The seeming political lull of over a month amid the lockdown appears to have ended as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh has entered a bitter war of words with the opposition Congress over the issue of buses to transport migrant labourers.
However, in the middle of this ongoing political slugfest, the writing on the wall is clear. The grand old party with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra leading the charge in the state seems to have outsmarted the mightier regional outfits, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, to occupy the larger space of opposition politics. Riding the bus, the Congress, for the moment, has clearly sped ahead of the cycle and the jumbo in the marathon for 2022.
So, moving beyond who is right and who is wrong in the ongoing tussle over '1,000 buses', the fact is that the Congress to a great extent has been successful in building a political campaign on the plight of the migrant labourers. All this while the key opposition parties SP and BSP have been completely missing from the scene..
For the Congress, the present build-up hasn't come out of the blue. Immediately after the first few days of the lockdown, Priyanka, the party’s general secretary in-charge of eastern UP, had got busy working out a strategy. Just two days after the national lockdown came in force on March 25, she had gone into a videoconference with her state unit leaders, handing the task to organise free kitchens for those in distress.
On the very same day, she also wrote her first letter to UP chief minster Yogi Adityanath, making a series of suggestions about steps required to help daily wage labourers, farmers and poor people. The letter also expressed the desire on part of the Congress party to volunteer in the relief and assistance operations.
Since then the Congress state unit went ahead organising a round-the-clock community kitchen at its office in Lucknow and in other parts of the state. Priyanka continued to monitor the work through regular interaction with her party leaders.
So what was the Congress strategy? A former student leader, now part of the core team assisting Priyanka, says, “We and our leader were all genuinely concerned about the plight of the poor, migrant labourers and the huge difference between the government’s claims and realities on the ground."
The youth leader not willing to be named, however, also admits the political rationale behind the activism. “As a political party, it’s natural to work for the people, serve them, and in turn expand our politics. The Congress had always stood by the poor and downtrodden. We are trying to do the same even during the time of lockdown, when millions have lost their livelihood and are struggling to go back home.”
The Congress says Priyanka Gandhi’s interest in UP is not new. “During the Lok Sabha elections, Priyanka had promised not to leave UP. She stands by her commitment. We stood with the poor tribles when they were massacred in Sonbhadra. We stand with the poor now, when they have been ignored by the government," the party’s state spokesperson Amarnath Agarwal says .
Over the period of the lockdown, compared to BSP supremo Mayawati and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, Priyanka was clearly more active, shooting off at least four letters to the UP chief minister. All expressing the desire to be part of the relief operations. The climax of the intervention came with Priyanka writing for providing 1,000 buses to bring migrant labourers back to the state with the expenses to borne by her party.
A close observer of UP politics, senior journalist Sharat Pradhan reminds, “It's not the first time in the recent past that Priyanka has outsmarted both Mayawati and Akhilesh. Be it the case of the Sonbhadra massacre or the rape and burning of a girl in Unnao, Prianka has taken the lead. The same has been the case amid the lockdown. Despite being a smaller party in UP compared to SP and BSP, the Congress has taken a clear lead as the opposition party. Whether these endeavours pay off in the battle of the state election in 2022 remains to be seen, but they clearly help in building a perception."
As far as UP CM Yogi Adityananth and the BJP are concerned, they have clearly helped bring the spotlight once again on Priyanka and the Congress party. Putting aside the debate of merit and demerit, who is right and who is wrong in the ‘bus war', the focus clearly remains on the Congress’s move. The buses may stand idle, but to the discomfort of the ruling BJP, the plight of migrant labourers continues to be driven forward.