THE PRIYANKA EF­FECT

With the Congress re­veal­ing its new trump card in Ut­tar Pradesh, the party’s po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries must re­cal­i­brate their elec­toral cal­cu­la­tions for the sum­mer of 2019

India Today - - INSIDE - By Kaushik Deka

Ri­val par­ties must re­cal­i­brate their elec­toral cal­cu­la­tions as Priyanka takes the po­lit­i­cal plunge. Will the Congress trump card pay off?

In the late sum­mer of 1999, a 27-year-old Priyanka Gandhi was in Ame­thi to cam­paign for her mother and then Congress pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi who was con­test­ing her first Lok Sabha elec­tion. Dur­ing a me­dia in­ter­ac­tion, a re­porter asked Priyanka what she thought of the op­po­si­tion at­tack on her mother’s for­eign ori­gins. Reach­ing out to the jour­nal­ist, Priyanka ex­tended her hand and asked: “Do you think I have for­eign blood in my veins?”

That was per­haps the first sign of the po­lit­i­cally savvy mind the Congress is re­ly­ing on two decades later to re­vive its for­tunes in Ut­tar Pradesh, the state that sends 80 mem­bers to the 543-strong Lok Sabha—more than any other state. In 2014, the Congress took just two seats in UP, both won by the mem­bers of the Nehru-Gandhi fam­ily—So­nia in Rae Bareli and Rahul in Ame­thi.

Priyanka’s en­try into for­mal pol­i­tics—as eastern UP in-charge (see map)—has not only breathed new life into the mori­bund Congress in the state, but also sud­denly changed the elec­toral land­scape of 2019. UP, which of­ten de­ter­mines who forms the gov­ern­ment in Delhi, is likely to see a three-cor­nered con­test with the Priyanka-led Congress emerg­ing as the third force be­sides the BJP and the Sa­ma­jwadi Party-Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party al­liance. “She is a gamechanger,” says for­mer Union min­is­ter Jitin Prasada. “There is a vis­i­ble resur­gence among Congress work­ers.” The mood in the party is cer­tainly up­beat, with many even de­mand­ing that she con­test the gen­eral elec­tion from Varanasi, di­rectly chal­leng­ing Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi in his own con­stituency.

The un­prece­dented en­thu­si­asm of Congress work­ers for Priyanka, who till now has re­mained untested in elec­toral pol­i­tics, is not en­tirely mis­placed. In 1999, Arun Nehru—Ra­jiv Gandhi’s cousin and also a mem­ber of his cab­i­net— con­tested the gen­eral elec­tion against So­nia on a BJP ticket, fol­low­ing a bit­ter part­ing with the Congress. Priyanka ad­dressed just one meet­ing, telling the

crowd with elec­tri­fy­ing ef­fect: “How did you let a man who com­mit­ted treach­ery with my fam­ily in this area? Some­one who, de­spite be­ing in the Congress, joined hands with com­mu­nal forces and stabbed his brother in the back?” It was the end of Arun Nehru’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Two decades later, it will be a bap­tism by fire for Priyanka. As in­charge of UP East, she’ll be chal­leng­ing the com­bined might of Prime Min­is­ter Modi and UP chief min­is­ter Yogi Adityanath, whose bas­tion Go­rakh­pur also falls in eastern UP. There is a rea­son why Priyanka—a grad­u­ate in psy­chol­ogy from Delhi’s Je­sus & Mary Col­lege—has been given charge of this re­gion just 100 days be­fore the elec­tion. Eastern UP, broadly con­sist­ing of Awadh, Pur­van­chal and Lower Doab, has 40 Lok Sabha seats. In 2009, when the Congress won 21 seats, its high­est tally since 1984, 18 came from this re­gion. Even at its weak­est in 2014, the party had a 17.8 per cent vote share in Awadh.

