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Steel, pickles and Twitter fire: Will Smriti Irani’s relentless Amethi campaign succeed?

When Smriti Irani travelled to Amethi two summers ago on the anniversary of her first visit, one Twitter follower ventured a brave prediction.

If Irani ran again from the old Congress bastion, the man said, Rahul Gandhi would change his seat. “That is for sure, Ma’am.”

But that has not quite happened.

The prognosticator, however, may still ask for half the points. For although Rahul Gandhi will ask his constituents for another term — a mandate that would make him their MP for two straight decades — he is also running from Wayanad in Kerala (much to the annoyance of the Left).

The Congressman’s explanation for wading into a second race includes what he claims is the “hostility” South Indians feel from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the BJP sees his southern foray differently; one spokesperson dismissed Rahul Gandhi’s ploy as a “Plan B” to save him from embarrassment on his home turf in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Rahul Gandhi with villagers in Tinera, Amethi, in July 2018. (Photo: Twitter/Congress)

Rahul Gandhi did not exactly struggle to win Amethi in 2014 — the margin was well over 1 lakh votes. But Smriti Irani’s 3,00,748 lakh votes look hugely impressive when you consider the wallopings handed to the runners-up in 2004 and 2009.

But neither Rahul’s record in Amethi nor the Congress’s — only two interregnums have punctuated its nearly five-decade reign there — seem to have deterred Irani. A year after losing to Rahul Gandhi, she wrote to him on Twitter to announce a visit. “See you there,” she said.

Since then, followers have seen photos of her distributing e-rickshaws, visiting a steel plant or launching a WiFi service in the region; they have read her grateful message to Sushma Swaraj for helping repatriate a local. She’s gifted sarees, promoted a pickle brand and even arranged screenings of Uri: The Surgical Strike.

And then there are the constant zingers at Rahul. “#BhaagRahulBhaag“, she tweeted last month, responding to reports that Congress leaders from the South were asking their boss to run for office in their states. And when he filed his nomination papers in Wayanad, she said it was an insult to his current constituents.

Smriti Irani serving khichdi at an event in Amethi. Her gesture “touched everyone”, the BJP said in a Twitter post in January 2016. (Photo: Twitter/BJP)

If Smriti Irani loses the Amethi contest on May 6, it won’t be because she didn’t try hard enough. While Rahul Gandhi has made 17 visits to his constituency since 2014, Irani has travelled there 21 times and conducted over 100 programmes, but spent fewer days there overall. And if politicians could woo voters with Twitter shout-outs alone, Irani is the clear winner. Between April of 2015 and 2019, she posted over seven times as many tweets mentioning “Amethi” as Rahul Gandhi.

Between April 2015 and April 2019, Smriti Irani posted 202 tweets mentioning “Amethi”. Rahul Gandhi posted 28.

The race in Amethi will be one of the most closely-watched in Uttar Pradesh, arguably India’s most consequential election chessboard with its 80 seats and more than 200 million people. A defeat for Rahul Gandhi would be a monumental upset.

But if the result goes the other way, and Rahul Gandhi retains the seat formerly represented by both his parents and his uncle, will Smriti Irani be back for another stab at the prize? If the BJP decides that she will, expect the sparks to begin flying soon.

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