The Congress’ decision on Wednesday to appoint Priyanka Gandhi as its general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh (East) is being seen as an attempt to force the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party to allow the grand old party to join their alliance in India’s most politically significant state.

When talk began to swell of a broad front to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the upcoming general election, many observers believed that such a mahagatbandhan in Uttar Pradesh would include the Congress, even though it would be driven by the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. However, when the BSP’s Mayawati and SP’s Akhilesh Yadav announced their pact on January 12, they decided to each contest 38 seats of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh – leaving the Congress in the cold.

On Wednesday, after the Congress announcement about Priyanka Gandhi’s new role, her brother, party president Rahul Gandhi made it clear that he would be willing to cooperate with Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati in the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. “I respect Akhileshji and Mayawatiji and our ideology is the same,” said Rahul Gandhi. “Our fight is against the BJP and we are ready to cooperate with both the parties wherever we can. If we have to work together to defeat BJP, we will.”

Fighting irrelevance

The Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance knocked the wind out of Congress’ sails despite its victories late last year in state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The seat-sharing deal between the two arch rivals has made the Congress seem politically irrelevant in India’s largest state.

But the appointment of Priyanka Gandhi may prompt the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party to rethink their strategy of keeping the Congress out of the alliance. The presence of Priyanka Gandhi could enhance the Congress’s appeal among a section of young voters and women – to the detriment of the SP-BSP.

“Her mass appeal would attract new voters, especially Muslims, to Congress fold,” said Badri Narayan, who teaches at Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. “In eastern UP, she would be able to make inroads among other castes as well.”

Congress leaders from Uttar Pradesh pointed out that a triangular contest could increase the BJP’s prospects in as many as eight constituencies.

“For example, if both Congress and the alliance contest from Ghaziabad, BJP would emerge as a winner,” said a senior UP Congress leader. In 2014, Congress came second in Ghaziabad, as it did on five other seats. “Similarly, there are many other seats where we came third,” this leader said. “If we contest these seats alone, BJP is most likely to win them.”

If the Congress attempts to forge a Third Front along with regional parties, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance would be hurt more intensely than the BJP, observers say.

Back to the table

Priyanka Gandhi’s official political entry could see her negotiating directly with Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, considering she played a crucial role in the alliance the two parties struck for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election. However, convincing Mayawati would be a harder task.

“Mayawati is angry at how she was treated during the seat sharing arrangement in [the recent elections in] Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh,” said Lucknow-based political analyst Govind Raju Pant. “It is payback time for her.”

Over the past few months, senior Congress leaders have acknowledged that the party cannot be confident of putting up a strong fight in more than eight seats in Uttar Pradesh, including the Gandhi family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli.

Though Pant acknowledged that Priyanka Gandhi will enhance the appeal of the Congress, he does not believe that the party can make a comeback in the state before 2019. “It would be nothing less than a miracle if she rejuvenates the party in less than three months,” he said.

Major hurdles

Congress leaders cited the party’s depleted organisational strength and lack of resources as major impediments for Priyanka Gandhi’s attempt to get the party to emerge as a political force in the state so quickly. According to a Congress district president, the party’s organisational strength has been weakening since the 2017 assembly elections. “We don’t even have candidates who can contest on all 80 seats,” he said. “Some of our leaders do not even know the names of the blocks of constituencies from where they want to contest.”

Kanpur University professor AK Verma said that the Congress should use Priyanka Gandhi’s charisma to consolidate support among voters who would otherwise pick other parties. “It would be similar to 2009 when Congress lost six seats while retained three – Rae Bareli, Amethi and Kanpur,” he said. “What was surprising was that the party won 18 new seats. These sleepy party voters wait for strong leadership and good candidates. The same could happen now.”

Meanwhile, a senior Samajwadi Party leader did not rule out a possibility of an informal understanding on seats where Congress has strong candidates. “Congress needs to share facts and reasons for why they should be given one particular seat,” he said. “If they can convince us, we can weigh the pros and cons.”