On February 10, as Congress general secretary incharge for Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi stepped out of Dehradun airport, attention was suddenly drawn to the rudraksha mala in her hand. While pictures of her counting the sacred beads soon went viral, she was already headed for attending a big farmers' panchayat in neighbouring Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh.
And even as the symbolism of a rudraksha-wielding Priyanka was being deliberated upon, hours later she was seen offering prayers at the famous Maa Shakumbhari Devi temple in Saharanpur. And by the time she had reached the kisan panchayat venue, her plans to visit the holy city of Prayagraj and take a dip at Sangam the next day had also been made public.
Clearly, what started as the Congress’s offensive against the backdrop of the ongoing farmers’ protests to repeal the new farm laws has taken an interesting turn in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. In Priyanka and her party’s activities over the past few days one gets a clear sense of an emerging pattern. It is the formula of trying to address both the caste and the class phenomena, all along also trying to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party's Hindutva narrative by projecting a soft-liberal religious face of the Gandhi scion.
The question is can this new strategy help the grand old party regain its roots in the state, where it has been out of power for more than 30 years and was reduced to just one Lok Sabha seat out of 80 in the 2019 general elections.
FARMERS AS A 'CLASS'- WHAT IT CAN MEAN IN WEST UP
While the Congress as a major opposition party has been extending its support to the ongoing farmers’ agitation from the very beginning, it has gone for a very aggressive open intervention in their favour following January 26. A move that coincided with the farmers' protests spreading across western UP, the region which all through the past few elections had been a very fertile ground for the BJP.
Before the saffron party ensured a strong hold since the general elections of 2014, the politics in these parts had been historically defined by the assertive farming community that has gained prosperity through the green revolution of the 1960s and strong caste identities, especially the backward caste Jat politics. The result had been the rise of “kisan sentiments” and regional assertions which later saw their manifestation in the rise of the likes of former Prime Minister (late) Charan Singh and in general the politics of anti-Congressism.
Since then and especially post the mid-1970s, following the Emergency, the politics in the region was increasingly defined by the rising caste consciousness of the backward and Dalit Hindus. While the Congress received a major dent being the only national party of prominence, the BJP too found it difficult to gain strong roots despite throwing all its weight behind the contentious Ram Mandir movement in the eighties and nineties .
The politics of larger Hindutva consolidation was still some distance till the bloody Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, which clearly marked another major turning point in the politics of the region that is also set apart by the presence of a strong Muslim population.
The deep communal divide created by the riots coupled with rising assertion of the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi was strong enough to ride above the caste consciousness and break the strategic electoral understandings among the various backward and Dalit Hindu groups and the Muslims that had often worked in favour of parties like the SP, BSP and RLD.
Since then, from 2014, all through the assembly polls of 2017, and then again in the general elections of 2019, this larger religious consolidation has worked well for the BJP. It is this phenomenon of Hindutva consolidation which is now threatened by the ongoing “kisan aandolan”. The fanning up of Jat sentiments by the state’s Yogi Adityananth-led government attempting to act tough with Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has led to a series of massive farmer mahapanchayats , which are also seeing the participation of Muslim khaps.
Clearly it is a signal of alarm for the BJP and ray of hope for rivals. That’s the reason why opposition parties have now taken an open plunge in their support for the farmers. While the likes of Jayant Choudhary of the Jat-based Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) have obviously been active in the region, the Congress too has jumped in with all its might.
The first glimpses of the new strategy were clearly visible when all the key opposition leaders including Priyanka Gandhi reached Rampur to attend an event in the memory of a young Sikh farmer who was killed during the Republic Day violence in Delhi.
Just a few days later, on February 10, Priyanka attended a big kisan panchayat in Saharanpur. She has also participated one in Bijnor. Over the next few days, she is all set to attend other such panchayats in Muzaffarnagar (today) and Meerut (February 23) as well. No doubt the party wants to cultivate new grounds in Uttar Pradesh, riding on the sentiment of the new 'class consciousness' of farmers cutting across caste lines.
CEMENTING THE 'CLASS' WITH A LIBERAL RELIGIOUS FACE?
Amid the desire to tap into the new 'kisan consciousness', the Congress probably also wishes to counter the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva polarisation by projecting a liberal religious image of its leader. From images of the rudraksha- wielding Priyanka to those of her offering prayers at the Saharanpur temple, 'Sangam snan' the next day, to seeking blessings from Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, all seem to be aimed at sending the desired message.
The fact that on February 10, while in Saharanpur, she also visited a famous Sufi shrine, was a further message of her liberal religious positioning. Clearly for a leader of national stature like her, all these moves will be seen in the larger context of politics. The BJP too is worried by the developments and is keeping a close watch.
A very senior leader of the state BJP acknowledges the challenge. However, he is dismissive of the Congress. “Things in western UP have gone against us, but elections are still far away and we have a strong organisation to undo the wrongs," he said.
RIVER GANGA AND THE BACKWARD CASTE NARRATIVE
For political observers, the series of tweets from Priyanka herself following her 'Sangam snan' suggest a crucial message not just in terms of larger religious outreach but also addressing the caste dynamics. Priyanka’s tweet thanking her boatman Sanjay Nishad deserves special attention.
Like the Jats in western UP, the Nishads constitute a major backward caste in the region of the Ganga-Yamuna doab. Historically engaged in river-dependent occupations like rowing boats, fisheries and production of vegetable crops, the Nishads along with several closely linked subgroups have seen a significant caste assertion over the past few years.
Unlike the Yadavs among the OBCs who had strongly been with the SP and Jatavs among the Dalits with the BSP, the Nishads and other related deprived subcastes have been fluid in their political choices. However, of late they had been with the BJP. It was this caste calculation which the Congress had probably also tried to address with Priyanka’s Ganga Yatra ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
CAN ALL OF IT WORK FOR THE CONGRESS?
In 2019, the efforts had gone in vain, but since then a lot of water has flown in the Ganga. Congress leaders say today they have a comparatively stronger organisation in the state and have a dedicated UP-centric leadership of Priyanka Gandhi. The BJP’s politics and the Yogi government’s performance have created some resentment and have, thus, opened up a window of hope.
Whatever might be their assessment, elections are still a year away. Amid strong presence of regional players like the SP and BSP, who still have a defined caste consolidation behind them, carving out an independent turf will clearly be a Herculean task for the Congress. And even if it gains strength, the mighty BJP may just have the last laugh with possibilities of a larger split in opposition votes.