The announcement of Sheila Dikshit as the chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh is along expected lines and under the circumstances, the best the Congress could have done.
In a state where the party has been out of power for the last 27 years and is ridden with factionalism and a near total erosion of base, the former Delhi chief minister is the proverbial 'consensus' candidate who ticks all the right boxes, bruises the least number of egos and presents an identifiable face with UP connections.
To be clear, nobody, not the grassroot workers, party hierarchy or even the hired poll manager, Prashant Kishor, seriously believes that Congress will sweep to power. The target is to win a certain number of seats that will force a hung verdict and make Congress a major player in India's largest state. It is a hugely ambitious plan for a party fighting to save itself from obliteration.
The manner in which the old Congress warhorse was plucked out of political oblivion and saddled with one of the toughest political assignments in her sunset years makes clear two interesting points.
The loyalist and the blame-taker
The Congress may be struggling to survive as a political entity but the fiefdom of the Gandhis is infinitely greater than the Congress’s sorry number of seats in the Parliament. The unqualified and absolute power that the Gandhi family still wields is incumbent on a system of give-and-take between the Dynasty and its band of loyalists and retainers.
One of the critical unwritten rule of the fiefdom is that the Family shall never be questioned, simply obeyed. In return, the obeisance-givers will receive handsome rewards. Those among the party who will show even a semblance of a spine will either be hounded out or vilified by its elaborate ecosystem in a way that exit remains the only option. Though loyalists shall swear by the Family, the Dynasty will suffer no such compunctions. It will only use and then discard when the end has been served.
A few examples are in order. Former Union environment minister in UPA-2 Jayanthi Natarajan, who was asked to resign 100 days before the 2014 elections were to take place amid growing media criticism on her "incompetence", made clear in a letter to party president how the stories were planted by those close to the Congress vice-president and that she was being made the scapegoat for decisions that were forced upon her by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
She paid a heavy price for her rebellion. Natarajan, who represented the fourth generation in her family to have entered party politics and was considered close to Rajiv Gandhi, was hung out to dry when the CBI began looking into some of the cases. The Gandhi family quietly dumped her. The pliant media raised no uncomfortable questions.
Another family loyalist, Natwar Singh, former Union external affairs minister, was similarly dumped unceremoniously when the shadow of a corrupt deal in oil money with the Saddam regime in Iraq began to overshadow the party.
It is in this context that we must see Dikshit's elevation.
The reason why the 78-year-old was chosen was that she has an unblemished record of loyalty towards the Dynasty. Moreover, a grateful Dikshit will be only too willing to take the blame if the party's daring gamble with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra comes a cropper. The three-time Delhi chief minister, in return for her sacrifice, will get guaranteed insulation from any scams that are thrown at her by political rivals.
Make no mistake, a mountain of convincing arguments, swanky presentations from the strategist or the most complex caste equations wouldn't have mattered had Dikshit been a charismatic yet problematic leader like Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Prashant Kishor in command
The second important point that emerges from Dikshit's anointment is that the party has decided to put mouth where its money is. Dikshit was apparently Kishor's second choice when it became clear that the Dynasts won't be risked in a losing cause. Her appointment proves that Congress high command is backing Kishor and his outfit Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) to the hilt.
The strategist is apparently planning a Bihar-like grand alliance to get at least a 100 seats in the 403-seat UP assembly. A report in Economic Times indicates Kishor has put forward a Rs 400-crore campaign budget, a 500-strong strategy team, 200 rallies by Rahul Gandhi, a leading role for Priyanka and a better media and communication strategy.
Very often, such a huge shake-up raises insecurity among the party's old guard who are usually resistant to sweeping changes. Though the strategist has taken care not to rub party egos the wrong way, some of the incumbents such as UP general secretary Madhusudan Mistry or state unit president Nirmal Khatri were reportedly unimpressed by the strategist's views.
Crucially, both were shown the door. Mistry was demoted to a lesser role and Ghulam Nabi Azad took over as the new general secretary. Khatri was recently replaced as president by Raj Babbar.
The synergy was evident in the way Congress, in a departure from their norms, announced a CM candidate ostensibly because Kishor finds it easier to build a campaign around a leader.
The former Delhi CM, who has represented Kannauj in Parliament, home of the legendary Kanyakubj Brahmins, is a Punjabi Khatri married to Vinod Dikshit, son of late Uma Shankar Dikshit, the former West Bengal and Karnataka Governor and a weighty Brahmin Congress leader from the state.
It isn't difficult to see what Kishor is trying to do. Dikshit, who has wasted no time in declaring herself as the "bahu" of the state, will appeal to Khatris and Brahmins, two key communities in UP politics.
The ruling SP has a strong claim over the Yadav and Muslim votes while BSP's Dalit votebank remains secure. Sensing that it has little support among the backward castes, Congress hopes to wean away a chunk of the Brahmin votes from BJP and hopes that it will also get support from the Muslim community which may vote tactically to keep the BJP away.
Dikshit's candidature, therefore, may not be a game changer but has certainly made the upcoming Assembly polls more interesting.