Political dynasties are quite accepted these days, but this one has raised eyebrows even among veterans, because it involves the President of India.
Rajendrasingh Shekhawat is the man at the centre of a storm and must be tired of having the same question flung at him a thousand times by a thousand reporters: “Aren’t you setting a precedent for breach of propriety by the Constitutional head of the country?” The candidate from Amravati scowls at first and then composes his answer with a weary patience.
“That’s a wrong impression. It has happened in the past,” he replies. “See, in the ’70s, Shankar Giri, President V V Giri’s son, fought and won on a Congress ticket from Madhya Pradesh.”
The 43-year-old Shekhawat has trotted out this spiel to everyone who asks, whether from India or abroad — as well as to his adversaries.
It’s true, of course, that Shekhawat is here because of his mother. But as Nizamuddin, a rickshaw driver, says, “He is the President’s son, we have to ensure his victory.”
In fact, for the 2.68 lakh voters in Amravati town — impoverished and neglected — Shekhawat’s candidature is one of the few things to boast of. The neighbouring districts of Nagpur and Akola in the Vidarbha region have thriving trade and connectivity, but Amravati is poorly connected by road. It does not have an airstrip, and till recently no rail connectivity. People still travel over 15 km to the nearest railhead at Badnera as Amravati station operates only a skeletal service. Unemployment is rife — Amravati has no industry. The only multi-specialty hospital opened recently lacks good doctors.
For Shekhawat, these issues strengthen his campaign against sitting MLA Sunil Deshmukh, Congress rebel and ex-minister. Miffed at the decision to field Shekhawat, the two-time legislator jumped into the fray as an independent and is Shekhawat’s main opponent.
Deshmukh is categorical. “What is Shekhawat’s identity here? He doesn’t even live here. I had full faith in the party, but this has happened due to the pressures from Rashtrapati Bhavan and the President’s husband.”
Shekhawat refutes these allegations. “I have stood on my own identity. I worked in the party for a decade. I am the vice-president of the Amravati District Congress Committee, I worked with the Seva Dal, Youth Congress and have been secretary of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee. Why drag Rashtrapati Bhavan into this?”
As Congress candidate, Shekhawat naturally attracts sizeable crowds, but many come only out of curiosity. “Let’s see the President’s son,”
titters Lalita Pawar as she rushes out of her home to see Shekhawat’s padayatra. But others are staunch party supporters. “We will vote for the Congress, whoever the candidate,” says septuagenarian Raj Purohit. But his opponent also has a multitude at his camps. “All paid workers,” sniff Shekhawat’s campaign managers.
An election is very much in a day’s work for Shekhawat, who has seen his parents fight and win since he was a teenager. He quietly requests organisers not to mention his mother in their speeches. Perhaps he does not want to give the opposition a stick to beat him with.
He doesn’t seem to have much to say, though. On the city’s problems, he’s brief. He speaks of attracting industry and trade to help create jobs, but he does not define the roadmap to the goal.
On one issue, however, he is quite vociferous — the promise to improve two major temples in the city in line with the Sai Baba Shirdi Sans-than, but this does not appeal much to the minority community. Then, there are the usual issues.
“There is so much corruption in the civic administration,” says a hardware merchant. “We cannot move a brick without bribing officials. Since he has so much clout in the Congress, Shekhawat should talk of cleaning the administration. Maybe he should take his mother’s help.” But he says he would still vote Congress. “It’s our tradition.”
The President is obviously on everyone’s mind. At a public meeting in a housing
society, advocate Ashok Jain says: “We have only three years to get as much as we can for Amravati. We can get the airport, the railway connection and industry only if Raosaheb is elected, since he will have unflinching matriarchal support.”
The Amravati City Congress Committee’s Sanjay Akarte agrees. “A President from this city will be interested in its welfare. He can do good work with her support even if it is indirect.”
The squabbling over Amravati seems to have perturbed the party chief, as both Sonia Gandhi and her MP son Rahul are not campaigning here. But Congress office-bearers and family loyalists from the city, state and even Delhi, follow
Shekhawat, trying to fill in gaps he may have left while addressing the electorate.
At a rally in a slum, PCC vice-president Gevh Mancharsa Awhari and AICC general secretary Ved Prakash (here as observer) do more talking than Shekhawat. Others include power minister Sushilkumar Shinde, heavy industry minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, ex-cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin and actor Sunil Shetty.
Local party units are divided over supporting Shekhawat. Most are backing Deshmukh. He claims all but two of the 21 corporators in the municipal corporation and from the zilla parishad support him. Shekhawat says his father, Devisingh Shekhawat, first mayor of Amravati and one-time MLA, does not campaign for him, but fears that Deshmukh may pull the rug from under him have forced the father to step in.
The Opposition is also toeing Deshmukh’s line. B R Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, heads of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, says, “The President should not have fielded her son. If Raosaheb loses the elections, will she resign?”
The constituency has 2.68 lakh registered voters. The sitting MLA is Sunil Deshmukh of the Congress. Deshmukh is also a minister in the Maharashtra government. Deshmukh, who is contesting the elections as a rebel candidate, is
Rajendrasingh Shekhawat’s key opponent.