India Today - - FROM THE EDITOR IN CHIEF - (Aroon Purie)

Build­ings can be al­le­gories for the vi­sion and vi­tal­ity of a po­lit­i­cal party. Last year, the BJP’s sprawl­ing new five-storeyed na­tional head­quar­ters, the coun­try’s largest, sym­bol­ised a party bent on dom­i­nat­ing the na­tional nar­ra­tive. This month, Nehru Bha­van, the Congress’s run­down party head­quar­ters in Ut­tar Pradesh’s cap­i­tal Lucknow, started get­ting a facelift, a fresh coat of paint, new doors, win­dows and a con­fer­ence room. The makeover for a party out of power in the state for three decades fol­lows the Grand Old Party’s Jan­uary 23 procla­ma­tion of the for­mal en­try of Priyanka Gandhi into elec­toral pol­i­tics. Priyanka, 47, the new­est mem­ber of the Nehru-Gandhi fam­ily to for­mally en­ter pol­i­tics, will be gen­eral sec­re­tary in charge of eastern Ut­tar Pradesh, which com­prises Awadh, Pur­van­chal and Lower Doab, to­gether ac­count­ing for ex­actly half of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats. It is still not clear whether Priyanka will ac­tu­ally con­test the Lok Sabha elec­tion, but if she does, the choice of the con­stituency will be an at­ten­tion-grab­bing one.

As ev­i­denced by the re­fur­bish­ing of the dowdy party of­fice in Lucknow, Priyanka's en­try has elec­tri­fied a party that has hit rock bot­tom in In­dia’s most elec­torally sig­nif­i­cant state. From 83 seats and a vote share of 51 per cent in 1984, the Congress crashed to just two seats and a 7.5 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tion and a pal­try seven seats in the 403-seat assem­bly in 2017. In 2009, 18 of the Congress’s 21 Lok Sabha seats—the party’s best per­for­mance since 1984—came from eastern UP. Even at its weak­est in 2014, the party man­aged a 17.8 per cent vote share in Awadh.

The tim­ing and rea­sons for Priyanka’s en­try—in­deed the choice of eastern UP as her elec­toral bat­tle­ground—seem to be part of a well-thought-out strat­egy. The daunt­ing al­liance of the SP and BSP al­ready threat­ens to com­pletely marginalise the Congress in UP. The state’s eastern re­gion also has a large up­per caste, mainly Brah­min, vote base, which the Congress is hop­ing to snatch away from the BJP. In caste-rid­den UP, Priyanka could be the Congress’s most po­tent mag­net to at­tract re­cal­ci­trant BJP vot­ers who might not want to vote for the SP-BSP al­liance. The re­cent in­dia to­dayKarvy In­sights Mood of the Na­tion sur­vey projects 58 Lok Sabha seats for the al­liance if elec­tions were held to­day. This al­liance presently ex­cludes the Congress in all con­stituen­cies save the two Nehru-Gandhi bas­tions of Rae Bareli and Ame­thi. Priyanka’s en­try, the Congress be­lieves, might prompt the al­liance to re­think its stance, par­tic­u­larly since she could ap­peal to the vot­ers from the Mus­lim com­mu­nity, who con­sti­tute 19 per cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion.

Our cover story, ‘The Priyanka Gam­bit’, by Se­nior As­so­ciate Ed­i­tor Kaushik Deka, analy­ses the im­pact of the Congress scion’s en­try into a key bat­tle­ground state. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing es­say by Con­sult­ing Ed­i­tor Ajit Ku­mar Jha pro­vides a psepho­log­i­cal anal­y­sis of UP. The gam­bit is clearly the open­ing move of a long-term strat­egy by Rahul Gandhi who re­alises that the Congress can­not have a size­able pres­ence in the coun­try or in an op­po­si­tion al­liance with­out a stake in UP. Field­ing Priyanka in the state not only gal­vanises the cadre but also frees Rahul to cam­paign across the coun­try. He is also cre­at­ing more space for a tacit al­liance with the SP-BSP in key for­ward caste-dom­i­nated con­stituen­cies where the Congress has an ad­van­tage. If the party can­not reach an ac­com­mo­da­tion with the SP-BSP, it will face three-cor­nered con­tests in many con­stituen­cies which could ben­e­fit the BJP. The trick for the Congress is to strike the right bal­ance in UP’s com­plex elec­toral cal­cu­lus with­out frac­tur­ing op­po­si­tion unity.

Priyanka has her strengths. She struck me as be­ing an as­tute, in­stinc­tive politi­cian when I saw her cam­paign­ing and vil­lage-hop­ping in her mother’s con­stituency Rae Bareli in 2014. She ad­dressed peo­ple and held im­promptu press con­fer­ences wher­ever she went. She seemed to be more ef­fec­tive in ad­dress­ing smaller groups of peo­ple rather than the large pub­lic meet­ings that are Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s forte. Al­though her Hindi ora­tory is far bet­ter than her mother or brother can at­tempt, Priyanka the politi­cian has not been tested out­side the fam­ily citadels. In eastern UP, she has en­tered the bas­tion of UP chief min­is­ter Yogi Adityanath and Prime Min­is­ter Modi, who holds the con­stituency of Varanasi. She, of course, re­minds many peo­ple of Indira Gandhi, but the moot ques­tion is how many among the roughly 20 mil­lion first-time vot­ers in UP re­call the for­mer prime min­is­ter. There are other im­pon­der­ables, too. For in­stance, the shadow of her con­tro­ver­sial busi­ness­man hus­band, Robert Vadra, who faces a probe by the Cen­tral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion and the En­force­ment Direc­torate in nearly two dozen cases re­lated to land ac­qui­si­tion and money laun­der­ing. An­other con­cern is that with 100 days or less be­fore the elec­tion, the Congress may have played its trump card too late in the game. Will Priyanka's in­duc­tion re­verse the Congress party’s three-decade-old or­gan­i­sa­tional ne­glect? Only one thing is for sure: Rahul Gandhi is pulling out all the stops for a good show­ing by his party in the forth­com­ing gen­eral elec­tion.

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