The Congress party’s plans to woo the influential Brahmin community in next year’s Uttar Pradesh assembly polls hit a major roadblock on Thursday when Rita Bahuguna Joshi, one of its best-known faces from this community, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Congress looked stunned as a triumphant BJP announced Joshi’s induction into their fold with great fanfare at the party headquarters.

Three months ago, an upbeat Congress had announced that former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit would be its chief ministerial candidate in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.

Congress strategists believe that their party had stolen the march over the BJP, which was struggling to project a chief minister face as it feared that such a move could trigger infighting in the party’s Uttar Pradesh unit. The Congress was also pleased with itself as its strategists believed it had the first mover’s advantage in wooing the Brahmins by pitching Dikshit as its face.

The Congress made this announcement at the behest of its poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who was said to have argued that UP's Brahmin community was disillusioned with the BJP over its focus on non-Yadav backward classes and the Dalits.

Plans are derailed

But as the fast-paced developments over the past few weeks have shown, the Congress party’s grand plans have gone awry. Rita Bahuguna Joshi may not have a large support base but she is a recognisable face in her home state, no doubt helped by the fact that she is the daughter of Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, one of the tallest leaders of Uttar Pradesh. She acquired a high profile in the Congress during her five-year stint as president of its Uttar Pradesh unit from 2007 and as one of the party’s chief defenders on television debates.

Although Uttar Pradesh Congress chief Raj Babbar put up a brave face on Thursday, saying Joshi’s departure will not have an impact on the party's prospects in the Assembly elections, party leaders admitted in private conversations that this development would definitely send out a message that the Congress is falling apart as its senior leaders are deserting it.

“We are losing the perception war…just when we think we have made some progress, we suffer a setback,” remarked a senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh.

Joshi was said to be unhappy for some time because she had not been assigned a prominent role by the Congress leadership in the poll campaign. She was also unhappy with her brother Vijay Bahuguna being removed as Uttarakhand chief minister in 2014 after he was criticised for his ineffectual handling of the devastating floods that swept through the state the previous year. More importantly, Joshi was looking for a safe seat in next year’s Assembly polls as she faces a tough contest in her present constituency, Lucknow Cantt, where she would be pitted against Samajwadi Party chief Mulayum Singh Yadav’s daughter-in-law Aparna Yadav. The fact that her brother had already joined the BJP made it easier for her to cross over to the rival camp.

Joshi made her disillusionment with the Congress obvious last fortnight when she praised the Modi government for the surgical strikes undertaken by the army on so-called terror launch pads across the Line of Control and objected to demands for proof for these strikes in a series of recent tweets.

Shift in sentiment

Joshi’s move has come at a time when the Congress was already feeling the jitters over reports of a BJP surge in Uttar Pradesh. The public mood underwent a dramatic change in favour of the BJP in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular, after the army’s surgical strikes. The Congress was left stranded as an upbeat BJP touted the strikes as an example of the party’s intent to deal firmly with cross-border terrorism.

The confusion in the Congress came through when the party first backed the Modi government’s decision to order surgical strikes across the LoC but then followed it up by asking the ruling alliance to prove that such an army action had been undertaken. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi added to it with his “khoon ki dalali” comment when he accused the Prime Minister of using the army action for political gain.

Glum Congress leaders maintain that their election campaign started unraveling after the surgical strikes and the manner in which the party reacted to it. The mood, they said, was obvious during Rahul Gandhi’s Deoria to Delhi kisan yatra last month, which petered out towards the end when the political discourse was dominated by the Srmy action.

“ Instead of making unnecessary comments on the surgical strikes, Rahul Gandhi should have concentrated on farmers issues which he had raised during his yatra. He made a big mistake here, “ remarked a senior Congress office bearer.

Leadership crisis

While it is clear that the Uttar Pradesh election has slipped out of the Congress grasp, Joshi’s departure has once again put the focus on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership or rather lack of it. Like Himanta Biswa Sarma and Jayanti Natarajan, who slammed the Congress vice-president when they left the party, Joshi also questioned his leadership while addressing media persons at the BJP headquarters on Thursday. Expressing her unhappiness over his “khoon ki dalali” remark, she declared, “Rahul Gandhi’s leadership is not acceptable to people. With Rahul at the helm, nobody listens to us.”

Party members are obviously constrained from speaking opening on this issue but there is a growing realisation among the Congress cadres that it is becoming increasingly difficult to rebuild the organisation with Rahul Gandhi at the helm. The opposition has succeeded in projecting him as a joke who cannot be taken seriously. And despite the efforts made by his advisors and strategists, Rahul Gandhi has not been able to go in for an image make-over.