Shunned by regional satraps, Congress woos young leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad to regain ground

In a spirited season of high-decibel election buzz, it’s not surprising that political pundits are seeing a deeper meaning in Priyanka Gandhi's visit to a young Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh, Chandrashekhar Azad aka Ravana, in hospital on Wednesday.

Though Priyanka, the party’s in-charge for eastern Uttar Pradesh for the upcoming election, stated that her meeting with the Bhim Army chief was a courtesy call, speculations are rife on alliances that the Congress may be exploring for the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

And for good enough reasons.

Despite its successes late last year in seminal Assembly elections, the party enters the 2019 Lok Sabha poll standing on the tenuous ground. Currently, it has the lowest number of Lok Sabha MPs ever in the electoral history of India and has been shoved out of a majority of states by regional satraps, who steadfastly refuse to yield any ground to the grand old party in their respective turfs.

Shunned by regional satraps, Congress woos young leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad to regain ground

Priyanka Gandhi visits Chandrashekhar Azad at a Meerut hospital. PTI

Regional bigwigs in states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, that account for a big number of Lok Sabha MPs, have prevented the Congress from getting its foot in the door, which it desperately needs to get back into the reckoning at the national level.

In such a scenario, a courtesy call such as the one on Bhim Army chief assumes significance — the newer kids on the block may be Priyanka’s best bet to set the Congress on its long pilgrimage back to national power.

If an alliance does come out of the 'apolitical' meeting between Priyanka and Azad, Congress may well have found its template to replicate in other states of India. It’s quite similar to Gujarat’s Patidaar leader Hardik Patel closing ranks with the Congress — he had met Rahul Gandhi at a hotel room in Gujarat in October 2017 — before formally joining the party, and bringing his dedicated followers to the Congress fold.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Chennai admitted on Wednesday that alliances in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Bihar have practically concluded, and the one in Jammu and Kashmir was in the final stage.

"Wherever required, the Congress will go for alliances with like-minded parties, with no ideological clashes. Dalits in Uttar Pradesh constitute an important vote bank and their role in electoral politics can’t be undermined at any cost. It’s too early to comment whether Congress will have any alliance with Bhim Army or not,” a senior Congress leader said on the condition of anonymity.

The significance of Azad and the Uttar Pradesh template

The importance of having a sound footing in the state of Uttar Pradesh, that elects 80 Members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha — the largest number among all the states — cannot be overemphasised. A successful entry into the state’s political game, via Azad, may well give Congress a formula that it could execute to good effect in other states where it is not the main opposition party and is languishing at the number three or number four spot.

Congress definitely needs good representation in Uttar Pradesh where its last government ruled in 1985-1989. Since then, the state has been ruled by the local stalwarts — Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) — and the BJP.

Uttar Pradesh has been Congress’ karmabhoomi since pre-Independence and has given the country quite a few Congress prime ministers. If the party wants to have a role in national politics again like it used to, it needs Uttar Pradesh on its side. Congress had won 21 seats in the state out of 80 in the 2009 Lok Sabha election with 18.3 percent vote share, the number had come down to a dismal two in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the vote share had dipped to 7.5 percent. Only the BJP’s vote share had increased from 17.5 percent in 2009 to 42.3 percent in 2014, thanks to the Narendra Modi wave.

Yet, SP and BSP seem resolute in not ceding even an inch to the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. Their firm refusal to have an alliance with the Congress in the state (or even elsewhere as BSP has declared) doesn’t leave much choice for the party other than exploring newer options.

File image of BSP chief Mayawati. PTI

File image of BSP chief Mayawati. PTI

“We have an ideological difference with the Congress, as this party had been responsible in the past for having defeated the country’s greatest icon of the movement for Dalits, OBCs and the poor, Babasaheb Ambedkar. These voices (Azad) will have to stand the test of time like Babasaheb, Kansiramji and Mayavatiji as champions of the Dalits. Anybody aligning with Congress will be seen as anti-Dalit,” BSP’s national spokesperson Sudhindra Bhadoria said.

The state’s vote bank is tightly divided between the SP, BSP and the BJP with Congress not getting even a foot in the door.

That’s where Azad probably fits in. However, time will prove his credibility as a serious political contender.

Though BSP enjoys a committed voter base of the Dalit population in the state, Azad has built his own constituency through aggressive posturing.

As a young and dynamic leader positioning himself as an alternative to BSP supremo Mayawati, a friendship with Azad is a tempting prospect for the Congress. He promises the possibility of breaching the BSP fortress that may have a domino effect on the Mayawati-led party's current alliance with the SP. This can help the Congress if it plays its cards right. UP has the highest Dalit population in the country, with a share of 20.5 percent.

Even though Azad is ruffling feathers in the BSP camp — Mayawati held an emergency meeting with SP chief Akhilesh Yadav after the Priyanka-Azad meet — he is yet to be tested in the political waters.

The Congress, however, also seems to be enthused with a renewed energy after the appointment of Priyanka in a frontal role in the 2019 election campaign. The party seems almost emboldened to make a charged push for Uttar Pradesh.

The new-found confidence also owes a lot to the party’s stellar performance in the three crucial Assembly elections in late 2018 — where it won the three important Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Uttar Pradesh seems the next logical step, which can act as a springboard for catapulting the party back to the high stakes of national politics.

Similarly, the Congress has also sought a referendum from its booth-level workers through its Shakti app on whether it should have an alliance with the AAP in Haryana, as no alliance could materialise with the ruling party in Delhi.

In order to defeat the BJP, the AAP national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal sought an alliance with the Congress in Haryana. In the 2014 election, while Congress bagged one seat from Haryana with 22.9 percent vote share, AAP scored nil with a low 4.2 percent vote share against the BJP that won seven out of the 10 seats. In 2009, Congress had won nine seats.

In Haryana, it all depends on how the Congress party views AAP. As an important ally, it may consider the offer provided it’s a ‘win-win’ situation for both. At present, Congress has an upper hand.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 23:59:00 IST

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