Priyanka Gandhi kicked-off campaign in style, but Congress' failure to forge alliances means crowd may not convert to votes

  • Priyanka’s forays in Uttar Pradesh, her attempts to get some smaller parties on board by extending the olive branch indicate a desperate bid to find a foothold in the state

  • However, the Congress' actions on ground indicates that party is intent on playing political games within the non-BJP camp

  • The fact is that Priyanka's formal entry into politics was much delayed, and nobody can be expected to wave a magic wand months before election and resurrect a party whose organisational structure is in shambles

Abundant news space has been used to discuss the many launches, re-launch, and the coming-of-age of Rahul Gandhi over the years. Now, when the Priyanka card has been played by the Congress, it is his sister's turn to dominate headlines. From her posture, her sartorial sense, to the length of her sari's veil when she visits temples, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's every move and gesture is up for analysis. Copious notes have been dedicated to her resemblance to her grandmother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

But what is the mood beyond the reams of newsprints and cacophony of prime time news? Does the media's obsession with the Congress scion translate into voters' interest? Congress' key opponent in the poll arena, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thinks otherwise.

Party spokesperson Sudhanshu Trivedi attempted to fashion a symbolic retort to Priyanka's boat ride on river Ganga to key Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh. Trivedi termed her boat as directionless and carrying a party without support base.

"...people are travelling on boat... a directionless boat carrying a party without any support base led by unwise leadership and doing politics without values, one can easily imagine how far such a boat can go. Wherever this boat will find a shore it will be enough for it," Trivedi said.

 Priyanka Gandhi kicked-off campaign in style, but Congress failure to forge alliances means crowd may not convert to votes

Priyanka Gandhi, Congress general secretary in charge of Western Uttar Pradesh. Reuters

Bid to forge directionless alliances

Coming from her political rival, the comments seem harsh, but the statement does resonate with some degree of skepticism that erstwhile Congress allies and political pundits have also shown. The party's tryst with alliance politics also somewhat strengthens the perception of directionlessness.

Priyanka’s forays in Uttar Pradesh, her attempts to get smaller parties on board by extending the olive branch, indicate a desperate bid to find a foothold in the state. However, the Congress' actions on ground indicates party's intent to play political games within the non-BJP camp, which is anchored in the belief that it still enjoys the status of first party among equals in a state where it managed to win only two seats out of the 80 in 2014 elections.

Congress failed to reach an understanding with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh in the belief that it is influential enough in the state to fight on its own. Uttar Pradesh is one state where the Congress could have shown a better understanding of its current diminished status to leave the field open for the SP and the BSP while humbly accepting the minor partner's stature in the alliance.

Instead, it attempted to broker peace by offering to leave seven seats for the alliance, like Mayawati and Akhilesh had when they said they won't field candidates from Congress' pocket boroughs Rae Bareli and Amethi.

The move might have triggered some pre-election bonhomie, and a scope for post-poll alliance, had Priyanka not confirmed Mayawati's worst fear that Congress intends to undercut her Dalit base by meeting the young Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar Azad, in hospital.

The BSP supremo, noted for her mercurial mood shifts, did not take to this kindly and rebuffed the Congress offer to leave seven seats for the alliance without any official understanding.

Daring the Congress to go ahead and field candidates in all the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state, Mayawati advised Priyanka to refrain from "spreading confusion".

Akhilesh Yadav too snubbed the Congress adding that the alliance was capable on its own to defeat the BJP in state.  In a tweet, the SP president said, "In Uttar Pradesh, the SP, BSP and RLD alliance is capable of defeating the BJP.The Congress party need not spread any kind of confusion."

All that the grand old party was left with was a possibility of alliance with one or both faction of a smaller party Apna Dal, (depending on whether NDA manages to quell dischords with the faction led by Anupriya Patel) and a sealed pact with the lesser known Jan Adhikar Party. There was some talk of Congress allying with Shivpal Yadav-led SP faction, but there has been no confirmation on that account.

Things, however, look grim after Mulayam Singh Yadav on the last day of the 16th Lok Sabha stunned everyone by wishing another term for Narendra Modi — Shivpal and Mulayam are considered close to each other and it was the question of alliance with Congress in 2016 Assembly election that brought to fore the infighting within the Yadav clan.

Road show to river trails

After making a political buzz through a successful roadshow in the state capital last month, Priyanka is now navigating the river route seeking to steer the Congress towards regaining its political moorings in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.

The optics were all in place.

The 47-year-old Congress general secretary, clad in a green cotton saree and pink blouse, interacted with a cross section of people, including students, and invited some of them to join her on the motorboat as she undertook her much anticipated ride from the Manaiya Ghat in Kachnar tehsil of Prayagraj district. She delivered some quotable quotes as she took potshots at Modi's latest poll antics. And she offered prayers at the major temples in the holy city, as Congress offered breathless comparisons to her grandmother Indira.

Sitting cross-legged on the motorboat, the Congress leader was all ears as the locals residing on the river bank apprised her of their issues.

Political analyst Ramesh Dixit, while admitting that he did not remember any leader using the river route for campaigning, said this was only aimed at giving it a different look.
"The target is to reach out to the Mallah, Kewat and Nishad communities of boatmen, fishermen and agriculturalists living along the river...but to know about the difficulties faced by them, it does not require one to be a diver...this is just aimed at making the campaign look different," said Dixit, a retired head of the political science department of Lucknow University.

Moments after Priyanka was seen praying at the bade Hanuman temple in Prayagraj, her head covered with her sari, Congress tweeted a throwback photo of Indira Gandhi, almost in an identical setting. "Traditions, rituals never change," said the tweet in Hindi.

Priyanka too underscored the comparison as she tweeted a picture from her stay at Jawaharlal Nehru's paternal home, Swarajya Bhawan, remembering Indira.

 

However, the optics aside, the only static rule in predicting election trends is that crowds don't necessarily mean votes. The rural voters have managed to surprise poll pundits and the urban society at the end of the polling process before. (remember India shining in 2004?) There is no reason why one should not exercise the same caution in gauging Priyanka's popularity by the frontpage space she occupies or the number of people that attend her rallies.

The fact is that Priyanka's formal entry into politics was much delayed, and nobody can be expected to wave a magic wand months before election and resurrect a party whose organisational structure is in shambles.

Telangana Rashtra Samithi, a party that has refused to ally with both Congress and BJP and is trying to cobble up a third front, espouses this view.

"Those days have gone when people with super-charisma come and sway the voters because voters today are educated, especially the youth who are making an impact," TRS leader Abid Rasool Khan, said.

On assessment of some analysts that Priyanka's "charisma" is similar to that of Indira, he said "there is a difference". During Indira Gandhi's days, charisma was important because most of the voters were illiterate, and it's not the case now. Thanks to social and other media exposure, people are demanding their rights now, not just charisma.

"I don't think personally she will make any impact until and unless the Congress party looks at itself...where it has gone wrong, set right all the problems under her leadership and builds up the party base...," he said. "Over a period of five years if she works hard, definitely there will be an impact, but not coming just before the elections", Khan said.

Political strategist-turned politician, JD(U)'s Prashant Kishor, who once curated Congress' poll campaigns in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, also resonated a similar view.

"Nobody has a magic wand. I do not think she will be able to turn things around for the Congress in the two-three months that are left for the Lok Sabha elections. But she is a big name and a popular face. In the long run; yes, she would emerge as a challenge (to the NDA)," Kishor said.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2019 17:23:58 IST