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India’s biggest election prize: Can the Gandhi family survive Modi?

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India’s biggest election prize: Can the Gandhi family survive Modi?

Amethi/Rae Bareli, India Irfan*, a tea stall owner, is convinced that change is afoot.

“There has not been much traffic on this road from Rae Bareli to Amethi ever since the Congress lost power in 2014,” he says, referring to two towns and a party that for decades have been synonymous with one family – the Nehru-Gandhis, or as they are more commonly known, the Gandhis.

The first family of Indian politics has ruled the country for almost half of its journey since independence in 1947, with three generations of prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and grandson Rajiv Gandhi. And through ups and downs, when the Congress has been in power and out of it, Amethi and Rae Bareli, separated by 62km (38 miles), have for the most part stood by the family. They’ve served as safe constituencies for India’s grand old party in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which is India’s largest electoral prize: with 80 seats out of the nation’s total of 543 in the lower house of parliament.

In 2019, that tradition received a dramatic jolt when the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi – son of Rajiv – lost Amethi by 55,000 votes to Smriti Irani, a feisty minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which has been in power nationally since 2014. Rahul’s mother and former Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi, retained Rae Bareli for the party, the only seat it won in Uttar Pradesh as the BJP swept the nation, winning 303 seats overall.

Now, five years later, the towns are a tense microcosm of the national battle between the BJP and opposition Congress; between Modi and the Gandhis. Rahul is replacing his 77-year-old mother from Rae Bareli this time. BJP’s Irani is seeking reelection from Amethi. Each of them is expected to face tough competition from the other’s party. Amethi and Rae Bareli vote on May 20 in India’s giant election.

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At stake are more than two seats: If the BJP wins Rae Bareli and retains Amethi, it will effectively have wiped out the Gandhi family and the Congress from Uttar Pradesh. Conversely, say opposition leaders, a Congress win in both seats could seed anti-BJP momentum in a state that often decides who rules nationally.

Irfan, from his vantage point of Tiloi town near Amethi and Rae Bareli, believes the political winds are blowing in the direction of the Congress. “Storm is building in both the cities, which will impact the entire state,” he says.

Yet, storms can be unpredictable – and Amethi and Rae Bareli know that.

A supporter of India’s Congress party wearing an outfit with portraits of former Indian Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, top, and Rajiv Gandhi, waves to the camera at an election campaign rally addressed by Rahul Gandhi in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, on March 6, 2014 [File: Rajanish Kakade/AP Photo]

Boost for the opposition?

In a video posted by the Congress party on social platforms, Rahul and his mother Sonia are seen leafing through old photos of the family visiting and contesting from Amethi and Rae Bareli, as they reflect on their family’s old association with the towns.

It is a decades-old bond. Feroze Gandhi, Indira’s husband and Rahul’s grandfather, won Rae Bareli in 1952 – independent India’s first election. Indira and Sonia won this seat subsequently, their stints interspersed by terms when their loyalists were nominated to contest from the town instead.

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Only thrice has the Congress lost Rae Bareli. In 1977, a national opposition coalition toppled Indira’s government to come to power amid a wave of anger against the Congress over its imposition of a state of national emergency in 1975, when civil liberties were suspended and thousands of its political opponents were arrested. In 1996 and 1998, when the BJP was rising nationally and first came to power, it defeated the Congress here – though the Gandhi family was not in the contest on those occasions.

In Amethi, Indira’s elder son Feroze Gandhi lost the 1977 election but won in 1980. The Congress lost only once since then, in 1998, before Irani’s upset in 2019. Sonia and Rahul have both won from Amethi.

After his loss in 2019, many pundits had wondered whether Rahul would ever contest from the family pocket boroughs – or even from Uttar Pradesh – again. He had won from Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala in 2019 and contested from there again this time.

The Congress party insiders say he was unconvinced about contesting from a second seat this time, but was eventually swayed by pressure from Sonia, who was opposed to giving up the family’s bastions without a fight. Rahul’s sister Priyanka, who is now also a leader of Congress, decided against contesting.

