Congress faces a steep climb in UP
The party doesn’t have a specific message for different castes
Congress president Rahul Gandhi will accompany the party’s new general secretaries in charge of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia, to Lucknow on Monday. While the fact that UP will be central to determining the shape of the next government is widely accepted, Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment has thrown up new possibilities. Could what was assumed to be a straight bipolar contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the grand alliance of Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) turn into a triangular contest, with the Congress constituting the third element? If this happens, does the Congress have a serious chance of winning seats beyond its strongholds or will it primarily ‘cut’ or fragment votes? And if it cuts votes, does it eat into the BJP’S vote base or that of the alliance?
These are not easy questions to answer. But it can be reasonably assumed that implications of the Congress’ presence will play out on a seat-by-seat basis. Its upper caste candidates could harm the BJP. Its Muslim candidates could harm the alliance. But what would be its larger strategy? In an interview with this paper last week, Rahul Gandhi was respectful of the alliance and made it clear that the common enemy was the BJP. But he claimed that the space for the Congress has opened up. This space, he saw, in mobilising non-dominant, small communities — for the BJP represented dominant (upper caste) communities, SP the dominant of the OBC communities (Yadavs), and the BSP the dominant of the Dalit communities (Jatavs).
This is an interesting insight. But it is also precisely what the BJP did in both 2014 and 2017. It was able to win over large segments of the non-yadav OBCS and non-jatav Dalits by speaking of their marginalisation. It thus constructed an alliance of the most-dominant upper castes with some of the poorest communities. It was able to do so with Narendra Modi’s appeal, changes in organisational structure, more representation to these communities and targeted messaging. Mr Gandhi’s idea has merit. But Congress neither has the organisational depth to reach out to these communities nor leaders from the nondominant castes. It does not have a specific campaign message that takes into account specific grievances of these castes. Constructing a social coalition which includes these groups — and winning back its own base of Brahmans, Muslims and Dalits — will be Ms Gandhi’s and Ms Scindia’s biggest challenge.