In the vanguard?
Success or failure of Priyanka Gandhi’s ‘bold and innovative’ measures — taken ahead of UP assembly elections — will determine Congress’ revival prospects, and also her graph as a ‘leader’
It would not go wrong if we say that the Congress — that had won 269 assembly seats out of 425 seats it had contested in the undivided Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 1985 — is now on the ventilator. It's going to be a herculean task for Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to rejuvenate the Grand Old Party in the country's politically sensitive state ahead of the 2022 assembly polls.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra came into active politics in 2019 with the mandate to revive almost a dead cadre system of UP Congress. The Gandhi scion, who was first given the charge of eastern UP and then the whole state, has been trying hard to revive the party prospects in the state, with a special focus on the 2022 assembly elections. She has been taking 'bold and innovative' decisions to bring the Congress in the poll race.
However, it is not yet clear whether Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will contest the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections or not. Confusion still persists as Priyanka Gandhi did not dismiss the possibility of contesting the election in UP. She has said, "I have not taken a call on it yet."
The decision to give a push to women empowerment by reserving 40 per cent seats to women candidates may prove to be a turning point in the politics of Uttar Pradesh, which is dominated by caste and religion. It's clear that Congress wants to change the course of politics by bringing the issues like unemployment, farmers' protest, electricity, women safety, and poor law and order at the centrestage.
It's a hard fact that Congress has been repeatedly failing to perform in Uttar Pradesh. During the 2012 assembly elections, the party had won 28 seats, which slipped further to seven in the 2017 assembly elections and it finished second in another 49 seats. The party remained on the third spot in the recently held panchayat elections by winning 270 seats.
While announcing 40 per cent reservation for women in ticket distribution, Priyanka Gandhi said, "I wanted to make women's participation 50 per cent, but this can be decided in the next election. We will give tickets to women on the basis of merit, not caste."
Assuming that Congress decides to contest all 403 seats in the UP assembly, it will need a minimum of 161 women candidates to fight the election. In the state, out of a total of 14.05 crore voters, 6.3 crore are female and 7.7 crore are male.
To counter Priyanka's women-centred activism, the Yogi Adityanath government too is focusing on women-related schemes. The state government appointed 59,000 banking sakhis for each UP village in January 2021. These are the women at the village level who inform other women about government schemes and help with the bank work related to those schemes.
Despite several challenges, Priyanka Gandhi is not hesitating in taking tough steps that may even prove lethal for the party in due course of time. It was part of Congress' general secretary's strategy to reduce the 500-member state executive committee to 115 and appoint Ajay Kumar Lallu, who belongs to a backward community, as state president of the party.
"The decision to appoint Ajay Kumar Lallu to lead the party in a politically sensitive state was an out-of-box decision taken by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to send a message to the 'custodians' of the party that there is a need to change the process of thinking in the party," said Arvind Mohan, a noted political commentator.
"When Lallu was appointed to head UP Congress, he was not known to many. Later, he proved himself as a leader of the party as he kept himself committed to the party workers and galvanised them for every small and big political event," Mohan said, adding, "Even though Lallu is not fitting into the bill for a state with over 15 crore electorates, his active involvement in every activity of the party has scaled up his accountability."
Spelling out the initiatives taken by Priyanka Gandhi for strengthening the party at the village level, Congress spokesperson Prof Gourav Vallabh said that she has made several changes after taking over the charge of Uttar Pradesh.
"The appointment of new district presidents, forming election-related committees, elevation of a grassroot-level leader Ajay Kumar Lallu to state president, organising training camps for booth-level workers etc. are some of the key decisions taken by Priyanka Gandhi to strengthen the party," he said, adding that the party workers have also been told to directly speak to her in case of any issue.
Is Congress heading towards a revival under the leadership of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Uttar Pradesh? In reply to this, Mohan opined that in the present scenario, it appears a little tough. "Given the organisational structure of Congress and other opposition parties like Samajwadi Party, it's not yet possible for the opposition parties to win the political battle."
"There is resentment against the ruling government, but the quantum of public anger is not yet clear. The ongoing farmers' protest may be an advantage for Congress in the state. It appears that in Western UP, farmers would extend their support to mostly those candidates who could defeat the BJP. In this way, anti-BJP votes would go in favour of winnable candidates who may be of Congress, Rashtriya Lok Dal, SP or BSP," he said.