The re­gion also has a large up­per­caste pop­u­la­tion—mainly Brah­mins—a vote base the Congress is hop­ing to snatch from the BJP with Priyanka’s ap­peal. There will be an ef­fort to high­light her Hindu iden­tity to at­tract the vote of the Brah­min com­mu­nity, which forms 13 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion and is re­port­edly un­happy with the BJP for var­i­ous rea­sons—from the Modi gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to over­turn the Supreme Court ver­dict di­lut­ing the pro­vi­sions in the SC/ST Act to the grow­ing in­flu­ence of the Thakurs in the Yogi ad­min­is­tra­tion. Priyanka is likely to flag off her po­lit­i­cal in­nings on Fe­bru­ary 4, after tak­ing a holy dip in the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela along with brother Rahul. “These up­per­caste vot­ers are un­happy with the saf­fron party but may not be will­ing to sup­port the SP­BSP al­liance, pri­mar­ily a com­bi­na­tion of back­ward and Dalit votes,” says a Congress Ra­jya Sabha MP. Back­ward classes make up nearly 40 per cent of UP’s pop­u­la­tion while Dalits ac­count for 22 per cent.

An anal­y­sis by CSDS (Cen­tre for the Study of De­vel­op­ing So­ci­eties) of its elec­tion data shows that the Congress’s

su­perla­tive per­for­mance in 2009 was a re­sult of the vote share it gained since the 2007 state elec­tion among the Kur­mis, other up­per castes, Brah­mins, Mus­lims, non­Jatav SCs and Jats. In 2014, the Congress lost up­per­caste and Kurmi votes to the BJP and Mus­lim votes to the SP. But it re­mained the sec­ond choice for Brah­mins and nonThakur up­per­castes. Now, Priyanka needs to win back the sup­port of the Kur­mis, Brah­mins and non­Thakur up­per castes.

While traders and busi­ness­men played a key role in the BJP’s 2014 and 2017 suc­cesses, many of them are un­happy with the party be­cause of de­mon­eti­sa­tion and the roll­out of the Goods and Ser­vices Tax (GST). The dis­con­nect with farm­ers is an­other fac­tor the Congress hopes to ex­ploit, with Rahul mak­ing the agrar­ian cri­sis one of the core themes of his poll cam­paign against the Modi gov­ern­ment. UP farm­ers are par­tic­u­larly un­happy with the Yogi gov­ern­ment for its crack­down on slaugh­ter­houses, as gov­ern­ment­run ones have failed to tackle the in­creas­ing num­ber of un­pro­duc­tive cows, not only adding to the farm­ers’ fi­nan­cial bur­den but also re­sult­ing in de­struc­tion of their crops.

Caste cal­cu­la­tions apart, Priyanka, at 47, will also have a di­rect ap­peal among youth and women. In the 2014 elec­tion, the BJP ben­e­fit­ted a great deal from the sup­port of young vot­ers—51 per cent vot­ers in the 18­22 age group voted for the party. The im­por­tance of the women’s vote is also ev­i­dent from the fact that in the past two assem­bly elec­tions the fe­male turnout has been higher than the male turnout.

De­spite the en­thu­si­asm among Congress work­ers, Rahul is not too hope­ful of a sig­nif­i­cant elec­toral div­i­dend in the com­ing elec­tion. That’s the rea­son why he keeps in­sist­ing that Priyanka’s ap­point­ment is not a short­term strat­egy but the be­gin­ning of a grand re­vival plan that will be tested in the 2022 UP elec­tion. The tim­ing of her en­try—a month after the Congress won the assem­bly elec­tions in three heart­land

states—was a care­fully planned one. With­out a vic­tory, Priyanka’s en­try would have been seen as ev­i­dence of Rahul’s weak­ness. In­stead, the Congress pres­i­dent has now won three elec­tions, en­gages on so­cial me­dia far more than Modi, who has a larger fol­low­ing, and his crit­i­cism of the Rafale deal has gen­er­ated some trac­tion, as in­di­cated by the in­dia to­day Mood of the Na­tion poll. Now the Nehru-Gandhi fam­ily has the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to launch a third mem­ber into the or­gan­i­sa­tional struc­ture of the party from a po­si­tion of strength.

Though the Jan­uary 23 an­nounce­ment merely for­malised Priyanka’s role in the party, she had al­ways re­mained the po­lit­i­cal coun­sel­lor to her mother and brother. Her pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics re­mained lim­ited to the fam­ily bor­oughs of Ame­thi and Rae Bareli, but she has been in­volved— di­rectly or in­di­rectly—in sev­eral ma­jor Congress de­ci­sions. In De­cem­ber 2018, she was part of sev­eral closed­door meet­ings to help Rahul de­cide the chief min­is­ters of Mad­hya Pradesh, Ra­jasthan and Ch­hat­tis­garh. Ear­lier, in 2017, it was Priyanka who fi­nally swung the Congress-SP al­liance for the UP assem­bly poll. “She knows how to con­nect with dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­u­als and ir­re­spec­tive of their stature and pri­or­i­ties present a con­vinc­ing sce­nario to each one of them,” says a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist. On her ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of pro­to­col de­tails, a se­nior Congress leader says: “She never sum­mons any leader, big or small, to her home. She ei­ther drives down her­self or meets them at the res­i­dence of her brother or mother.”

