Influential sections in the Congress not only want Priyanka Gandhi to become the party’s face of Uttar Pradesh in the 2017 Assembly elections, as was recently reported in the media, but want the decision to be taken and announced before May 19.
That is the day on which the results of four Assembly elections – in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – will be declared. Should the Congress perform poorly, a declaration after that date that Priyanka Gandhi will be the party’s chief ministerial candidate in UP would be perceived as a measure of its desperation.
What better way to display its resolve to revive the Congress in UP than to have a Nehru-Gandhi enter the competition to become chief minister of a state? This would indeed mark a radical departure from the past – the Gandhis are expected to play a role at the Centre, not in states. Only the post of prime minister is said to behoove them, not that of chief minister.
By parachuting Priyanka into UP, the Gandhis would send a signal that its younger generation neither shies away from shouldering responsibilities nor from being put to test. It would blunt the criticism that their privileges have come because of their lineage – and not because they have been hard-earned.
Bubbling with charisma
Priyanka Gandhi’s other advantage is that her charisma hasn’t waned. This is because her name is not synonymous with defeat, as her brother Rahul Gandhi’s is. To send to him UP now would also mean a demotion for him, as he stands of the verge of becoming party president.
The Congress think-tank wants to rope in Priyanka Gandhi because it has veered around to the view that it is pointless to try for an incremental increase in vote-share and seats. In the last UP Assembly elections of 2012, the Congress polled 11.63% of votes and bagged just 28 seats.
To turn 28 seats into 50 signifies, the Congress think-tank believes, an improvement quite meaningless for future purposes – it would not send a message to the nation that the party is in a position to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
This is why the Congress wants to cast aside it customary caution in turning the 2017 UP Assembly election into a high-stakes one, projecting it as referendum on the Modi government’s performance and whether it should be voted back into power in 2019. Priyanka Gandhi’s presence in UP would set the stage for a showdown between the BJP and the Congress in the 2019 general election.
To achieve this goal, the think-tank believes her candidature should be announced now, as it would enable them to build a network to work upon the upper castes, principally Brahmins, to support the Congress. They think this could trigger the return of Muslims to the party as well.
The election data of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that the Congress’s calculation isn’t exactly a pipe-dream. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, when the Congress surprised everyone to win 21 seats in UP, 31% of the state’s Brahmins voted for the party. It was the highest percentage of votes the Congress polled in any social group.
Then again, 19% of UP’s Brahmins voted the Congress in the 2007 Assembly elections, when it won just 22 seats. Once again, it was the highest percentage of votes the party polled in any social group. This figure slid to 13% in 2012, but Vaishyas voted in higher numbers for it than they did in 2007.
It makes sense for the Congress to woo the Brahmins and other upper castes. Unlike other states, the upper castes comprise nearly 20% of UP’s population, of which Brahmins comprise nearly 9%. They are also preponderantly represented among opinion-makers, thereby giving them a clout far in excess of their numbers.
The Congress believes the Brahmins, as also other upper castes, are ripe for plucking. For one, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to woo the Dalits and OBCs has irked the upper castes, Brahmins in particular.
More than 70% of them voted the BJP in the last Lok Sabha election, but are now annoyed that their interests are being ignored, as is evident from the decision to appoint Keshav Prasad Maurya, an OBC, as state party chief. In addition, Modi has increasingly taken to emphasising his OBC identity, as against his earlier caste-neutral development agenda.
No doubt, Modi still remains popular, but there has been undoubtedly a slide, inevitable for anyone who has been in power for two years. For instance, he will not be able inspire the UP electorate to vote a nonentity as chief minister, as he did in Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra in 2014 Assembly elections.
Regardless of whoever the BJP projects as its chief ministerial candidate in UP, the Congress believes Priyanka Gandhi will outstrip him or her in popularity. For most upper-caste voters, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party are compulsions – not their preferred choices. In this situation, the upper castes could as well plumb for Priyanka Gandhi.
Once Brahmins send a signal that they would be ready to return to the Congress, the Muslims of UP might feel encouraged to emulate them. As such, the state’s Muslims don’t vote for a party unless it has one dominant Hindu caste that they feel could be relied upon to provide protection. They also tend to rally behind the party perceived to have the best chance to vanquish the BJP.
Despite not being in the sniffing distance of power in UP, the Congress has always attracted a significant percentage of the Muslim vote – 25% in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, and 18% in the 2012 Assembly elections.
The situation today seems conducive for the Congress to make overtures to Muslims. The community believes, rightly or wrongly, that the ruling Yadav dispensation has failed to weaken the BJP. Second, two years of the BJP playing Hindutva politics has perhaps persuaded the Muslims that a strong Congress is required to become a counterpoise to the BJP at the Centre.
Should the pieces fall into place, the Congress think-tank, believe they could also win it the votes of non-Jatav social groups, such as Balmikis, who are no longer enamoured of Mayawati as previously.
But calculations on paper often go awry in real life. For instance, should Priyanka Gandhi step into UP, the BJP will certainly try to unearth credible evidence against her husband, Robert Vadra, to prove the allegation that laws were bent to grant him highly priced land in Haryana and Rajasthan. Still, the Congress believes her own charisma will insulate her from a blowback.
Given the existential crisis plaguing the Congress, Priyanka Gandhi is indeed the best bet for the Congress in UP. It, really, has nothing to lose, for it can only sink from here into oblivion. Once the decision to nominate her as chief ministerial candidate is finally taken and announced, Uttar Pradesh will sizzle as never before.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.