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Last Updated: Monday, 22 March, 2004, 13:21 GMT
Gandhi fever in Indian heartlands

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC correspondent in Amethi

Sonia Gandhi (left) with son, Rahul
Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul are the talk of the teashops
A couple of bumpy hours from the northern Indian city of Lucknow lies the dusty hamlet of Amethi.

It is from here that Rahul Gandhi makes his political debut, the constituency which elected his father, Rajiv, to parliament.

An hour away is the larger town of Rae Bareilly, which Rajiv's widow, Sonia, is contesting.

The news that two Gandhi family members have decided to stand in these two seats has delighted local residents.

"We can never forget what the Gandhi family has done for Rae Bareilly," says Bharat Lal Yadav, who owns a restaurant on the main road leading into the town in Uttar Pradesh state.

"After they stopped contesting, we have been forgotten. But now we are looking forward to backing one of them again."

'The age of youth'

But it is the decision to field Rahul Gandhi that has really excited people in Amethi, 80km (50 miles) down the road.

The Gandhis are the only ones who motivate the people of this town to rise above caste and religious lines
Hosla Prasad Shukla
In the main square, a statue of Rajiv Gandhi looming overhead, the conversation in the teashops is animated.

"We were really hoping that Rahul would contest from Amethi," says Rajendra Prasad as he scans the local newspaper.

"It is the age of the youth - time for the younger generation to lead the way," he explains as he sips milky tea from a stained glass.

Hosla Prasad Shukla chips in.

"The Gandhis are the only ones who motivate the people of this town to rise above caste and religious lines," he says as everyone in the teashop nods in agreement.

Betel nut and cigarette shop in Rae Bareilly
Locals back the Gandhis 100%

"Look at us here - a cross-section of voters with upper and lower-caste Hindus and a Muslim. We will all support them."

Amethi has a long association with the Gandhi family, with Indira Gandhi's second son, Sanjay, first contesting from here in 1980.

When he died in a plane crash, his brother, Rajiv, was voted in from Amethi during a by-election.

"It was then that the children, Rahul and Priyanka, began making visits to the constituency along with their mother, Sonia," says Dharmendra Shukla, a local Congress Party official.

Mr Shukla escorted the Gandhi siblings during a visit in January, when they came on a trip to test the political waters.

"They spent a lot of time asking us questions, checking the progress of projects that their mother had initiated and generally had a really good time."

'Pocket borough'

Amethi was represented in the outgoing parliament by Sonia Gandhi, who has now chosen to shift to the neighbouring constituency of Rae Bareilly.

As you drive through town the Gandhi presence is very evident.

Tailor Ramesh Kumar in Rae Bareilly
If anyone other than a Gandhi had stood from here, we would have thought of voting for someone else
Ramesh Kumar, tailor
A flying academy on the edge of Rai Bareilly is named after Indira Gandhi, whose seat this was.

The town's main college was set up by her husband Feroze, who was also elected from Rae Bareilly.

"You could describe this as the Gandhi's pocket borough," says BP Singh, a retired government employee.

He explains that the town grew in prominence with its long association with the Gandhis.

"In 1969 my house rent was five rupees," he said.

"Now it is 2,500 rupees. If that is not a sign of our growth and prosperity, what is?" he asks with a smile.

The family association is what brings the Gandhis back to these two constituencies in a state where the fortunes of their Congress Party is fast dwindling.

In the last elections, Congress won a mere 10 seats out of a total 80.

"If anyone other than a Gandhi had stood from here, we would have thought of voting for someone else," says Ramesh Kumar, a tailor.

"But now there is no question."

This thinking is put in perspective by Ameeta Singh, who belongs to one of Amethi's most influential families and is herself a politician.

"People here do not look at the Gandhis as mere politicians," she says.

"There is a strong emotional bond between them. You cannot break it."

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

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