Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s flip-flop has increased the perception that the Congress in UP lacks a frontal leadership.
Newspapers today carried a photograph of Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra crossing paths while campaigning in western Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr. Unlike the last assembly poll, their parties are not in a pre-poll pact. That, however, does not rule out the chances of an alliance if the poll results indicate the SP-led combine inching to power.
While the next few weeks will settle that question, there is also the riddle of how far the Congress is willing to go to leave an imprint on the ongoing poll. That leads to another question: Why does the Gandhi family have cold feet about entering the fray with a chief ministerial face?
While other major contenders – the Bharatiya Janata Party, the SP, and the once formidable Bahujan Samaj Party – have visible faces to their campaigns, the Congress has been hesitant to do so. In the last few days, there has been a quiet burial of such a possibility when Priyanka denied being the party’s CM face, just a day after she had hinted at it by saying “you can see my face everywhere”. Priyanka downplayed her off-the-cuff remark as a flippant response to the constant media queries about the Congress’s face for the top job.
However, it isn’t clear whether she was making more sense to party workers in almost declaring herself as a contender or in retreating from it the day after.
There is a growing perception that the Congress’s UP campaign needs a frontal leadership – someone who can risk it all, including a loss of face. This is a role that the Gandhi family scions – especially Priyanka, who is the party’s point person for the state – have been dragging their feet on for some time now. During the 2019 Lok Sabha poll too, Priyanka’s high-pitched involvement with the Congress campaign in UP had raised expectations that she would contest a seat herself. More significantly, in view of the party's bid to address its visibility crisis, it was also speculated that she might take on prime minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi.
Such hopes were belied; Priyanka chose to opt out of the poll fray.
In the 2017 UP assembly poll, the Congress had stitched a pact with the SP. Hence, the then incumbent CM Akhilesh Yadav was the alliance’s default choice for chief ministership. The BJP’s landslide victory, however, meant that the SP-Congress alliance could only manage 54 seats, and the Congress only seven of the 114 seats it contested. Its vote share shrank to 6.25 percent.
Two years later, when the Congress did not join the SP-BSP alliance for the Lok Sabha poll, it could only win one Lok Sabha seat. Interestingly, even if different factors are at play in parliamentary and assembly polls, the Congress’s vote share remained almost unchanged at 6.41 percent.
Meanwhile, the Congress’s attempts to add new social constituents to its very limited voter base do not seem to be making much headway. The consolidation of non-Yadav OBC votes (with a major chunk of Yadav votes tied to the SP) and non-Jatav Dalit votes (with a major chunk of Jatav votes favouring the BSP) has been one of the keys to the BJP’s success in the state, along with welfare schemes and the promise of a muscular police on law and order.
Similarly, the SP has been keen on neutralising this social consolidation by reaching out to non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, along with its stronghold of Muslim votes. The party also sees an opportunity to foray into the Jatav support base as the BSP’s electoral decline has opened up this guarded turf.
In the process, the 2022 poll in UP has effectively moved to a contest between two social alliances.
In fact, the one overarching social group that Priyanka seems to be eyeing in UP is the women voters. That’s perhaps guided by the success of two regional parties – Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United in Bihar and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in Bengal – in carving out significant support among women voters. However, the crucial difference is that both the JDU and TMC were in power and the support was in response to their welfare measures and policies that had benefited a sizeable chunk of the women electorate.
That’s not the case for the Congress, which has been out of power in UP for more than three decades. Anyway, the conversion of women into a political constituency isn’t an easy project, as gender politics are too inconsistent and formative to be the sole driving force of a big electoral push.
As the lines for the political consolidation of social groups are being drawn along rival alliances led by the BJP and the SP, the Congress needs an overarching political story beyond it. That story could be woven around a frontal campaign. That story needs the pull of a personality factor and taking on the locals with a national focus.
In a way, pitching Priyanka as the chief ministerial face could have been the subtext of such a narrative. Even if it might not have changed the overall tally for the party in the state, its effect on lifting the spirits of party workers cannot be discounted. In a way, that could also have served as a way to buy some visibility for the party in the campaign scene – an arena in which it has already been relegated to a fringe player. In immediate terms, it has also given a chance to rivals to cast the Congress as an also-ran contender. That’s a chance BSP chief Mayawati quickly grabbed, by asking voters not to waste their votes on a non-serious contender like the Congress.
In the larger cost-benefit analysis of political stakes, the Congress might have reasons to shield Priyanka against the crossfire of an unsure electoral debut and the pitfalls of pitching her as a chief ministerial face. However, given its failure to foray into the political consolidation of social groups that mark the rival alliances, the Congress could have done with a dose of personality appeal to enthuse its rank and file. Even in the event of a highly probable drubbing, such a leap of faith could bring some of the missing visibility to the party and pitch it as a frontal local fighter with a national focus.