By Amitava Mukherjee
For Congress workers Priyanka Gandhi is always an embodiment of puzzle and hope. She often raises hopes among her party workers, demoralized as they are from a long standing marginalization in India’s body polity, by suddenly dropping some too transparent hints that may be taken as her desires to shrug off hesitation and play active roles in the affairs of the Indian National Congress. But she often puzzles the party rank and file by adopting a policy of ‘ one step forward, two steps backward’ and then retreating behind the shadow of his brother Rahul Gandhi. Congress workers and sympathizers had been looking forward to her entry into active politics for a long time. They were truly energized when Priyanka did it in 2019 and was invested with the responsibility of eastern Uttar Pradesh as the party’s general secretary. But how much time did she devote for the all important state? Reasonable doubts persist. After all she could not make her brother Rahul Gandhi sail through the last parliamentary election from the Amethi constituency.
So will anything worthwhile happen this time when there are rumours that Priyanka will set up her new residence in Lucknow in the house of her great grand mother Sheila Kaul and revitalize the Congress in Uttar Pradesh? There are hopes and anxiety among the Congressmen in UP. Will Priyanka be able to deliver this time as the state assembly election is only two years away ?
The task will be hard for Priyanka because objective as well as subjective ground realities are against her. First, there is a confusion among the electorate of Uttar Pradesh as to who will be the candidate from the Congress for the post of chief minister. Priyanka, till now, has chosen not to speak out her mind on this question. So far Ajay Kumar Lallu, the incumbent state Congress president, has labored hard to make his party relevant again. He has organized several agitations in the state and was arrested several times. Lallu has grass root connections. But he is sure to forego any claim to the post of chief minister if Priyanka says that she is ready for the job. Such an expression of willingness from Priyanka is really necessary at this stage to produce a viable alternative to the highly personalized administrative machinery run by Yogi Adityanath.
Secondly Priyanka has started late in UP. In spite of best efforts by Ajay Kumar Lallu, Congress in UP is in a moribund state and reviving booth level organizations of the party will be a daunting task for Priyanka. In the 2014 Lok Sabha poll the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and its ally the Apna Dal won 73 seats out of 80 in UP.The BJP not only got 43 percent votes but held unquestioned sway over all the caste groups of the state so far as vote shares are concerned. The Samajwadi Party(SP) of Akhilesh Yadav got 22.4 percent votes but only five seats. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) got 19.8 percent votes but no seat while Congress garnered 7.53 percent votes but could manage to get only two seats- Rae Bareilly and Amethi- as consolation prizes.
A comparison with the 2019 Lok Sabha result will show that Priyanka’s job may become harder in the 2022 UP assembly election. In 2019 BJP’s vote share increased upto 49.98 percent although its tally of seats came down to 62. The BSP’s vote share stood more or less at the same level in comparison with that of 2014 but it bagged 10 seats. This meant that a good percentage of Other Backward Castes(OBC) votes got themselves transferred from the SP to the BSP. Congress fared pathetically. Not only its vote share decreased but Rahul Gandhi, the party president, lost in Amethi.
It will be outlandish for the Congress to expect too much in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh election. If the party can finish at the highest side of double digit results, then it would have to be admitted that the party has performed creditably and that would launch Priyanka Gandhi in a resplendent manner in the national political canvas. Perhaps that is Priyanka’s goal also. Her moves on the UP political chessboard indicate that she has learnt a lesson from her party’s disastrous performance in the 2017 state assembly poll when, by cozying up to the Samajwadi Party, Congress had lost Brahmin support, one of its solid vote bank in Uttar Pradesh.
Brahmins constitute 12 percent of Uttar Pradesh voters. They are perfect counter forces to the Thakur community from whom comes Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of the state. But Priyanka has to regain at least a respectable percentage of votes of the Dalits and the Muslims, Congress’ major support bases of yesteryears. There is a faint ray of hope for her as the Samajwadi Party of Akhilesh Yadav is in a stupor. In the last Lok Sabha poll the SP had lost nearly 4 percent of its votes compared to what it got in the parliamentary poll of 2014. Apart from the OBCs, a certain percentage of it must have been Muslim votes. If the Congress can again sway Muslim votes to its favour then the party’s tally should look much more healthy.
Where does Priyanka Gandhi want to land ultimately? It is obviously Delhi, and not Lucknow. It will be interesting to watch how Priyanka and Rahul can increase Congress’ space for manouvre in India of the coming decade. Congress’ share of Lok Sabha seats has fluctuated wildly from 1984 to 2014. Except in 1989, 1991 and 2009 its share of Lok Sabha seats remained well below the 200 mark and from 1989 to 2004 its vote share experienced a steady decline save a marginal increase in 1999. In the parliamentary election of 2014 Congress’ vote share touched the rock bottom and the party finished miserably so far as seat share was concerned. The year 2019 was no different for it. Its vote share showed a slender increase- from 24 percent in 2014 to 26.53 percent in 2019. But it made no difference to the party’s electoral fortune. Its president lost from his family’s traditional bastion and was forced to stay afloat from another constituency in Kerala.
A lot now depends on Priyanka. If Congress can do well in Uttar Pradesh under her stewardship then it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that a qualitative change may occur in Congress politics.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)