It was March 1982, two years after her husband Sanjay’s death, when Maneka Gandhi walked out of Indira Gandhi’s Safdarjung Road residence in New Delhi. Two years after being “forced out”, Maneka Gandhi would make her electoral debut. Her battleground was Amethi and she hoped to defeat her brother-in-law Rajiv Gandhi. After all, Amethi became a Gandhi pocket-borough only after her husband Sanjay won the seat in 1980, with a 55 per cent vote share, defeating his nearest Janata Dal rival by a margin of over 100,000 votes. And Rajiv Gandhi would make his electoral debut in 1981 from Amethi in the by-election held after Sanjay’s death in an air crash a few months after his victory.
Two years after severing ties with Indira Gandhi, Maneka Gandhi would herself make her electoral debut in Amethi, hoping voters would elect her in the name of Sanjay. Author Sunil Sethi, writing for India Today in 1984, described the Rajiv-Maneka Amethi contest as “the most thrilling and daring trapeze act of the Indian election circus, with the routing of Rajiv a not altogether incomprehensible possibility” if it wasn’t for the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Sethi wrote, “Mrs Gandhi's assassination has changed all that. ‘Maneka's fight,’ as one of her supporters put it, ‘is no longer against an MP. It's against the PM.’ And though she has calculatedly put in over a week of intensive, village-to-village campaigning as well as planning to camp out in Amethi for the last three days of electioneering, the might of the prime minister has quite rapidly become clearly unassailable in the last two weeks.”
Not surprisingly Rajiv Gandhi won Amethi in what was a landslide victory for the Congress across India, in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Since Rajiv’s debut in 1981 at Amethi, the constituency in India’s most electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh would always be with a Gandhi family member or a close confidante of the family till 1998. Rajiv Gandhi kept winning Amethi till his assassination in 1991 – never with the stupendous margin or vote share that he defeated Maneka with in 1984. After Rajiv’s death, his close confidante Satish Sharma won the by-election in 1991 and retained the seat in 1996 with reduced margins. In the 1998 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got its first taste of winning in Amethi. But the victory was bitter-sweet, with the winner Sanjay Sinh being a Congress renegade. The victory of Sinh, who is now back with the Congress, wouldn’t last long. The very next year, Sonia Gandhi, contesting from Amethi, would wrest back the seat with a thumping majority from Sinh. Rahul Gandhi made his electoral debut in Amethi in 2004 and won three consecutive general elections from a seat his father Rajiv entered electoral politics. Maneka all this while had shifted to Pilibhit, where she won every single election before shifting to Aonla in 2009 and back to Pilibhit in 2014.
While the Amethi dream remained unfulfilled for Maneka, it is Smriti Irani who would bag the honour of being the first candidate to defeat a member of Rajiv Gandhi’s family tree in 2019. Irani defeated Rahul Gandhi with a margin of 55,120 votes. For Maneka, Smriti Irani’s Amethi ambush would have been sweeter than her own win in Sultanpur. For Irani finally accomplished what Maneka set out to do 35 years ago.