With Rahul contesting from Rae Bareli, a longtime family friend Kishori Lal Sharma is competing against Irani from Amethi. It’s a scenario that could work for the opposition, say some of its leaders. In the days before the Congress decided on its candidates for these seats, Ameeque Jamei, a national spokesperson for the Samajwadi Party – the Congress’s biggest ally in Uttar Pradesh – had told Al Jazeera that if Rahul or Priyanka contested, the “opposition fight against the BJP will gain greater meaning”. He predicted that the Congress-led INDIA alliance that is challenging the BJP nationally could win up to 20 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats.

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That is easier said than done. Rahul faces a formidable challenger in the BJP’s Dinesh Pratap Singh, who gave Sonia a tough fight in 2019, cutting her winning margin substantially. Singh has been unsparing in his criticism of how the Gandhis treat their bloodline. The party and family rarely even mention Feroze Gandhi, Rahul’s grandfather, whose grave is 100km (60 miles) from Rae Bareli.

“A person who cannot be that of his grandfather, how can he be yours,” says Singh.

Vice President of India’s ruling Congress party Rahul Gandhi, second right, holds a handful of flower petals to throw back at supporters, with his sister Priyanka Vadra seated by his side as he arrives to file his nomination for the ongoing general elections in Amethi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Saturday, April 12, 2014. Gandhi, heir to the country's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is leading the struggling party's campaign in the general election. The multiphase voting across the country runs until May 12, with results for the 543-seat lower house of parliament announced May 16. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Rahul Gandhi, right, and sister Priyanka campaigning in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, ahead of the 2014 national election [Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo]

Barbershop politics

On the ground, Rahul and Priyanka are barnstorming the otherwise sleepy cities of Rae Bareli and Amethi, in their own ways.

Recently, Rahul slipped into a local barbershop to get his beard trimmed. His videos of sitting in the barbershop went viral. Priyanka divides time between the two towns, holding road shows and corner meetings.

The Congress has also brought in other heavyweight leaders to strengthen its campaigns here with their experience and political guile. At Rae Bareli’s Shalimar Guest House, Bhupesh Baghel, the former chief minister of the central state of Chhattisgarh, is marshalling supporters. “Rahul has a lot of support in Rae Bareli. So, I don’t have to do very much,” he says.

Ashok Gehlot, the former chief minister of Rajasthan, is handling the Congress campaign in Amethi against Smriti Irani, who has doubled down on her accusations that the Gandhi family neglected the town and Rae Bareli for decades despite winning from there.

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The Congress is counting on the support of two key voting blocs. Muslims constitute 22 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population. A Muslim leader from Amethi, Muhammad Alam, said many from his community could have considered voting for the BJP, but Modi’s recent attacks – including suggestions that the Congress would take Hindu wealth and give it to Muslims – had changed their minds.

Gautam Rane, a Dalit activist in Uttar Pradesh’s capital, Lucknow, says sections of the community, which sits at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy, are also shifting towards the Congress. The community has traditionally backed the regional Bahujan Samaj Party in the state. The Congress has used stray comments by some BJP leaders to suggest that the party wants to change the constitution and take away caste-based affirmative action benefits from the Dalits – a charge that the BJP has denied.

“This is Rahul Gandhi’s elections,” Rane says. “No one [else] matters.”

* Name changed to protect identity

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Video: Biden and Zelensky Deliver Remarks at G7 Summit

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Video: Biden and Zelensky Deliver Remarks at G7 Summit

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Biden and Zelensky Deliver Remarks at G7 Summit

G7 leaders agreed on a plan to give Ukraine a $50 billion loan to help it buy weapons and begin to rebuild.

“President Zelensky and I have just now signed that agreement between the United States and Ukraine. Our goal is to strengthen Ukraine’s credible defense and deterrence capabilities for the long term. A lasting peace for Ukraine must be underwritten by Ukraine’s own ability to defend itself now, and to deter future aggression any time in the future. The United States is going to help ensure that Ukraine can do both, not by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine, but by providing weapons and ammunition, expanding intelligence sharing, continuing to train brave Ukrainian troops at bases in Europe and the United States.” “Today is a truly historic day, and we have signed the strongest agreement between Ukraine and the U.S. since our independence. And this is an agreement on security, and thus, on the protection of human life. This is an agreement on cooperation, and thus, on how our nations will become stronger. This is an agreement on steps to guarantee sustainable peace, and therefore it benefits everyone in the world because the Russian war against Ukraine is a real, real global threat.”