The Priyanka card was also ne­ces­si­tated by the Congress de­ci­sion to go solo in UP. Many grass­roots Congress lead­ers had told Rahul that play­ing ju­nior part­ner with 10 Lok Sabha seats in the SP-BSP al­liance would be fa­tal for the party. That’s why the Congress stayed away from the al­liance even as Rahul con­tin­ued to pitch for a united op­po­si­tion against the Naren­dra Modi-led BJP in 2019 na­tion­ally. But to lead an ef­fec­tive cam­paign in UP, the party needed a strong leader. Priyanka fit the bill per­fectly. What sets her apart from the other mem­bers of her fam­ily is that she doesn’t carry the bag­gage of the past and can reach out to even those with whom the fam­ily has fallen out. Also, un­like Rahul, she keeps in touch with most lead­ers through SMS or on the phone. “In UP, she kept in touch with even those lead­ers who did not have a good rap­port with So­nia and Rahul, and got them on board,” says a Congress gen­eral sec­re­tary. She had no qualms in ad­mit­ting that her ex­cel­lent Hindi dic­tion and vo­cab­u­lary are a re­sult of per­sonal tu­tor­ing by Teji Bachchan, mother of the su­per­star Amitabh Bachchan (be­fore the lat­ter’s mys­te­ri­ous fall­ing out with the fam­ily). In 2013, her son Rai­han lit the funeral pyre of Arun Nehru, whom she’d dubbed a traitor in 1999. In­sid­ers say her Bud­dhist lean­ings and Vi­pas­sana prac­tice have helped her evolve not only as an in­di­vid­ual but also as a politi­cian who al­ways keeps the larger pic­ture in mind.

What makes Priyanka a for­mi­da­ble force is her in­stant and nat­u­ral con­nect with the masses—a qual­ity she ar­guably shares with Modi. She re­minds many Congress sup­port­ers of her grand­mother both for her charisma and the stun­ning like­ness—some­thing they hope to cash in on to counter Modi. Priyanka also speaks flu­ent Hindi, of­ten laced with Awadhi in­flec­tions.

She is con­stantly com­pared to her brother Rahul but most an­a­lysts feel she is the more nat­u­ral and out­go­ing of the two. How­ever, Priyanka has al­ways been care­ful not to up­stage Rahul in pub­lic life and is more than will­ing to share her grand­mother’s legacy with him. “His un­der­stand­ing of pol­i­tics is re­ally very good—much bet­ter than he is given credit for. And that I think comes from my grand­mother,” she has said.

A nat­u­ral un­der­stand­ing of pol­i­tics may be one of the many ad­van­tages of be­ing born to an il­lus­tri­ous po­lit­i­cal fam­ily, but Priyanka’s dy­nast sta­tus will also be a tool in the hands of the BJP to pit her priv­i­leged back­ground against the hum­ble ori­gins of its two mas­cots in UP—PM

CONGRESSMEN HOPE PRIYANKA’S EN­TRY WILL MAKE THE SP-BSP RE­CON­SIDER A COALI­TION WITH MORE SEATS FOR THE PARTY

Modi and CM Yogi. So­cial me­dia is al­ready abuzz with dig­i­tal cam­paign­ers snark­ing that in the Congress, the fam­ily is the party while in the BJP, the party is the fam­ily.

