Spurned by the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, the Congress seems to believe it can make itself count in the electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh by wooing the Brahmins away from the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is likely mistaken.

Though clearly disappointed that Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav left them out of their alliance, the Congress leadership has put up a brave face, maintaining that contesting alone will help the party wean away a section of the upper castes from the BJP. This would not have been possible if the party allied with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, they contend. Their reason is that the upper castes will be wary of the new alliance, seeing it as a pact between the Jatavs and the Yadavs, the core supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party whom the Brahmins and the Thakurs consider their political rivals.

Though the Brahmins are just 8% of the population, the Congress calculates that it would be worth making a play for their vote since they could influence other social groups. The Brahmins have long wielded immense political power in Uttar Pradesh, in addition to monopolising the bureaucracy and academia. For this reason, every political party has, over the years, made a concerted effort to woo the community.

This was also why the Congress projected former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh in the 2017 Assembly election. It had to abandon the plan after tying up with the Samajwadi Party, however.

For the general election, the Congress is particularly targeting the section of the upper castes that, in the words of Akhilesh Pratap Singh, is antipathetic to the Yadavs and the Dalits but is not necessarily enamoured of the BJP. “This section has been voting for the Congress and would have shifted to the BJP if our party was seen standing alongside the BSP and the SP,” said Singh, the Congress’s spokesman in Uttar Pradesh.

Moreover, the Congress joining the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance would have enabled the BJP to effect a religious polarisation. “This would have only benefited the BJP. They would have got an opportunity to brand this alliance an anti-Hindu front,” he argued.

Not seen as a viable alternative’

This is wishful thinking. The reality is the Congress is no longer the preferred choice of the upper castes in Uttar Pradesh. One reason is that it lacks upper-caste leaders of the stature of ND Tiwari, Kamlapati Tripathi, Veer Bahadur Singh. The current crop of the party’s Brahmin leaders – Pramod Tiwari, Jitin Prasada, Lalitesh Tripathi – is not in the same league. Nevertheless, each of them is vying to be projected as the party’s Brahmin face.

There is a buzz in the Congress circles that the party’s Uttar Pradesh chief Raj Babbar could be asked to contest the Bombay North West Lok Sabha seat in place of Priya Dutt, who has opted out of the race. If that does happen, there would be a clamour for Babbar to be replaced by a Brahmin.

Many in the Congress believe that once the Brahmins and the Thakurs return to the Congress from the BJP, the Dalits and the Muslims would follow from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party. This thinking doesn’t seem grounded in reality.

For one, the Brahmins always back whoever is closest to power or can give the community a prominent place in the political structure. In recent years, the Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh have moved from the Congress to the BJP, then to the Bahujan Samaj Party and back to the saffron party. So, it is hard to imagine the Brahmins going with the Congress in the upcoming election.

Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, agreed. “The Brahmins are unlikely to shift since the Congress is not seen as a viable national alternative,” he argued.

He is also not sure the Brahmins still wield the influence they did 20-30 years ago. “That phase has passed…people are no longer guided by the Brahmins,” he said.

The Congress’s task has been made even more difficult by the Narendra Modi government’s decision to grant 10% reservation to the economically weaker sections among the upper castes. Though the Congress endorsed the decision – it did not have a choice really – it is the BJP which stands to gain by delivering on this long-standing demand of the upper castes.

Still, the political scientist Sudha Pai is reluctant to write the Congress off, given its performance in the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

It would have helped the Congress’s cause if it had credible Brahmin faces in Uttar Pradesh, Pai noted, but it is still too early to say how things will pan out for the party. “I believe there is still time,” she argued. “It will all depend on people’s perception about the Congress emerging as a contender for power. They will go with the strongest party at the national level.”