Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi proposes to undertake a Maha Pada Yatra for 30 days from September 6 with a view to swing the fortunes of the party in the ensuing Uttar Pradesh elections. It will cover a total 223 Assembly and 55 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh. This follows the enthusiastic response in Varanasi on August 2 when Congress President Sonia Gandhi did a road show. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi will be the trio who are expected to deliver UP this time.
After Mahatma Gandhi undertook the historic Dandi March in 1930, padayatras have come to be used as a potent weapon to win the support of the masses. The BJP patriarch LK Advani got political dividends after his famous Rathyatra in 1989. The late YS Rajasekhar Reddy did a three-month walk in 2003 in united Andhra Pradesh, which won him the state. In 2013, N Chandrababu Naidu did a similar 1,700-km padayatra, after which he was elected Chief Minister. Even the AAP chief Kejriwal undertook a padayatra before the 2015 Delhi Assembly polls, which got him an unprecedented majority.
This is not the first time Rahul Gandhi has taken up this method of wooing the voters. Even before the 2012 UP polls, he launched an arduous 105-km march from Bhatta-Parsaul in Greater Noida to Aligarh to highlight farmer-related issues. He had undertaken padayatras in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and elsewhere earlier. UP is crucial for the Congress to revive its political fortunes. The Grand Old Party plans to harp on its past glory with a campaign theme “27 saal UP behal” to project the deterioration of the state under the BJP, BSP, and SP regimes since the Congress lost power in 1989. The party was enthused after the Bihar elections and is keen to replicate that success in the ensuing polls to UP, Punjab, Manipur, and Goa.
The Congress has hired political strategist Prashant Kishor who is touted to have ensured victory for both Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in 2015. With barely a few months to go before the polls, the party might need more than Prashant Kishor to pull the rabbit out of the hat to win UP.
PK, as Prashant Kishor is called, has his work cut out as he has already rubbed the various factions on the wrong side. He has managed to make Sheila Dikshit the Chief Ministerial face to woo the 12 percent Brahmins. The BSP is soft on the Congress. The party strategy includes rallies, yatras, and road shows in the run-up to the polls. There are also plans to announce the candidates two months in advance departing from the usual Congress practice.
The Congress has lost its core vote bank of Dalit-Muslim-Brahmins since 1989. The SP has Muslim-Yadav, BSP has Jatavs / other Dalits, and BJP has upper caste and urban voters. Essentially, the Congress has to compete for the Muslim vote with SP and BSP and for the Dalit vote with the BSP and BJP. While the BJP is banking heavily on upper castes and non-Yadav other backward classes for a repeat of the 2014 performance, the core vote bank of the BSP (Dalits) and the Samajwadi Party (Yadavs) remain intact.
As per current opinion polls, the main contest is between BJP and BSP with the SP facing anti-incumbency. If people see the Congress as an alternative to the SP and the BSP as well as in a position to take on the BJP, the Congress fortunes could improve. But this is indeed a big “if”. From 30.5 percent vote share in 1985 the Congress vote share has come down to 11.63 in 2012. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress got only 7.50 percent and in 2009, 18.25 percent. In the last Assembly polls, Congress won just 28 of the 403 seats in the state and a mere 22 and 25 seats in the 2007 and 2002 Assembly polls respectively.
So how will the Congress achieve its goal? The plus is that though in small numbers, the Congress has its presence in all the regions. It plans to bring workers out of dormancy, by reaching out to them. The main thing is to connect with the voters. So instead of big-ticket events, the party plans to conduct mohalla meetings to gain a foothold again. From August 21 to October 9, it plans to hold 66 meetings throughout the state. The Maha Yatra is also part of the efforts.
The Congress has to overcome many obstacles to achieve its goal. There is intense factionalism, and it has no organisation at the grass root level. So far, Rahul Gandhi’s experiments in democracy have also been in vain. They have made very little impact on the Youth Congress and even less on the Congress party.
Priyanka will now campaign intensely for the party and the Congress is pinning its hopes on her. The party is heavily dependent on the Gandhi family and hopes that the trio (Sonia, Rahul, Priyanka) would get the Congress back on the rail. But it is easier said than done. The Gandhi magic had waned in 2014 and the subsequent Assembly polls. Can the family revive its magic wand now? Will the fortunes of the Congress improve? It all depends on the poll strategy, candidates, and connect with the people. IPA
(The views expressed are personal.)