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1,000 days have passed since Taliban banned girls from attending school past 6th grade: UNICEF

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1,000 days have passed since Taliban banned girls from attending school past 6th grade: UNICEF

A thousand days have passed since girls in Afghanistan were banned from attending secondary schools, according to the U.N. children’s agency, which said Thursday that “no country can move forward when half its population is left behind.”

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell in a statement urged Taliban authorities to allow all children to resume learning immediately, and called on the international community to support Afghan girls, who she said need it more than ever. The agency estimates that more than 1 million girls are affected.

The U.N. has warned that the ban on girls’ education remains the Taliban’s biggest obstacle to gaining recognition as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

TALIBAN PUBLICLY FLOGS 63 IN AFGHANISTAN, INCLUDING WOMEN, DRAWING UN CONDEMNATION

The Taliban, who took over in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in 2021, has said girls continuing their education goes against the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.

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Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, the Taliban have also barred women from higher education, public spaces like parks and most jobs as part of harsh measures imposed. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, they also banned girls’ education.

FILE – Afghan girls attend school in a classroom, in Kabul, March 25, 2023. One thousand days have passed since girls in Afghanistan were banned from attending secondary schools. That’s according to the U.N. children’s agency, which says that “no country can move forward when half its population is left behind.” (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

The Taliban has barred girls from attending classes beyond sixth grade, making it the only country in the world with such restrictions on female education.

In March, the new school year started with girls barred from attending classes beyond the sixth grade. Female journalists were not allowed to attend the opening ceremony.

The Taliban also have been prioritizing Islamic knowledge over basic literacy and numeracy with their shift toward madrassas, or religious schools.

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UNICEF’s executive director called the systematic exclusion of girls “not only a blatant violation of their right to education, but also results in dwindling opportunities and deteriorating mental health.”

She said UNICEF works with partners to run community-based education classes for 600,000 children, two-thirds of them girls, and train teachers.

Although Afghan boys have access to education, Human Rights Watch has said the Taliban’s “abusive” educational policies are harming them. In a report published in December, the group said deep harm has been inflicted on boys’ education as qualified teachers — including women — left, including an increase in corporal punishment.

Also on Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office said the Taliban have told female civil servants barred from working that their salaries would be cut to the lowest level regardless of their experience or qualifications.

The latest “discriminatory and profoundly arbitrary decision” further deepened the erosion of human rights in Afghanistan, said Liz Throssell.

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The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, called on authorities to rescind all laws, instructions, edicts and other measures that discriminated against women and girls, in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations, Throssell added.

Nobody from the Taliban was immediately available for comment.

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NATO agrees on long-term support plan for Ukraine

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NATO agrees on long-term support plan for Ukraine

Ministers gathered over two days at NATO headquarters in Brussels for final high-level talks before an upcoming summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in Washington in July.

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NATO defence ministers have ended talks in Brussels, during which they agreed on a plan to provide long-term security assistance and military training to Ukraine.

It comes after Hungary promised not to veto the scheme as long as it’s not forced to take part.

Ukraine’s Western allies are trying to bolster their military support as Russian troops launch attacks along the more than 1,000-kilometre front line, taking advantage of a lengthy delay in US military aid. European Union money was also held up by political infighting.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who chaired the meeting, said that Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces need longer-term predictability about the kinds of weapons, ammunition and funds they can expect to receive.

Stoltenberg declared that the plan is for NATO to continue to provide support to Ukraine: “Since Russia’s full scale invasion, allies have provided around €40 billion worth of military support each year. I have proposed that we sustain this level of support as a minimum for as long as it takes.”

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Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s Western backers have routinely met as part of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, run by the Pentagon, to drum up weapons and ammunition for Kyiv. A fresh meeting was held at NATO headquarters on Thursday.

While those meetings have resulted in significant battlefield support, they have been of an ad-hoc and unpredictable nature. Stoltenberg has spearheaded an effort to have NATO take up some of the slack.

The idea is for the 32-nation military alliance to coordinate the security assistance and training process, partly by using NATO’s command structure and drawing on funds from its common budget.

Stoltenberg said he hopes Biden and his counterparts will agree in Washington to maintain the funding level for military support they have provided Ukraine since Russia launched its full-fledged invasion in February 2022.

He estimates this at around €40 billion of equipment each year.

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