Somebody in the Congress is fond of playing snakes and ladders. And that person is suspected to be Priyanka Gandhi.
For the past few days, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad had been making frequent visits to Priyanka's house to systemically take decisions that, according to their election strategist Prashant Kishor, create a ''hawa" around the party.
On Thursday, the political manthan in the Gandhi household revealed the party's chief ministerial face in Uttar Pradesh: Sheila Dikshit.
The only thing that can be said with certainty about Dikshit is that she is starting from zero; the Congress party's current strength in the Delhi Assembly that is largely credited to her. So, she has nothing to lose except precious time she may have marked out for writing her autobiography while in retirement.
Dikshit's political life has so far mimicked a game of snakes and ladders, displaying characteristic swings that have taken her to sudden, unexpected highs and then dropped her back to the starting point. In 1998, when she had been para-dropped into Delhi's politics from Uttar Pradesh to take on BJP's Sushma Swaraj, nobody expected her to dislodge her heavyweight rival. But, she went on to rule Delhi for 15 years before falling back to zero.
Now, Priyanka has placed her back at her original starting point, Uttar Pradesh — where she had lost a Lok Sabha election in 1989 — with the hope that at 79, Dikshit could be the party's ladder to success in the Assembly polls.
On the face of it, pulling her out of retirement and putting her on the battlefront looks like a silly decision.
In 2013, Dikshit failed to retain her own seat in the Delhi Assembly, losing by a huge margin to the leader of a fledgling party. She had been voted out amidst allegations of corruption and administrative incompetence after the massive protests in the wake of the 2012 Delhi rape case. How does the Congress expect a rejected, dejected leader to win back a state from where she last contested an election at around the time Sachin Tendulkar was making his international debut?
The Congress feels there is a method to its madness.
According to the plan drawn up by the party, Dikshit is just the face of the Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit-Kurmi rainbow coalition the Congress is trying to put together in the state. And, it would be sold by Priyanka through a massive campaign.
Priyanka is expected to launch the Congress campaign at a rally in either Lucknow or Allahabad — probably from Anand Bhawan — in the second week of August. She will go on to address election meetings in around 120 constituencies. For all political purposes, she will be the face of the Congress campaign.
The Congress is following a strategy of keeping the party in the news by making important announcements every few days. A few days ago, it named Raj Babbar as the state unit chief, in stage two, it revealed Dikshit as the chief ministerial candidate and in stage three, it will unveil Priyanka as the star campaigner.
So, bear in mind that Priyanka is the real player in this game; she controls the dice, Dikshit is just her counter on the board.
But, why Dikshit? The answer to that question is this: Who else?
The Congress doesn't have a single leader in Uttar Pradesh who has an instant recall, a face that voters across the state voters could easily identify. All other leaders had been tried in the past and had failed. So, the Congress needed to put at the forefront leaders whose names and faces sounded familiar.
In the complex caste calculus of the state, the only voter Congress could eye is the Brahmin. The BJP is trying to stitch together a Rajput-Bania-Dalit-Kurmi alliance; the Samajwadi Party banks on the MY (Muslim-Yadav) combination and Mayawati has a captive base among Dalits and segments of OBCs. The Brahmin vote, the Congress believes, is the only floating one in the state.
In 2012, the Congress polled just around 12 percent votes. It is hoping that state's 10 percent Brahmins, if successfully snared into the fold, can give it the required push for power. Its strategists feel if Brahmins return to the Congress, minority voters may also be tempted to look at the party as a viable option. Simultaneously, the party plans to strike an alliance with Ajit Singh in western Uttar Pradesh and subtly use Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to influence Kurmi (Patel) voters.
Although the party may talk big on the election trail, its realistic target is 60-70 seats in a hung Assembly. This number, its strategists feel, will allow it to strike an alliance with the BSP (expected to be the frontrunner) and stay in the game till the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
This, in essence, is the strategy drawn up by Kishor and being rolled out by Priyanka Gandhi and Ghulam Nabi Azad. Will it succeed?
The Congress can move beyond its current strength of 27 in the state Assembly only if the BJP loses its grip over Brahmin voters in the state and these disillusioned supporters do not fall into Mayawati's basket. In 2006, Brahmins had swung towards the BSP but since Narendra Modi's rise, they are seeing the BJP as their natural choice. To change the existing equation, the Congress will have to pull off a miracle.
Will symbolic gestures like nominating a Brahmin's bahu as the chief ministerial candidate be enough to influence Brahmins? And, if the Brahmin card fails to work, will other castes and communities see the Congress as a serious contender?
The Congress has no option but to put Dikshit on the starting line and hope the roll of dice puts her on a ladder.
Says a lot about the party's plight, no?