Though po­lit­i­cal ri­vals have spared her per­sonal at­tacks so far, her for­mal en­try into pol­i­tics has opened the flood­gates. BJP MP Subra­ma­nian Swamy was at his vi­cious best when he an­nounced, “She has a dis­or­der of bipo­lar­ity. She beats up peo­ple. Her ail­ment does not make her fit to lead a pub­lic life. The pub­lic should know when she is likely to lose men­tal bal­ance.” BJP leader Kailash Vi­jay­vargiya said that the dearth of strong lead­ers had made the Congress pull out “choco­latey” faces. Bi­har min­is­ter Vinod Narayan Jha said votes could not be won on the ba­sis of beau­ti­ful faces. He also pointed out that she was the wife of Robert Vadra, “ac­cused in sev­eral cor­rup­tion cases”. That bag­gage may in­deed weigh down Priyanka. Her busi­ness­man hus­band—a friend from school­days whom Priyanka mar­ried in a Hindu cer­e­mony at her mother’s home on 10, Jan­path, in 1997—faces probes by the CBI and ED in nearly two dozen cases re­lated to land ac­qui­si­tion and money laun­der­ing. The cou­ple, who stay at 35, Lodhi Estate, Delhi, have a son (Rai­han, 18) and a daugh­ter (Mi­raya, 16). Vadra’s fa­ther Ra­jen­dra ran a brass­ware ex­port busi­ness in the west UP town of Mo­rad­abad. Robert, his brother Richard and sis­ter Michelle spent most of their child­hood in Delhi, where his mother Mau­reen taught in a school. The fam­ily has seen hard times and per­sonal tragedies, such as

when Michelle was killed in a road ac­ci­dent in 2001, or when Richard com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2003 or when Ra­jen­dra was found hang­ing at a guest­house in Delhi in 2009. The Congress has al­ways main­tained that the al­le­ga­tions against Vadra are a case of po­lit­i­cal vendetta by the BJP. And that de­spite BJP gov­ern­ments at the Cen­tre and in sev­eral states, they have been un­able to prove a sin­gle charge against Vadra in these five years.

Go­ing by her past record, how­ever, it will be dif­fi­cult to win against Priyanka in a po­lit­i­cal slugfest. She has shown her abil­ity to give as good as she gets. In 2014, when Modi claimed that the Congress had got­ten old, Priyanka quipped in a rally: “Do I look old to you?” Later that year, in an­other elec­tion cam­paign in Rae Bareli, she coun­tered Modi’s RSVP— Rahul, So­nia, Vadra and Priyanka—and ABCD—Adarsh scam, Bo­fors scam, coal scam and damaad ka gho­tala (scam of the son-in-law)—digs with: “You’re not teach­ing in a pri­mary school, you’re ad­dress­ing the na­tion. Don’t teach peo­ple the English al­pha­bet like RSVP or ABCD. “

If not the English al­pha­bet, Modi and BJP will cer­tainly fo­cus hard on the caste arith­metic that helped the party sweep the state in 2014 and 2017. The mas­sive suc­cesses were a re­sult of well-planned so­cial engi­neer­ing at multiple lev­els—coali­tions of up­per castes (Brah­mins and Thakurs) and sup­port from non-Ya­dav OBC groups, non-Jatav Dalits and farm­ers. One of the BJP’s poll strate­gies will be a con­tin­u­a­tion of this caste man­age­ment. The party recog­nises the re­sent­ment among up­per castes and be­lieves their an­nounce­ment of 10 per cent reser­va­tion for eco­nom­i­cally back­ward up­per castes will al­ter the mood on the ground. The BJP also hopes to co­a­lesce all castes un­der a larger Hindu um­brella by rais­ing the deci­bel level on the Ram tem­ple is­sue. The RSS has been up­ping the ante on the is­sue since last year and has also been ac­tive on the ground, ap­point­ing prab­haris in each of the 71 seats the BJP won for feed­back on the per­for­mance of the lo­cal MP.

How­ever, one fac­tor that could crip­ple the BJP’s elec­toral man­age­ment is the dis­con­nect be­tween the Yogi gov­ern­ment and the party. Around 600 gov­ern­ment posts are ly­ing va­cant as the CM and the party ap­pa­ra­tus can­not agree on can­di­dates. Yogi doesn’t know the district level lead­ers well and spends more time in his home con­stituency, Go­rakh­pur, than in the state cap­i­tal Lucknow. His sup­port­ers, on the other hand, claim that he is not get­ting enough sup­port from the party struc­ture, which is vir­tu­ally run by Su­nil Bansal, the state gen­eral sec­re­tary (or­gan­i­sa­tion).

BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah has also been plan­ning to rope in mem­bers of the old guard such as Ra­jasthan gov­er­nor Kalyan Singh and West Ben­gal gov­er­nor Kes­ri­nath Tri­pathi to iron out dif­fer­ences in the state or­gan­i­sa­tion. Union health min­is­ter J.P. Nadda has been ap­pointed Lok Sabha elec­tion in-charge. Gu­jarat BJP vet­eran Gord­han Zadaphia has been made party in-charge in UP, given his prox­im­ity to Hin­dutva force.

