Shahira Naim in Lucknow
On January 12, the two major parties of Uttar Pradesh — Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) —formally announced a pre-poll alliance in the most politically significant state of the country, leaving the Congress high and dry. Each party claimed 40 seats, leaving only two seats to the Congress from the family’s bastion of Amethi and Rae Bareli.
Exactly 11 days later, as part of the party’s counter-strategy, Congress president Rahul Gandhi formally announced sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s formal entry into active politics as he appointed her AICC general secretary and in charge of Uttar Pradesh (East).
To share the momentous task of reclaiming the state, he also appointed Jyotiraditya Scindia as general secretary in charge of UP (West).
What does the move signify? Needless to say that the Congress rank and file is elated. The workers, already energised after the party’s victory in the three Hindi heartland states of Rajashtan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, view it as the president’s determination to play on the front foot in UP not only for the Lok Sabha elections, but for the Assembly elections in 2022 as well.
Priyanka is no stranger to UP. Till now she has limited her engagements to Rae Bareli and Amethi only. She has extensively campaigned for brother Rahul Gandhi and mother Sonia Gandhi during the Lok Sabha elections. She is on first-name terms with most party workers there whom she meets regularly in New Delhi. She has also campaigned for the party candidates during the Assembly elections.
During 2014 and again in 2017, as the Congress’ star campaigner, Priyanka has been clearly the only person in the party who has skilfully countered Modispeak consistently with clarity and élan.
During the 2014 campaign, Priyanka countered Modi in his own style. Single-handedly, she has given it back to the Modi brigade in a language understood by the common man, yet devoid of spite and malice.
Sample this: “Kabhi ABCD, kabhi RSVP, kabhi ‘D’ se desh, kabhi ‘K’ se kauwa. Kabhi ‘B’ se bas bhi toh kariye! Aap kisi prathmik pathshala ko thode sambodhit kar rahe hain! Yeh desh ki janta hai. Janta mein vivek hai (Stop using abbreviations like RSVP — Rahul, Sonia, Vadra, Priyanka. You are not a schoolteacher. You are talking to the people of the country who are astute).
However, with the BSP-SP-RLD (Rashtriya Lok Dal) alliance in place, the picture is more complex this time. The alliance perceives Priyanka’s entry at this juncture as more of a spoke in their wheel than as a challenge to the saffron party. The ‘Mood of the Nation’ poll conducted by India Today-Karvy Insights before Priyanka’s entry has already termed the SP and the BSP excluding the Congress from the alliance as a blunder.
The survey predicted that if the Lok Sabha polls remained a direct fight between a united SP-BSP-RLD and the Congress against the BJP, it could virtually decimate the saffron party.
It also predicted a sweep of 75 out of the 80 seats for such an alliance limiting the BJP to barely five LS seats. The vote share of this combination could increase from 56.7 per cent in 2014 to 64 per cent in 2019, prophesied the survey.
While the SP-BSP alliance partners may not admit it openly, both parties are worried about Priyanka’s entry upsetting their applecart. Priyanka is in charge of the 40 seats of eastern UP that includes the Prime Minister’s constituency of Varanasi.
The Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat falls in eastern UP, where barely a year ago, the SP, through a rainbow alliance had managed to snatch it from CM Yogi after almost a quarter of a century. The SP had also captured the Phulpur Lok Sabha seat.
However, its win at the Kairana Lok Sabha that was a milestone victory. Here a Muslim SP candidate Tabassum Hasan won on the RLD symbol, once again bringing the Jats and Muslims together after the Muzaffarnagar riots on the much real and common issue of agrarian distress.
Yet, despite being upbeat after the Lok Sabha victories in the by-elections last year, the SP has been thrown off guard.
A source in the SP confirmed that Priyanka’s entry has brought to a halt the process of deciding the seats between the two partners as they are now attempting to factor in the likely impact of her entry. The SP has more reasons to worry as it was to get more seats in central and eastern UP where Priyanka is in charge. The BSP is getting more seats from western UP and the Bundelkhand region.
Both alliance partners are now seeking fresh reports from the ground, especially about the mood of the Muslims towards the Congress after Priyanka’s entry, before finalising their seats and candidates.
Some analysts still believe that the SP-BSP denying the Congress a respectable number of seats and the national party declaring to contest 80 seats on its own is part of a secret deal to wean away upper-caste votes from the BJP to the Congress. However, with 10 per cent reservation for upper castes, the Congress would surely not depend on upper-caste votes alone.
The BJP is not showing its cards, even if it is alarmed. Speaking to reporters in Varanasi recently, BJP state president Mahendra Nath Pandey said that Priyanka’s entry in active politics would make no difference to the BJP.
“Her coming to Varanasi would also have no impact. The question here is not whether PM Modi would win from Varanasi but by how much would his lead increase,” he claimed.
As active campaigning starts, things will become clearer. It would become apparent if Priyanka’s entry would prove to be a game changer for the Congress or weaken the chances of the SP-BSP alliance. If the secular vote is divided between an aggressive Congress and the alliance partners in UP, they may cancel out each other, giving the saffron party an upper hand by default.