Bright Spark: Why Priyanka Gandhi could herald the revival of Congress’ traditional vote base in Uttar Pradesh

From communication to charisma and confidence, Priyanka has it all. Her arrival has rejuvenated the UP Congress and unsettled the saffron ranks.

 |  7-minute read |   28-01-2019
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Priyanka Gandhi’s eventual plunge into the cesspool of politics has surely ruffled many feathers. More than anything, the manner in which the entire Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has reacted to her arrival shows that the Congress has scored a point.

Whether she will actually impact the vote base politics of Uttar Pradesh – the country’s most populous state where she is expected to lead the campaign – would be known only at the end of the crucial General Election, barely 100 days from now. However, what can be undeniably said is that there could not have been a better bet than her to wake up a dormant Congress from its prolonged slumber in a state that would well determine the political destiny of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

modi-mask-copy_012819013124.jpgUttar Pradesh is expected to determine the political fortunes of Narendra Modi, yet again. (Photo: PTI)

UP sends 80 law-makers to the national Parliament and the Modi magic in 2014 got the BJP as many as 71 of these seats together with two to its ally.

With such a massive mandate from UP having played a giant role in the ascendance of Narendra Modi to the ultimate power pedestal, the first bugle-cry of warning came in the form of the unexpected rapprochement between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP).

After 25 years of bitterness, they called a truce – thanks to the peace initiatives by Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, who decided to make up for all the misgivings that began with the infamous assault by SP troops on BSP MLAs after their leader Mayawati withdrew support to a Mulayam Singh Yadav–led regime in UP way back in 1995. 

That the SP-BSP tie-up could be a lethal combination for the BJP was already demonstrated in the successive humiliating defeats of the BJP at three Lok Sabha and one state assembly seat in UP less than a year ago – and these included the powerful bastions of both Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya.

maya-akhilesh-copy_012819013004.jpgAfter 25 years of bitterness, the SP and BSP have called a truce. (Photo: PTI)

Priyanka’s entry into the arena now is likely to further dent the BJP, particularly in the large urban pockets of the state where the Modi wave had virtually swept in 2014. It was the large floating vote of the urban youth that gave BJP the surge and took it to a record win.

Remember, it was that very youth that heralded the advent of Akhilesh Yadav, who suddenly emerged as some kind of a youth icon when the state went to polls in 2012. Two years down the line, the same youth got disillusioned with Akhilesh and enamoured with Modi because of the tall promises made by him. Five years on, their hopes have turned into despair, as Modi failed to live up to their aspiration for jobs.

Before Priyanka arrived on the scene, this constituency of the youth voter was unlikely to think of Congress as an alternative, simply because of the common perception that the party was not going to be a serious player in the 2019 electoral war. With Priyanka at the helm of the UP campaign now, the Congress would not be taken for granted. Apart from the revival of a good section of its lost traditional vote bank of Muslims, upper caste Brahmins and Dalits, Congress could also win the support of the youth that usually cuts across caste lines.

A good chunk of the upper caste Brahmin vote could also fall in the Congress' lap for the simple reason that there is much disillusionment among them with the BJP. And it is widely believed that Brahmins would avoid going with SP or BSP.

Considering the recent trends that became visible in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress did manage to get a section of the Dalit vote, it is a foregone conclusion that a similar trend would follow in Uttar Pradesh.

More significantly, however, it is the Muslim vote that could drift in larger numbers towards the Congress, now that it is seen in a contending position.

indian-muslim-copy_012819013039.jpgTime for a shift? Will the Muslim vote now definitively move to the Congress? (Photo: PTI)

It is quite understandable that the Congress would be preferred to the BSP by a large section of Muslims. Mayawati’s past alignments with the BJP continues to haunt the minds of Muslims who still look at her with some suspicion. And the manner in which Mayawati has been blasting the Congress is likely to be even more off-putting for such Muslims. On the other hand, Akhilesh Yadav has been quite discreet in maintaining a silence about the Congress.

It is, therefore, being speculated that there could be an unwritten understanding between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi to avoid the division of the crucial Muslim vote.

No doubt that would really be a tightrope walk for both Rahul and Akhilesh – but perhaps it would be inevitable to strike a deal somewhere because any division of the Muslim vote is bound to benefit the BJP.

Over the past few months, it has been becoming increasingly evident that a sizeable section of Muslims was getting inclined towards the Congress. Disenchanted with the Samajwadi Party, largely on account of the feud between SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and son Akhilesh, they began to look up to the Congress as an alternative. But more often than not, the rider that came from their quarters was, 'provided the Congress rises to the occasion and presents itself as a potential contender.'   

Today, with Priyanka in place, the Congress party has acquired that position. Even though the Congress party has been down in the dumps for some years, the recent victory of the party in three states of the Hindi heartland has made it evident that it is now on the revival path. The ripple effect of the victory in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is bound to be felt in UP – which is at the core of the Hindi heartland.

With time running out, it may not be possible for Priyanka to do any major magic. Yet, there is no denying that her presence on the ground would make all the difference to the Congress cadres which have been lying dormant since the party's most active and hands-on state chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi was replaced by an old and forgotten Nirmal Khatri. Provoked by the move, Bahuguna switched to the BJP, where she is an important minister in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet.

The subsequent installation of cine actor Raj Babbar only ended up as a gimmick that failed to rejuvenate the party.

The crisis of leadership seemed to be the biggest challenge for the party's central command that was aware of the prevalent infighting between some of the prominent faces in the state. What the party needed desperately was a leader of stature – who could not be questioned – and a persona that could be taller than the rest.

priyanka6-copy_012819013220.jpgCharisma, Communication, Confidence. She's got it all. Priyanka's arrival on board has unsettled the saffron ranks. (Photo: IndiaToday)

Without doubt, none other than Priyanka Gandhi could fit that bill. Priyanka clearly has it all – an important profile, excellent communication skills, a prompt connect with crowds and, above all, the charisma that is widely believed to be reminiscent of her powerful grandmother Indira Gandhi.

Much speculation was also being made on the million dollar question – whether Priyanka would contest herself or not, and whether she would replace her mother Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli or take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi?

For obvious reasons, the BJP leadership would want the narrative to be written as 'Modi versus Priyanka' – she could then be kept engaged for most of the time in just Varanasi. But it seems apparent that she would not like to get bogged down with any single place as that would hamper her presence in the 40 East UP constituencies which have been specifically entrusted to her.

It was rather late in the day that the BJP leadership realised that their ‘Pappu’ harp against Rahul Gandhi had eventually helped him evolve as a far more mature, confident and vociferous president of the country’s oldest political party, the one group that alone has the potential to meet the might of the BJP at the national level.

Even as BJP was still trying to figure out ways and means to counter a transformed Rahul who was busy blazing all his guns against none other than Prime Minister Modi, Priyanka's arrival on board as a defacto second-in-command to Rahul has clearly unsettled the saffron ranks.

Also Read: Can Priyanka Gandhi defeat Narendra Modi in Varanasi?

Writer

Sharat Pradhan Sharat Pradhan @sharatpradhan21

The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst based in Lucknow.

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