In a fortnight or so, the Congress will take two major decisions.
At a rally in Uttar Pradesh — either at Lucknow or Allahabad — it will present Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the face of the party’s campaign for the Assembly polls. Simultaneously, it will push a Brahmin leader to the electoral frontline, either as the new chief of the state unit or the chief ministerial candidate.
The plan, finalised by election strategist Prashant Kishor, targets the two biggest flaws in the Congress strategy: One, lack of a strong high-command and two, absence of a credible chief ministerial candidate with the right kind of caste base.
For almost six months since he took over responsibility of the party’s poll campaign, Kishor has been trying to win over the support of at least one major caste group in the state and then add Muslims voters to that support base. His ‘face plus base’ strategy is aimed at wooing Brahmins, who constitute around 10 percent of voters, and then hoping that minority voters and a fraction of Dalits will gravitate towards the Congress after finding it a viable option — which the Congress isn’t so far, because of its meagre vote share of around nine percent.
If planning moves on the chessboard could have helped win an election, Garry Kasparov would have defeated Vladimir Putin long ago. Unfortunately for Kishor, the success of his strategy would depend not on how the Congress moves its pawns on the UP board but on how people respond to the moves. And the endgame is still some months away.
But, the positive signal from within the party is this: Instead of doing the same thing again and again — putting Rahul Gandhi on the front and not naming a CM candidate — and hoping for a different result, it is trying a different strategy and showing the will to fight.
So, once Rahul returns from his summer sojourn at some undisclosed location, he will hand over the baton to his sister and watch the show from the sidelines, confining himself perhaps to managing the party while the sister interacts with voters.
Congress sources say Priyanka will campaign in around 120 Assembly constituencies. Internal surveys have convinced its leaders that its chances are bright in 152 seats; in another 60 seats it can put up a tough fight.
“We will concentrate on 210-220 seats where a combination of Brahmin and Muslim voters can prove decisive. Voters from both these segments are in a flux, they have not yet made up their mind,” a Congress leader told Firstpost.
Internally, the party is eyeing a more realistic figure. Its leaders agree in private that the party would be happy to double its 2012 tally and wins 45-50 seats. This figure, Congress leaders believe, will serve as the base for the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Winning close to 50 seats, however, appears a difficult task at the moment. Several independent surveys and ground reports indicate the Congress is ahead in just about 25 seats, with the BJP and the BSP both vying to break the 150-seat barrier. The Samajwadi Party is a distant third and falling.
But Congress leaders see hope in the recent wave of defections from the BSP. They believe the Congress will gain more if voters start believing that Mayawati’s party is not the clear front-runner, especially if Priyanka runs a strong and convincing campaign.
The party is eyeing Dalit voters too, especially the non-Jatavs, who have been gradually slipping from Mayawati’s grasp. In 2014, the BSP lost 18 percent of its Jatav vote and 45 per cent other Dalit voters to the BJP. The Congress thinks some of them can return to the party because of Priyanka’s presence. But, since these voters flipped for the BJP in 2014, convincing them to support the Congress may remain a theoretical concept unless Priyanka pulls off a miracle.
There is no gainsaying though that the Congress will benefit from Priyanka’s presence. Her entry will energise party workers who have currently given up on Rahul and give them a reason to come out and seek votes for the party. Without her, the party’s chances in the state are negligible.