Congress game-plan for UP polls
The Congress is playing a “bahu-beti” game in the poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. Will this click when the electorate is tired of dynastic politics and looking for new faces? Only time will tell but certainly, it may not harm the party. If any, it is likely to bring some dividends.
The bahu is Sheila Dikshit and the beti is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. For the first time, the Congress has announced Sheila Dikshit as the party’s Chief Ministerial candidate. To add flavour, Priyanka may step out of the family pocket borough Amethi and Rae Bareilly and campaign in the whole of Uttar Pradesh.
The 64-year-old film star turned politician Raj Babbar is the new PCC President replacing Nirmal Khatri, Acharya Narendra Dev’s grandson. Ghulam Nabi Azad is the general secretary in charge of UP. The new team also includes former ministers Sanjay Singh, Chief of the Campaign Committee and RPN Singh, senior vice-president besides four vice-presidents. After days of dilly-dallying the Congress is now turning to the old guard which is evident from putting these old warhorses as part of the new team.
The Congress thinks it is a well-calibrated strategy. Prashant Kishor, who has been hired by the Congress to chalk out the campaign strategy for both the poll-bound states (Punjab and UP) has come up with new ideas. He was the successful strategist for 2014 Prime Ministerial campaign of Narendra Modi and for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in 2015. But UP is not Bihar or Gujarat. UP is India.
Even the Congress does not believe that it could form the government in UP where it had been out of power for close to three decades. N.D. Tiwari was the last Congress Chief Minister in 1989. But no one can fault the Congress for wanting to improve its position. After all, the Grand Old Party cannot be wished away. It has nothing to lose and if it revives, as it did in 2009 Lok Sabha polls, it would be a bonus.
The strategy now appears that by projecting Sheila as the party’s face, it can woo the 12 percent Brahmins in the state and the party hopes for a ripple effect even if she can get back six to seven percent Brahmin votes. These two sections were the core voters of the Congress earlier. Sheila comes from a well-known UP Brahmin family and her father-in-law Uma Shankar Dikshit was a tall Brahmin leader. Since the Congress had not developed any second rung leaders, there is a lack of leadership at the state level.
Sheila Dikshit has many pluses and minuses. She was seen as the next best bet after Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The family, after an intense discussion had decided on Sheila, who has good relations with the family. Remember she was one of the very few Congress leaders who was invited to Priyanka’s wedding! She is the most suitable cover as the family does not expect her to perform any miracles. Her job is to take the blame if the effort fails and give credit to the Gandhi children if it succeeds. One big plus point is her track record as Chief Minister of Delhi for fifteen years. Although she is 78 years old, she is healthy and fit. She is respected because of her stature. She is well-connected to different castes and communities as she is a Punjabi, her husband was a Brahmin and her daughter has married a Muslim.
As for the minuses, Sheila is seen as an outsider and the local Congress leaders like Pramod Tiwari are upset. Secondly, today’s electorate may not be impressed by such an aged leader. Thirdly, the UP unit is in shambles and elections to the Pradesh Congress Committee have not been held for years. The morale of the party workers is low after the humiliating defeat in 2014 Lok Sabha poll. The party was devoid of local leadership as it depends on the Gandhi family charisma, which seems to be waning. Sheila has very little time as the polls are scheduled to be held early next year. There are corruption charges including her alleged role in the CWG scam. Priyanka’s campaign may or may not click as even in the family pocket borough in the earlier elections, she was not able to get good support.
The party’s second important decision was to appoint the filmstar-turned-politician Raj Babbar. For him, it is “light, camera and action.” He was with the V.P Singh’s Janata Dal and Samajwadi party before he joined the Congress in 2008. In a 2009 by-poll, he defeated Mulayam Singh’s daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav. Raj Babbar is a fifth term MP and has a socialist image. He belongs to the Sunar caste (OBC) which is also a factor. The Congress hopes to woo Brahmins, Muslims, and other backwards classes. Both Sheila and Raj Babbar do not belong to any factions of the UP Congress. A lightweight politician in a caste-ridden society, Raj Babbar is expected to draw crowds.
The new team began in an impressive manner when the party organised a big reception from the airport to PCC office on Sunday. Will this enthusiasm continue and will the party fight together? This is the million dollar question and only time will tell. For now, the other parties like the SP, BJP, and the BSP are merely watching.
(The author is a senior political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)