Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati each drew first blood as the Election Commission on Tuesday announced the schedule for elections in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.
Thousands of Congress party workers must surely have been thrilled by the television footage of Gandhi standing in the half-open door of her jeep as it sped through her Rae Bareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh, in defiance of the prohibitory orders imposed by Mayawati’s administration.
For several it probably seemed like the end of a prolonged political drought as the Congress president, for the first time in years, showed some old-fashioned spunk in telling off her opponent. The party in Uttar Pradesh has been moribund for so many years that it is in real danger of forgetting it had once been at the vanguard of both ideology and statecraft.
Gandhi seemed so furious that Mayawati had not only stopped the allocation of 467 acres for a railway carriage factory in her constituency but also tried to prevent her from going there, that her anger seemed to trip over her halting Hindi. But it didn’t matter one whit.
It was a flashback to the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, when her daughter Priyanka—similarly campaigning in an open jeep—turned the tables on her uncle and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidateArun Nehru by accusing him of betraying the Gandhi family. The effect was immediate— Nehru, who had been tipped to win the election for the BJP from Rae Bareli in 1999, finished a dismal fifth.
Several political analysts feel that Gandhi’s emotional outburst against Mayawati cannot end in Rae Bareli. If her temporary humiliation has to translate into political gains for the Congress, these analysts say, it must be followed by a plan that basically converts the five coming assembly elections into a mini-referendum against the incumbent BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
Some feel that Mayawati may have made her first big political blunder by showing herself to be so vindictive against a political opponent. After all, these analysts argue, Gandhi has every right to visit the constituency she has been elected from, and that chief minister Mayawati should have had the political cunning to also take credit for a railway carriage factory that would have given jobs to nearly 10,000 people.
For the Congress party, however, there is a much greater job at hand.
The party has to get itself into shape, both at the grass-roots as well as by importing the charisma of all the Gandhis from the Capital—especially Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. It has to make a noise and draw attention to itself. It has to send the message that the party is synonymous with the idea of a diverse India and that it is willing to protect citizens from violence in both Orissa and Karnataka that have witnessed attacks on Christians.
According to this battle plan, it doesn’t matter that Uttar Pradesh isn’t going to the polls next month. National elections are expected in March and the state, with 80 seats, will define the contours of the next government. The Congress may or may not win many more than the nine seats it currently holds, but if it allies with the Samajwadi Party, the coalition could be a real force.
But if the Congress is unable to draw any lessons from this encounter with Mayawati or, for that matter, from Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s refusal to allow Gandhi to hold a rally in Bhopal on 19 October—she wanted to launch the Congress party’s campaign for the assembly elections—then it may as well retreat into its lair, accepting that it has grown old before its time.
According to the contrarian view, however, Tuesday’s shadow-boxing between Gandhi and Mayawati is only a sideshow. This school of thought argues that each time the Dalit leader metaphorically pulls the chair from beneath any opponent, whether low- or high-caste, she is able to inject gallons of confidence into the entire Dalit community.
Taking on Gandhi in her own Rae Bareli pocket borough may well galvanize Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), especially in the states preparing for assembly elections. Delhi is an obvious target, and the more than 8% vote the BSP won in Delhi’s recent municipal elections was a boost for the party.
Mayawati clearly has her eye on the northern states going to the polls. She intends to spoil the chances of the Congress party and right now doesn’t care that this attitude of hers could end up benefiting the BJP.
The message from Rae Bareli?
Mayawati believes she is invincible and, therefore, has little to lose. As for Gandhi, if she is able to think on her feet, this could be the beginning of a Congress revival in the north Indian heartland.
Also Read Jyoti Malhotra’s earlier columns
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com