Commenting on Priyanka Gandhi's aggressive role in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, political analyst Mohan said, "Priyanka's move to hit the streets just a few months before the assembly elections will definitely hit the prospects of other opposition parties such as Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), as it increases the risk of a division in the anti-BJP vote."
After taking the charge of UP, Priyanka raised the issue of women's harassment, including the Unnao rape case in 2017 and the Hathras rape case in 2020, he said.
"The BSP, which is not visible on the ground, maybe the worst sufferer as the chances of Dalit vote division are very high, and in this case, BSP would face a loss of its lion's share," he said.
"There are several permutations and combinations that can be applied to the UP assembly polls. If the elections move away from the caste factor, the women card of Priyanka would play a key role in deciding the course of politics in the state. The disintegration of Dalit vote would be an added advantage for Congress," he said.
"The third and important aspect of Priyanka being in the lead is the respect for Gandhi family, as this family is still above caste, religion and region in the state. In comparison to previous elections, the party has better resources to amplify its campaigns," he said.
Refuting the possibilities of non-caste-centred politics in UP, Anup Saraswat, who is president of Kisan Adhikar Yuva Manch, said, "UP and Bihar are known for caste-based politics. It would remain for a long time. The Congress should also change their strategy and field candidates by keeping in mind the caste equations of the constituency."
"The party has to strengthen its booth-level workers as it is not able to reach out to the rural population, which is not the case with the BJP. The issue of waiving off farmers' loan, relief in electricity bill, shiksha mitra and bringing back pension scheme would prove beneficial for the party in the elections," Saraswat said.
In contrary to Saraswat, Congress leader Prof Gourav Vallabh said, "If there is no impact of the issues raised by Priyanka Gandhi, then why the state government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is putting up barricades and enforcing Section 144 to stop the movement of Priyanka Gandhi?"
"The Congress is not a jumla party. Every announcement is made after calculating the budget for it so that it would get delivered. If voted to power, the party would give smartphones to girls who pass Class XII, and electronic scooters to those who are graduates," he said.
However, poll strategist Prashant Kishor claimed that the Lakhimpur Kheri issue may not help in scripting a revival story for Congress. In a tweet on October 8, he said, "People looking for a quick, spontaneous revival of a GOP (grand old party)-led opposition based on the Lakhimpur incident are setting themselves up for a big disappointment. Unfortunately, there are no quick-fix solutions to the deep-rooted problems and structural weaknesses of the GOP."
Taking a swipe at Priyanka, former UP Congress chief and currently a BJP MP, Rita Bahuguna Joshi dubs 40 per cent reservation decision as an electoral gimmick. "Priyanka knows she will not get even five seats in the assembly elections, so she wants to put forward women to defeat other candidates in the elections," Bahuguna said.
As Congress has been reduced to a single MP from UP in 2019, the 2022 assembly elections are crucial to Priyanka in many ways. The UP assembly elections will be a litmus test for Priyanka as the outcome of the poll will decide the graph of her popularity as a leader.
The Congress' state organisation has been divided into six zones — Agra, Meerut, Bareilly, Awadh, Purvanchal and Bundelkhand. After the makeover at the state and district levels, the party moved to the panchayat/booth level.
Twenty-one member committees have been formed in all 59,000 gram panchayats. Young leaders have been given positions in large numbers. The process of selecting candidates for the assembly poll has also started. For this, applications were invited from leaders till October 12. The party has also shortlisted the names of 200 leaders who have won assembly and Lok Sabha seats in the past.
As the country is celebrating the 75th year of its independence, the Congress party has asked its senior leaders and functionaries of the UP Congress to spend 75 hours across 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh covering 30,000 villages. Through the campaign, which is organised under the banner of 'Jai Bharat Mahasampark Abhiyan', the Congress has set a target to directly reach out to around 90 lakh people.
The party has also constituted an election committee for Uttar Pradesh. The members of the committee include State Unit Chief Ajay Kumar Lallu, former Union ministers Salman Khurshid, Rajeev Shukla and RPN Singh, Congress Legislative Party leader Aradhana Mona Misra, Nirmal Khatri, Pramod Tiwari, PL Punia, and Vivek Bansal. There are 38 members in the panel. The committee is a mix of the national president, chiefs of departments from Uttar Pradesh, state heads of frontal organisations, vice-presidents and general secretaries of the UPCC.
Views expressed are personal