There are many ways of looking at the Priyanka Gandhi announcement. Much has already been written and much more remains to be said. The simplest way of describing Rahul Gandhi’s decision to appoint Priyanka as general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh (East) is that it is the proverbial last throw of the dice. It is a desperate Congress’ way of saying, as James Bond said in the film Casino Royale, “I’m all in.”
The 2019 Lok Sabha election isn’t just another election for Congress. It is the last chance to sustain the inherently feudal structure of the party and ensure the ‘client-patron’ relationship between the family and the party continues, and the party doesn’t splinter into factions. That could be an irrevocable process because the Congress is a much weaker unit now than it was at any point in time in its history. It not only faces a formidable challenge from the BJP but also a growing challenge from an electorate that is slowly learning how to harness the true power of democracy.
As Indian economy grows, more people will be pulled out of poverty, the nation will rise and grow more confident, and with it, the old feudal structure — that operated under the garb of a democratic political system — will come under increasing threat. Rahul, however, doesn’t need to worry about all that just yet as these churnings are slow and will take generations. He has a simple task at hand. In order to ensure Congress' survival, all that Rahul needs to do is to make sure that Narendra Modi doesn’t return to power and Congress betters its 2014 performance.
To get to this task, Rahul must ensure that Congress improves upon the abysmal performance of his party in Uttar Pradesh, the most consequential state in general elections. In 2014, Congress suffered a 10.75 percent swing in vote share to garner just 7.5 percent votes that translated into two seats. Three years later, during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, the party was left wiping the floors when its pre-poll alliance with Samajwadi Party suffered a spectacular implosion. The BJP's commanding win sapped the morale of the party leadership and Congress almost became non-existent on the ground. The subsequent bypolls reinforced the inconsequential nature of Congress’ presence. Its graph was hitting the bottom.
The first thing for Rahul Gandhi was to ensure that Congress retains a modicum of presence in Uttar Pradesh, so that it may have a bargaining chip. In excluding Congress from their tie-up, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party ironically gave Rahul a clearer path to follow. Sometimes not having options is a good thing. It brings clarity.
Rahul and his advisors clearly believe that fielding Priyanka from eastern Uttar Pradesh that encompasses roughly 40 seats and includes the family bastions of Rae Bareli and Amethi, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Varanasi constituency, will send the right signals for Congress rank and file. This move may have been borne out of desperation — because Rahul had no other aces up his sleeve — but then the motivation behind a decision is no indication of its success or failure.
Priyanka’s formal induction into the party may work for several reasons. One, the grassroots workers will be clearly energised — as has been witnessed already since the news broke out on Wednesday. The value of this shouldn’t be underestimated. Witness the way Narendra Modi has been holding regular interactions with BJP’s booth-level workers through the ‘mera booth, sabse majboot’ initiative.
Second, Priyanka’s entry throws a spanner into BJP’s caste calculations. Between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Muslim and Dalit votes have been accounted for. The BJP could try a combination of other castes to go with the backing from their traditional upper caste vote bank, but here, Priyanka may ruin the saffron party’s pitch.
Third, Congress may rightfully hope that the media will act as Priyanka’s public relations arm and amplify her persona and appeal, and subsequently help in attracting the middle-class swing voters who seem to be disillusioned with the BJP. Here, Priyanka’s image as a more natural politician, a better communicator and a more television-friendly persona than her brother may work in her favour.
Some analysts such as Devesh Kapur of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies feel that as an individual, Priyanka may hardly make a difference “given the structural impediments of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh... You can’t build a base overnight,” he was quoted, as saying in The Financial Express.
But Priyanka doesn’t need to build a base. Fourth point, the reason why this experiment may work for the Congress, is that there could be a tacit understanding between the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress — it is known as the Jangipur model in some quarters — whereby Congress may target 15-20 Lok Sabha seats and go all out while in the rest it might be content in shaving off some of the BJP’s upper caste vote pie. The SP and BSP may field weak candidates in those 15-20 seats. Both parties have already decided not to field candidates in Rae Bareli and Amethi.
Fifth, Priyanka’s role in eastern Uttar Pradesh is significant. It includes Modi’s Varanasi constituency and both the prime minister and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, are expected to spend a fair bit of time there. If Priyanka, through the hype and hoopla generated in media, succeeds in tying down Modi to his constituency — at least cause him to spend more time there than he would have otherwise — it would hamper BJP’s plans of fielding its star campaigner elsewhere in the country. Modi remains BJP’s biggest vote-catcher, and Adityanath has also been fielded in places such as Karnataka in that capacity.
What we see, therefore, is that out of desperation Rahul may have stumbled upon a veritable strategy to — if not revive the Congress — but at least add to Modi’s difficulties in India’s most crucial state that sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha. Rahul is going for broke, and his sister presents him with the last chance to turn the tide.
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 17:39:53 IST