Have we written off Rahul Gandhi a bit too soon after UP?

By Aakar Patel

Rahul Gandhi has spent the last five years trying to revive the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, our giant state of 200 million.

He has done this in two ways. He has tried to revive the party's organisation, and tried to bring back some communities which were traditionally Congress voters but no longer are.

Rahul Gandhi has increased the number of votes the Congress got in the UP polls this year and could help the party improve its position by the next assembly polls. PTI

The first was done through internal democracy, by holding elections inside the party. It was also done by focusing on the Youth Congress.

The second was done in two ways. First, Rahul Gandhi started to attach himself to the Dalit (untouchable) community, by insisting on spending the night in their homes, and eating with them. On one such visit to Uttar Pradesh in January 2009, he took along the then British foreign secretary David Miliband. Both men slept in a Dalit's hut that night. He has been doing this so consistently that it no longer makes national news, but the Dalits are certain to have noticed.

The second thing he did was to offer backward class Muslims (from the peasantry) a share of the reservations constitutionally given to Hindu peasant castes. These reservations are for government jobs. There is debate among the upper caste Muslims whether this should be accepted, and there is also opposition from Hindu peasants. The former see the reservations as a division of Muslim identity. They are uncomfortable with the idea that Muslims be separated by caste. The latter are, of course, opposed because they are currently the only beneficiaries.

Results for Uttar Pradesh's elections were announced last week. As they came in, some analysts like Shekhar Gupta blamed the Congress promise on reservations to backward Muslims for the BJP's strong initial showing. Then it turned out they were wrong and the BJP in fact got fewer votes than five years ago.

The Congress got more votes than last time, about 15 percent of the vote compared to about 10 percent last time. This time's share included votes to an allied party of Hindu peasants. Though he managed to increase vote share, Rahul Gandhi was able to deliver only a handful of more seats. Since he had campaigned very heavily in the state, he is thought to have lost face here. Is he a loser?

I would say he has been judged too soon. The fact is that in both 2009's general elections and this year's state election, the Congress has been adding voters. It has not been able to do this fast enough to satisfy the media, but a trend is visible. If it continues, the Congress may be able to challenge UP's two big parties. Of these, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party has a core of Dalit voters. Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party counts on votes from the Yadav peasant community and from Muslims.

For the last two elections, these parties have got between 25 percent and 30 percent of the vote. Rahul Gandhi's UP strategy directly attacks these two parties. If by the next election he is able to soften enough Dalits and Muslims to add another five percent to the Congress's vote share, success will be at hand.

The fourth party in the state is the BJP. Its upper caste Hindu vote bank is secure, but stuck at 15 percent. Except for the Congress, no party has the flexibility to take on voters from the other parties. Yadavs and Dalits are firmly in opposite camps as the two dominant castes of the state. Muslims will not vote BJP, and Mayawati said the reason for her narrow loss this time (the difference was four per cent of votes cast) was because 70 per cent of Muslims voted with the Yadavs.

The Congress has no such problem in absorbing castes or faiths because it is an inclusive party. Both upper and lower castes can exist in it.

It would appear that Rahul Gandhi's approach in UP has been thought through. Certainly, it is sound logically. It is also working, even if incrementally. If he continues with it, and he says he will, Rahul Gandhi could be seen very differently by the next election.

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