Even as the BJP is yet to firm up its fi­nal strat­egy to counter Priyanka, the SP-BSP al­liance may re­think its strat­egy. This al­liance of two arch-ri­vals is a re­peat of the ex­er­cise that was able to stop a bel­liger­ent BJP from form­ing a gov­ern­ment in 1993 in the wake of the Babri Masjid de­mo­li­tion. At that time, the OBCs, led by Mu­layam Singh Ya­dav, and the Dalits, led by Kan­shi Ram, came to­gether. This time the al­liance looks for­mi­da­ble on pa­per, as it’s likely to win 58 Lok Sabha seats, ac­cord­ing to the

THE BJP PLANS TO PLAY THE CASTE CARD THAT STOOD IT IN GOOD STEAD IN 2014 AND 2017

in­dia to­day MOTN sur­vey.

How­ever, Priyanka’s en­try may split the Mus­lim vote, so far in favour of the SP-BSP com­bine. Mus­lims, who form 19 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, want to sup­port the SP but are un­cer­tain about the BSP be­cause the Mayawati-led party does not have a strong Mus­lim lead­er­ship. After the 2017 state elec­tion, the BSP’s Mus­lim face and its for­mer gen­eral sec­re­tary Nasimud­din Sid­diqui joined the Congress. In the past one-and-ahalf years, more than 50 prom­i­nent Mus­lim BSP lead­ers have joined Congress ranks. The SP’s Mus­lim face and Ram­pur MLA Azam Khan has al­ready asked the Congress not to cut into the al­liance’s votes.

But Priyanka’s pres­ence may also bring the non-Jatav Dalit vote, which went to the BJP in the past two elec­tions, back to the Congress, and help­ing the al­liance even­tu­ally. The party has an elab­o­rate plan to high­light the in­ci­dents of atroc­i­ties against Dalits across the coun­try in the past four years. The party brass is in talks with Dalit lead­ers such as Gu­jarat MLA Jig­nesh Me­vani and Chan­drashekhar Azad Ra­van, founder of the Bhim Army.

Rahul un­der­stands the dam­age it may cause the al­liance but the Congress brass also re­alises that this may prompt an SP-BSP re­think on of­fer­ing the party more seats in a re­jigged coali­tion agree­ment. Rahul has al­ready sent a veiled mes­sage: “We’ll work in sync with Akhilesh Ya­dav and Mayawati wher­ever pos­si­ble. At the same time, it’s im­por­tant for us to cre­ate space for the Congress ide­ol­ogy.” Congress in­sid­ers claim the lead­ers of the three par­ties are likely to sit down in­for­mally for con­stituency-wise as­sess­ment in order to put up friendly fights wher­ever needed to min­imise dam­age.

The chal­lenge for the SP-BSP is not just to ar­rest the divi­sion of Mus­lim, Dalit and OBC votes but also to ex­pand its so­cial base and con­nect the other marginalised groups as equal part­ners. The SP right now is con­cen­trated among the Ya­davs—9 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion—and the BSP among the Jatavs—12 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The ef­fort to ex­pand this base was vis­i­ble dur­ing the by­polls. In Go­rakh­pur and Phulpur, the SP had Nishad and Kurmi can­di­dates, com­mu­ni­ties which were ear­lier seen to be locked with the BJP. But find­ing the win­ning caste com­bi­na­tion for 80 seats, never an easy task, will be com­pli­cated by Priyanka’s en­try.

Even for Priyanka, the task re­mains mam­moth: to re­vive a party that has slipped from a 51 per cent vote share in 1984 to 7 per cent 30 years on. In 1999, asked when she would join pol­i­tics, she had said: “You’ll have to wait a long, long time.” Now that she has fi­nally taken the plunge, she doesn’t have the lux­ury of time to de­liver a win­ning re­sult.

WHY UP MAT­TERS FOR THE CONGRESS

JOINT MIS­SION Akhilesh greets Mayawati on her birth­day on Jan­uary 15 this year

SAN­JAY KANO­JIA/GETTY IM­AGES

THE SUPRE­MOS The BJP’s aces in UP, Modi, Yogi and Amit Shah

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