The future of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh has been uncertain since the BJP came to power in the state in 2017 with a landslide victory over the Congress-Samajwadi Party pre-poll alliance. This uncertainty grew manifold after the Samajwadi Party (SP), led by Akhilesh Yadav, and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), formally announced their tie-up at a joint press conference on 12 January while keeping the Congress out of it.
This came as quite a googly for political observers, who widely believed that the Congress would be part of such an anti-BJP alliance in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, the Congress was seen as integral to any alliance looking to trounce the BJP, especially in Uttar Pradesh, which plays a crucial role in the parliamentary elections with its 80 Lok Sabha seats.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi reacted to the news of the SP-BSP alliance with maturity, saying he has "tremendous respect" for both former chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and that the parties have "every right to have an alliance". Akhilesh had justified the decision, saying the Congress had been kept out of the alliance to correct the "poll arithmetic" in Uttar Pradesh.
Left with no ally in the politically pivotal Uttar Pradesh, the Congress decided to make its own corrections and finally launched Priyanka Gandhi into politics on Wednesday, a move widely seen as a well-played strategy by the party.
After the SP and BSP announced their tie-up, the Congress had announced that it will contest all 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state solo. Having been appointed the Congress general secretary for Uttar Pradesh East, Priyanka will now oversee the party's functioning in at least 30 constituencies that fall in this region, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Varanasi, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's home turf Gorakhpur, brother Rahul's Amethi constituency and mother Sonia Gandhi's Rae Bareli among them.
The BJP currently holds power in a majority of these seats, but looking at the caste arithmetic, it is believed that the SP-BSP alliance could bag as many 20 of them in the Lok Sabha elections this year. The Congress cannot afford to suffer another thrashing the way it did in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and with Priyanka finally taking the political plunge, the party hopes to prevent just that.
With the Priyanka card, the Congress hopes to improve the party's chances in the state by reviving Uttar Pradesh politics, as Rahul said. Now that she has been made in-charge of some of the key constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has reason to worry. The grand old party believes it can use Priyanka's natural appeal to people to its advantage if her presence and interactions at Congress rallies are anything to go by. Priyanka could not only help woo the Brahmin and other upper caste votes back to the Congress but can also attract votes from the Muslim community, both of which could pose a risk to the BJP.
The latter, however, is a threat to the SP-BSP as well, as, besides the votes of the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, the alliance depends on Muslim votes to remain afloat. Although it is debatable how much of an impact Priyanka's entry into active politics will have on the SP-BSP voter base, the Congress' latest move has introduced a new scenario in this game of chess.
If she does succeed in drawing votes from the upper castes — eating into the BJP base — and the Muslim community (from SP-BSP vote base) to the Congress, it would give the party an edge in the predominantly-Hindu state. However, the BSP seems unperturbed by the development. "Priyanka's elevation will impact only BJP's votes — voters from upper castes and trader communities, who had earlier been with the Congress but had subsequently shifted to the BJP, may return," The Indian Express quoted a BSP leader as saying.
The SP-BSP front may be shielded from the Priyanka effect as OBCs have never rallied behind the Congress much, and Dalit subcastes are near-firmly behind Mayawati. "Such a situation will damage the BJP. Votes for the SP-BSP alliance, including Dalits, Muslims and Yadavs, are intact," the BSP leader said.
But the SP-BSP alliance may still have reason to be wary. The two parties cannot completely overlook the influence Priyanka's entry may have on those looking for a complete change in the state. Priyanka being the only leader who has never been part of active politics or the government provides that 'change', and this category of voters may switch to the Priyanka camp in the hope for a revival of not just the political scene in Uttar Pradesh but also the state administration.
The youth factor
The Congress has divided Uttar Pradesh into two for organisational reasons. While launching Priyanka into politics from Uttar Pradesh East, the party also gave Jyotiraditya Scindia the charge of Uttar Pradesh West. With both Priyanka and Jyotiraditya on the helm, Rahul has stayed true to his word of letting young faces leading the Congress and getting the party's ideology across to the masses.
"The new Uttar Pradesh AICC team led by Priyanka and Jyotiraditya will herald the dawn of a new kind of politics in the state," Rahul tweeted on Wednesday.
With two young guns at its disposal and the renewed energy they come with, the Congress has given both the BJP and BSP-SP alliance enough reasons to be nervous, regardless of how nonchalant they may appear about the major developments in Uttar Pradesh politics.
That the SP-BSP alliance can stall the saffron front's path to another victory became evident after the two defeated the BJP in the bypolls to the Gorakhpur and Phulpur seats early in 2018. But the parties are aware that both their rise and fall in Uttar Pradesh is relative to the Congress rout. The experienced, established fronts that they are, one can assume that the SP and BSP would know that going by these calculations, any revival of the Congress in the state would be at the cost of their votes.
This establishes the fact that the SP-BSP combine now has a new opponent to compete against in the 76 seats where it is fielding candidates, and a major part of their efforts would be towards ensuring that the alliance draws a higher number of Muslim votes than the Congress. If not the BSP, the Samajwadi Party at least is aware of the way Priyanka can manoeuvre her way around Uttar Pradesh politics as she had been instrumental in stitching together the Congress-SP alliance ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.
This isn't to imply that Priyanka can single-handedly change the face of Uttar Pradesh politics, but the Congress has played its cards right and chosen the right time to bring her to the battleground. The BJP and the SP-BSP alliance have reason to worry.
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 15:58:03 IST