The announcement of Sheila Dikshit as the chief ministerial candidate for Congress in Uttar Pradesh should be taken as the Grand Old Party's bowing tribute to the perceived electoral-strategy brilliance of Prashant Kishor.
Kishor has made Congress – Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi in particular – do something that the party, in its 131-year-old history, would have never considered – name Sheila Dikshit as the chief ministerial candidate. In fact, the party has always been averse to naming a chief ministerial candidate. The party had twin fold reasons for that:
First, it was held that Congress fought elections based on issues of party principles, and not based on the projection of the persona of a regional leader. The win or loss then was of the Congress' supposed ideology and principles. If at all the aura of a leader mattered, it was of one from the Nehru-Gandhi family – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi – in their respective life and time and nobody else.
Chief Ministers, under the Congress regime, ruled states at the mercy or pleasure of the "high command", a euphemism used for the reigning members of the first family. End number of times, it was proved that the chief ministers could be removed at the whim of the central leadership.
Second, all these decades Congress leaders have maintained that theirs is a "democratic party" and thus it couldn't snatch the privileged right of elected legislators to exercise their right to 'democratically' choose their leader. It's a different matter, though, that all through the past decades – since the time general elections took place in Independent India – the Congress Legislature Party would meet to authorise the high command to take the decision.
A farcical exercise nonetheless, but still, one that was called democratic, as it gave the pleasure or consolation to the MLAs that they were consulted before reaching the decision, and secondly, as it was on occasion to reaffirm their unflinching faith to their party's first family.
Kishor, a hired election strategist from JD (U) chief and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's stable, changed all that in one single stroke. Something that hundreds of Congress workers and many of the top strategists at the party headquarters at 24 Akbar Road in New Delhi couldn't have convinced the high command to do. That speaks volumes of Kishor's perceived abilities and capabilities in the eyes of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. He deserves a salute from the vast mass of Congress men and women.
More so, it was not just a matter of principle that the Gandhis also agreed on the name given by Prashant Kishor – Sheila Dikshit. It was because Kishor wanted a Brahmin to be the Congress face in UP – as Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, his first and second choice for the post, had for obvious reasons declined to reduce themselves and take part in the race for the chief ministerial post.
It didn't matter that Sheila had practically retired from politics. It didn't matter that she had been the Delhi chief minister for three terms, and that in the end, she lost her own Assembly seat and ultimately reduced Congress' tally to zero in the Delhi assembly.
It didn't matter, either, that she had been the Governor of Kerala and that she is practically an outsider to UP. Her singular victory from the Kannauj parliamentary seat in 1984 was not a tribute to her or her father Uma Shankar Dikshit's popularity, but to an overriding sympathy wave in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination, when Congress under Rajiv Gandhi got an unprecedented 404 seats. The only thing that mattered was the fact that Kishor wanted her to be there in UP.
By doing so, the Congress has simply catapulted Kishor from the position of a tested poll strategist to an elevated status that is reflected by the famous dialogue from the Bollywood blockbuster Deewar, and the inherent belief of winning the battle against odds, 'Mere Paas Prashant Kishor Hai'.
Kishor has, not just in Rahul Gandhi's eyes and ears, a legend around him that has made him a kind of force multiplier for Rahul. He is the new Raj Guru for the Congress' unquestioned royal. Incidents of the past few days concerning UP and Punjab have proved that Raj Guru's words have been abided, both in letter and in spirit.
It is interesting that when Sheila was introduced to the Delhi electorate in the winter of 1998, she was introduced as a suave urbane metropolitan face of Congress. She was Sonia Gandhi's choice. Eighteen years down the line, in the summer of 2016, the Congress or Kishor has rebooted the political career of the 78-year old Brahmin Bahu of Unnao, UP (born as a Punjabi Khatri in Kapurthala, Punjab) . The Congress hopes that she would make that transition smoothly – metropolitan to 'Brahmanical'.
Raj Babbar, who initially was taken to be a caste neutral Punjabi-film character in UP politics, is now being hailed as an OBC leader; and his wife, Nadira, and her parental lineage – Syed Sajjad Zaheeer and Razia Sajjad Zaheer – is also being flaunted.
The Congress had fielded Babbar in the 2014 parliamentary elections from Ghaziabad against BJP's VK Singh, hoping that his new found credentials, other than that of a filmi hero, would work. But he lost, and in doing so Babbar created history – of losing by a margin of 5.65 lakh votes, one of the highest ever margins in the electoral history of India.
A section of UP Congress leaders are also wary of Imran Masood, the newly appointed UPPC Vice President of the "chop Narendra Modi to pieces" fame. They are unsure as to how his polarising persona would work when the heat of electioneering picks up.
But caste identity politics are not unique to this election. In the run up to the 2012 elections in UP, Rahul Gandhi had introduced the flamboyant technocrat Sam Pitroda as a badhai (carpenter), an OBC by caste. No one identified Pitroda as a carpenter and the OBC didn't flock to vote for Congress because Congress had given such an elevated position to Pitroda.
But Rahul stuck to his guns. In one of the interactions with the media in the run up to 2012 election, he defended naming Satyanarayan Gangaram or Sam Pitroda's caste with bit of philosophy and said: "First of all, do not get confused...the caste in Uttar Pradesh exists...if anybody says that the caste in Uttar Pradesh doesn't exist has not walked on the streets of Uttar Pradesh...what I was doing with Sam Pitroda was telling a small community that listen,there is hope for you in this country...this gentleman here, who happened to be from your community and has many other attributes has fundamentally transformed this country...all you youngsters who sits in the front, who believe that you cannot transform this country are wrong."