Uttar Pradesh 2017: Why Varanasi is an opportunity for Congress and Rahul Gandhi

To expect the Congress to win the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh is like betting on India to top the medal tally at the Rio Olympics.

As Raj Babbar said before his party's road show in Varanasi, the Congress needs a miracle to return to power in the state.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

Yet, the impressive crowd at the road show in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency suggests the Congress is at least getting noticed as a serious player in the state. Nobody can say with certainty if the people who gathered on the streets of Varanasi on Tuesday were just curious onlookers out to watch a spectacle led by Sonia Gandhi, those with personal loyalty to local heavyweight Ajay Rai or potential Congress voters. But the Congress can take heart from the fact that it managed to create a buzz in the city and mobilise workers.

On paper, the Congress attempt to kick-start the campaign made political sense. Since Prashant Kishor, the poll strategist hired by the Congress for its UP campaign, is working on a plan to keep the Congress in the news, the media attention to the road show gets him an A plus. Nowhere else in India would a party with less than 10 percent votes and just around 5 percent seats would have got so much attention and prime time coverage. But, the crafty mix of Sonia Gandhi and Varanasi worked for the Congress.

The Congress is in the Uttar Pradesh fray with the intention of attracting Brahmin voters, enticing them to do a political ghar wapsi. Its poll strategists hope that if, and it is a big if, Brahmins return to the Congress, the state's minority voters would also be tempted to look at it as a viable option.

Varanasi was chosen carefully with this math in mind. According to the Economic Times, the Lok Sabha constituency has 15,32,000 voters. Muslims form the largest block of voters with around 3 lakh voters. Brahmins account for 2.5 lakh, Kurmis of Patels (an OBC community heavily backing Modi) 1.5 lakh, Yadavs 1.5 lakh, Kayasthas 65,000, Vaish 2 lakh, Chaurasias 80,000, Bhumihars at 1.5 lakh and Dalits 80,000.

Obviously, Varanasi is a test case for the Congress with a large population of the voters it is eyeing. If it succeeds in forging a Brahmin-Muslim alliance here, the Congress would be emboldened to try it elsewhere. All these permutations and combinations, of course, exist only on paper.

If the Congress is really keen on revival, instead of just working on the poll arithmetic of the state, it should focus on clearly communicating to voters what it stands for. Rahul Gandhi's predilection for guerrilla attacks and one-liners may have generated ephemeral interest in the party, but voters still do not have a clear reason for trusting the party, voting it back to power.

What is the vision Rahul Gandhi, assuming that he would once again try his luck in the political sweepstakes in 2019, has for India? What does he have to offer apart from sporadic criticism of the NDA government and jibes aimed at headlines? How does he plan to do govern India--if he gets the opportunity, that is--differently from the BJP?
The Congress should consider itself lucky that it is generating disproportionate amount of interest because of its UP campaign. It should thank its stars for the TRP time it is consuming. But, if it doesn't use the opportunity to communicate with voters, spell out its policies and vision to voters, the gains from the current high tide would be limited.

if nothing else, the crowd in Varanasi shows the Congress finally has an audience. It is time the party started talking some sense.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2016 18:51 PM

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