How Priyanka Gandhi will change rules of the game for Congress in UP

This article has been jointly authored by Amitabh Tiwari and Subhash Chandra.

 |  Breaking views  |  5-minute read |   06-07-2016
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Media reports claim Priyanka Gandhi is all set to become the face of the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh elections. The Congress has lost significant vote share in the state to SP, BSP and BJP due to mandal and kamandal and this step is expected to rejuvenate the party cadre.

The grand old party has nothing to lose in these elections. Everybody knows it can't win on its own as it finished with 7.5 per cent votes and led in only 15 Assembly segments in 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

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A Mayawati-Priyanka alliance could be a devastating combination.

The goal of the Congress in UP is to not let BJP win at any cost. To achieve this goal, the contest has to be made triangular. Currently, in a quadrangular contest, BJP, irrespective of whatever opinion polls say, is likely to win as per our assessment solely because of its wide social base consisting of upper caste, OBC, Jat and other SC/ST voters. The Congress is aware of this and has sent feelers to Mayawati for an alliance, which, till now, she has ignored.

The strategy is to position the Congress as a potent force capable of thwarting Mayawati's comeback bid and force her into an alliance to keep the BJP at bay. Mayawati has the narrowest social base amongst peers - Dalits, Brahmins and Muslims.

To win, Mayawati needs to wean away a substantial chunk of Brahmin votes from the BJP, and Muslim votes from the SP. The Congress too is pinning its hopes on the same block - its anchor segment - and will compete with the BSP for these votes.

Opinion polls already show the gap between the BSP and the BJP is reducing, and Mayawati's party leading with only 1.7 per cent vote share (VDP Associates July 2016) as against six per cent (ABP-Nielsen March 2016).

With this in mind, the Congress has formulated a three-point action plan:

1. Appointment of Ghulam Nabi Azad as general secretary in-charge of the state

This has been made with an eye on the Muslim vote bank that accounts for 19 per cent of state population. The votes have been split among SP, BSP and Congress and the party has a decent support among the community (15 per cent-20 per cent). A split in Muslim votes will harm Mayawati.

2. Announcement of Sheila Dikshit as CM candidate

This will be done to wean away core BJP voters. A section of upper caste is not happy with the growing importance BJP has accorded to OBCs while allotting key party positions.

Brahmins want to their glory to return and want to go back to a time when CMs used to be from amongst them and  occupy important ministries.

A section is ready to support whoever gives them their due as they supported Mayawati in 2007. A split in Brahmin votes will again harm Mayawati.

3. Anointment of Priyanka Gandhi as Campaign Committee chief

This will be done to send out the signal that the Congress is a serious contender in the polls. It also puts the kin of the Gandhi family in the game.

What are the main benefits of Priyanka campaigning?

(i) It will enthuse the cadre given the low levels of motivation in the state unit. Reduce dissidence as everybody would like to be in the good books of the Gandhis.

(ii) It will attract female voters who might connect with her far more easily given that she is a mother and a top campaigner (the Congress had a higher base among women than men in UP in the 2012 elections).

(iii) It will attract a section of the upper castes (mainly older Brahmins and Thakurs) who saw the Congress as an upper caste party until the early 1990s.

(iv) It will attract better candidates for seats as they see a higher probability of winning the election on a Congress ticket.

(v) It may persuade the BSP to consider an alliance with the Congress party along with the JD(U) and the Peace party, creating a UP Mahagatbandhan. The Congress could probably contest 75 seats on their own.

(vi) It will disturb the strategy of the BJP and force it to come up with a renewed strategy.

What to watch out for?

Mayawati is unlikely to blink early in the game for an alliance due to a variety of reasons – the CBI Investigation might tighten if she goes for an alliance now. Negotiating six months before the election might giver far less power and, lastly, she would like to see Priyanka’s impact on the ground.

In the meanwhile, Prashant Kishor aims to build a 10-12 per cent vote share for the Congress in opinion polls over the next three-four months and demonstrate to Mayawati that they can't win without Congress support.

Our estimate is that a Maya-Priyanka alliance could be a devastating combination and in alliance with two-three other smaller parties could deliver 35 (plus) per cent vote share delivering them a landslide in UP.

Also, given the broad alliance, each party could focus on two-three voting segments and optimise their votes with that group.

The BJP’s dependence on a wide voting coalition could actually be its undoing as any CM candidate from one caste group could severely damage its chances in the election. The absence of a CM candidate would push numerous voters to back Mayawati, who would be seen as clear winner given the wider alliance. Ironical as it may seem, a Modi-Gandhi (Varun) combination might be the best solution to the Mayawati-Priyanka combination.

Once again, Prashant Kishore has floated a name that is being widely discussed across the political spectrum. This time, the strategy appears to be a reasonable path to get the Congress party back into the UP government after 25 years, even as a junior partner. The next three to four months alone will determine the results of the 2017 elections.

PS: The Congress had bagged just 11.6 per cent vote share and 28 seats in 2012.

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