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OPINION | Congress May Be in for Rude Shock If It Believes Priyanka’s Charisma Will Trump Caste Matrix in UP

The Congress needs its own brand of social engineering in Uttar Pradesh. Its cadre cannot depend solely on the Gandhi name to resurrect the party in its most difficult terrain.

Anita Katyal |

Updated:January 30, 2019, 3:36 PM IST
OPINION | Congress May Be in for Rude Shock If It Believes Priyanka’s Charisma Will Trump Caste Matrix in UP
The Congress focus on projecting Priyanka Gandhi is to give an otherwise demoralised and defunct cadre in UP something to cheer about. (PTI photo)

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s formal entry into politics has expectedly led to giddy excitement in the Congress. Even a week after she was appointed party general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, ecstatic party cadre cannot stop exulting about how Priyanka’s arrival will dramatically change the electoral landscape not just in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh, but across the nation.

The hysteria in the Congress was effectively reflected in the media which went overboard with its wall-to-wall coverage of Priyanka’s induction into the party. And more will follow when she takes charge and begins interacting with Congress workers and the public in preparation for the big face-off with the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress rank and file, and the media, have been taken up by Priyanka’s resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi, her easy connect with people and her flawless Hindi (a sharp contrast to her brother and party chief Rahul Gandhi) which, they are convinced, make for a heady and winning combination.

The elation in the Congress ranks is understandable as they have been pressing for Priyanka’s entry in politics for over a decade now, convinced that she has the necessary charisma and star power to restore the party to its old glory. But the big question is whether Priyanka Gandhi Vadra can meet the expectations of the Congress workers and turn around the party’s fortunes. As the euphoria ebbs, it will become increasingly clear that the new Gandhi on the block has a long and arduous journey ahead.

Meeting the expectations of the starry-eyed workers will be a tough call in Uttar Pradesh and the cadre will soon realise that Priyanka’s uncanny resemblance to her grandmother may not resonate with the new generation of voters who have never seen Indira Gandhi. This is the generation which has responded enthusiastically to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overtures as he has been going out of his way to woo the young voter. And it is this generation which has developed an abhorrence for dynastic politics, a fact which will be highlighted by the BJP with greater vigour now.

There is no getting away from the harsh reality that the Congress is no longer a major player in Uttar Pradesh. Its social base of Brahmins, Dalits and minorities has been usurped by a resurgent BJP and Mandal forces, represented by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Reduced to a marginal force in Uttar Pradesh, the grand old party has been out of power in the state for over three decades now.

It is possible for a political party to recover from an electoral defeat, which often proves transitory, but it is very difficult for it to regain lost ground if it loses its social base. And that’s the Congress story in Uttar Pradesh. As a result, there has been a steady dismantling of the party organisation and an erosion in its ranks as cadre have gradually migrated to parties with better prospects. Rebuilding the party in the 36 Lok Sabha seats under her charge in a short span of three months will not be a cakewalk for Priyanka.

It is a fact that Priyanka is no stranger to Uttar Pradesh. But her forays so far have been restricted to Rae Bareli and Amethi, the Lok Sabha constituencies of her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi, respectively. She is a familiar figure here as she has not only been interacting with party workers but has also campaigned extensively during elections. No doubt Sonia and Rahul have been winning their respective seats, but their victories have not translated into any gains for the party in the Assembly segments of Rae Bareli and Amethi constituencies despite Priyanka’s best efforts.

And even Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s impressive victories were made possible because of the indirect cooperation of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which generally fielded weak candidates against the Gandhis. It must be remembered that Rahul Gandhi’s victory margin was reduced by nearly 2 lakh votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when he was challenged by the BJP’s feisty Smriti Irani. Priyanka had campaigned for her brother then, but Irani was constantly snapping at her heels.

The optimism in the Congress about Priyanka is based on the party’s performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha election when it won 21 seats, most of them located in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Its tally was reduced to two in the 2014 general elections as all the other political parties in the fray were swept aside by the Modi wave. Party cadre genuinely believe that the Congress can regain its winning streak with Priyanka at the helm. But it is easier said than done. A lot has changed in the last five years.

The BJP has since emerged as a formidable political force in the state, stormed to power in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2017 Assembly election with a spectacular performance in Uttar Pradesh. Once dismissed as a shehri or urban party, the BJP has now put down firm roots across in this crucial Hindi heartland state. It is not unusual to see BJP flags fluttering even in remote villages while the party’s social base has been expanded with its conscious move at social engineering.

The BJP has gradually moved beyond its old support base of upper castes to include non-Yadav backward classes like Rajbhars and Patels, thus putting together a winning caste combination. And, more importantly, the party has been helped immensely by the Modi magic.

The Congress may well be in for a rude shock if it lives under the delusion that Priyanka’s charisma will transcend caste affiliations and loyalties. The caste matrix in Uttar Pradesh has become more complex and complicated over the years and Priyanka alone will not be able to pull the Congress back from the brink.

On its part, the Congress is hoping that Priyanka’s entry will help wean away the BJP’s Brahmin voters who are upset with the saffron party because of the special treatment meted out to the Thakurs by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. But Brahmins are not known to waste their vote and generally go with those who are best positioned to be in power. On the other hand, there is a nagging fear that a divide in the minority vote between the Congress and the BSP-SP combine could work to the BJP’s advantage.

Clearly, the Congress needs its own brand of social engineering in Uttar Pradesh. Its cadre cannot depend solely on the Gandhi name to resurrect the party in its most difficult terrain.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.)

| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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