Priyanka Gandhi has taken her time to decide on the Congress’ latest decision, asking her to play a major role in the UP elections and not confine herself to Amethi and Rae Bareli as before.
But the fact that the party has finally approached her points to a certain nervousness in the Congress camp. Till now, it had shied away from involving her in the UP campaign in a big way presumably because such a move might put Rahul Gandhi in the shade.
However, it is possible that demonetisation has played a part in making the Congress change its mind. With the queues shortening before the banks and ATMs, it is clear that the situation will become normal even before Narendra Modi’s promise of ending the present inconvenience in 50 days are over.
In that case, the BJP may well claim to have carried out yet another surgical strike - this time against black money. Even now, not a few in the long queues have been saying that they do not mind the difficulties as long as the “country benefits”.
If the banking system resumes functioning as before and the current disruption of trade and agricultural activity comes to an end before New Year’s Day, then the BJP’s chances of being the front-runner in UP will be brighter than ever.
The Congress, on the other hand, will continue to lag behind the two other major contenders in the state – the BSP, which is likely to come second, and the Samajwadi Party, which has possibly irreversibly damaged its prospects because of the fratricidal infighting in the Yadav clan.
Notwithstanding the realisation that the Congress will not be able to rise above its No. 4 position in a state where it has been out of power for about three decades, the party’s poll strategist, Prashant Kishor, had come out with several ideas to boost its expectations.
One of them was to encourage Priyanka to play a more active role. But his suggestion was ignored till now by the powers-that-be possibly because Rahul might have resented being sidelined by his more charismatic sister if she drew larger crowds.
As of now, Rahul’s outreach has been underwhelming with his khaat pe charcha or meeting people sitting on cots causing more amusement than interest in the Congress vice-president’s speeches because the audience was more intent on running away with the charpoys at the end of the show.
Besides, the Congress’s decision to project the 78-year-old former Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, hasn’t set the Yamuna on fire. The only person who did draw enthusiastic crowds was Sonia Gandhi during her solitary appearance in Varanasi but, then, unfortunately for the Congress, she fell ill and the party’s electioneering petered out.
Since then, the Congress working committee has asked Rahul take over the party presidency. But neither there is any certainty about when he will do so, nor about whether it will lead to a dramatic turnaround in the party’s fortunes.
It is also known that even if Sonia Gandhi formally steps down, she will still remain the only person to whom the party members will look up for guidance. Rahul, therefore, will be no more than a figurehead.
In this context, Priyanka’s induction as a major campaigner will create yet another focal point in the party. Prone as the Congress is to factionalism, the existence of three centres of authority – Sonia, Rahul, and Priyanka - may not be conducive to smooth functioning.
The internal rumbles will be exacerbated if the Congress loses in U.P., Gujarat, and Goa. It has a better chance of success in Punjab because of the anti-incumbency factor afflicting the Akali Dal. But the credit for it will go more to Amarinder Singh than to anyone in the high command.
It appears, therefore, that irrespective of whether Priyanka plays a bigger role than in the past, the Congress will remain mired in crisis with no immediate hope of redemption.
Modi, on his part, shows signs of going from strength to strength with bold initiatives like surgical strikes on the staging posts of terrorists across the Line of Control in Pakistan and a frontal assault on black money.
Even if the impact of demonetisation on the so-called parallel economy may not be substantial since only an estimated six per cent of black money is kept in cash, the hoarders will nevertheless be unnerved by the realisation that Modi will not hesitate from taking the bull by the horn, especially if he carries out other measures like targeting benami property.
Even if Priyanka takes to the field, it is not known if she has the requisite intellectual prowess to be a credible critic of the latest economic measures or will only be a shrill naysayer.
Modi’s success is based on avoiding the kind of populism which the Congress favours – doles for the rural poor, cheap food for all, free school education, et al. Instead, he focuses on economic growth and nailing the black money hoarders.
While the Congress’s welfare-based policies did not help it in 2014, Modi has succeeded in being well ahead in the race at least where public perception is concerned.
(The author is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)