats.

Rahul’s nomination from Raebareli after he had finished with his Wayanad campaign shows that the Election Commission’s decision of a seven-phase election may not have been skewed against the interests of the Opposition after all. The phase-wise schedule enabled Rahul, the only candidate who is contesting two seats in 2024, to campaign in Wayanad as a ‘local’ and then seek votes in Rae Bareli, where nominations began after polling ended in Wayanad.

Congress party’s intransigence is writ large in the Raebareli saga. Mallikarjun Kharge had said the party will have a ‘surprise’ candidate in Raebareli, the lone UP seat won by the Congress in 2019. With Sonia Gandhi opting for a Rajya Sabha seat from Rajasthan in view of her health, the demand for a Gandhi representing the family bastion had reverberated. 

Jairam Ramesh, while swatting away questions on Priyanka not contesting, said she was needed to campaign elsewhere. Priyanka has undoubtedly emerged as Congress party’s star campaigner, who replies to every fusillade of the BJP with alacrity. However, her assertion on May 3 at Amethi that she will move in along with ‘her family’ to this region from May 6 to campaign for Sharma puts a question mark on Jairam Ramesh’s assertion.

One after the other, half a dozen spokespersons of Congress have deserted ship in recent days. Rohan Gupta did so after being nominated as Lok Sabha candidate from Ahmedabad East. Gaurabh Ballabh, a former Professor of the niche Xavier Labour Research Institute (XLRI) Jamshedpur, has been carrying many tales about the Congress in the media since he joined the BJP. One story is that on March 29, 2014, after the BJP swept the sweepstakes, Jairam Ramesh had said that a leader ought to retire on reaching the age of 70. He turned 70 on April 9 last month.

Campaigning for 2024 enters its final phase now. Attrition from Congress and accretion to BJP ranks has marked this election. Dinesh Pratap Singh, Rahul’s BJP rival in Raebareli, was a prominent Congress face in the region till 2018. A year later, he contested from the BJP against Sonia Gandhi, reducing her traditional victory margin substantially.

The choice of Raebareli for Rahul Gandhi may be viewed as a masterstroke by some. The ramifications for both Raebareli and Wayanad after the results are announced on June 4 will have a far-reaching impact.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author