The die is cast. One of the most awaited political events -- formal entry of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into Indian politics -- has been announced. From the time the Congress announced Priyanka’s active entry into politics, a lot has been said and written about. While some argued why one of the strongest challengers was given a limited role, others found it a reason big enough to galvanise the cadre and turn the tables for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
Although the exposure is limited, it may offer specific advantages -- not let Priyanka overshadow his brother and party president Rahul Gandhi, hedge Congress’ first family and herself against future contingencies and gain ground in the most politically significant state of Uttar Pradesh.
There seem to be two parallel electoral battlegrounds for the Congress. The first is to successfully challenge the BJP. Second and equally important challenge is to remain significant among Opposition parties and become a party of choice for non-BJP supporters. This is important for the Congress to lead the Opposition. The Congress, in last six months, has emerged as the first among the lot to speak on issues like Rafale deal, farm crisis and unemployment.
The Congress gained greater acceptance after it was able to defeat the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh elections. It has become increasingly imperative for the Congress to take PM Modi and the BJP head-on to win the perceptual war among non-BJP voters and Opposition parties. Making Priyanka in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, that hosts PM Narendra Modi’s constituency, is seen as a manifestation of bold political move by the Congress. In the run-up to the 2014 elections, Modi’s “Budhiya’ and “Gudiya” jibe sparked criticism. In 2014, Modi had contested from Varanasi and turned around his party’s fortunes. This time, Congress has sent the party’s most popular face to the region hoping for a magic.
Priyanka’s drive may have been aimed at rejuvenation of cadre, bringing back the old core vote base of Muslims, Brahmins and SCs and act as a point of confluence for disgruntled voters. Cadre rejuvenation seems to have been working perfectly well. However, major chunk of SC votes remains largely with the BSP. Media reports about dissonance among Brahmins with the perceived domination of a select few in the governance of the state may come handy for the Congress. Similarly, for disgruntled upper caste voters who did not want to vote for caste- based alliance of SP-BSP, a rejuvenated Congress may be the next resort.
In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP got 42.6% of votes and 71 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh; it got 39.7% votes and 312 out of 403 seats in 2017 assembly elections. Congress won 309 out of 425 seats with 39.6% votes in 1980. Along with the allies, NDA got 44% votes with 325 seats in 2017 assembly elections. This also can be read as 57.4% voters in 2014 and 56% in 2017 did not vote for the BJP. In 2014 general elections, Congress got 7.5% votes and 2/80 seats while it got 18% votes and 21/80 seats in 2009 general elections. In 2012 assembly elections, Samajwadi Party got 29.15% and 224 out of 403 seats by cultivating chemistry between OBCs and Muslims.
However, under Akhilesh Yadav, the SP got reduced from a party of erstwhile committed OBC voters to a party of committed Yadav voters. SP, though, has been a party of preference among 17-18% Muslims of the state. BSP which could successfully forge an alliance with Brahmins and other non-Yadav OBCs in 2007 also lost its sheen and is left with its core voters of SCs. The single most significant unit of the UP electorate is Muslims among which the “Priyanka effect” could be seen.
BJP has rendered the most vocal criticism of Priyanka’s entry on two grounds – 1) dynasty and 2) projecting it as a failure of Rahul Gandhi. But something that is worth reading between the lines is that the BJP’s stance will make Priyanka and thus the Congress appear as an important player in the state politics. In fact, this can also be seen as the first step towards making the country’s electoral politics bi-partisan thus making regional players insignificant where two national parties would lead two fronts.
For politics to be successful, it essentially has to be socially inclusive. Exclusivity based on caste, religion, region, language etc. has been the premise establishment of regional political parties. If PM Modi has been able to build a loyal set of voters in UP, it needs no rocket science to decode who will be hit the hardest with “Priyanka effect”. It is certainly going to affect non-BJP voters’ party more than the BJP voters. About 18% of Muslim votes along with dismayed voters are the key. What comes to the Congress’ fold amidst all the buzz of “Priyanka effect” at the end remains to unfold.
(Alok Kumar Rai is a professor at Faculty of Management Studies, Banaras Hindu University. Views expressed are personal.)
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