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.