New Delhi/Lucknow: The Congress party, which has been trying to regain lost political ground in Uttar Pradesh, got a great launch pad following Rahul Gandhi’s high-profile intervention in the farmers’ agitation in Bhatta-Parsaul in Noida.
Unfortunately, the party, like several times in the past, was unable to press home its advantage against the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the state.
Analysts say the lack of a grass-roots organization is preventing the party from realizing political gains from such activism. The onus, they say, is on Gandhi and Digvijay Singh, who oversees the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, to not only reinvent the party machinery and resolve intra-party differences in the state unit, but also to inject enthusiasm among its cadres.
The Congress, which won 83 of 85 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 1984 general election, had been on a decline till 2009, when Gandhi inspired a partial comeback, with the party winning 21 seats. The reversal began in 1989 and coincided with the ascendancy of the socialist party Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state.
The Janata Dal’s vote base was later taken over by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP. In 2009, the Congress reversed this trend, more than doubling its vote share from 8.7% to around 18.25%. It did so by winning back Muslim votes and making inroads into the other backward classes (OBCs) and Dalits.
Caste and religion
The Congress, expecting to be a formidable force in the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh in the next state elections, due in 2012, is heavily relying on support base comprising the upper castes, Muslims and a section of Dalits and OBCs who are disenchanted with the ruling dispensation and the main opposition SP.
The Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh, who played a key role in Mayawati’s unprecedented victory in the 2007 assembly polls, seem to be shifting loyalty to the Congress, mainly because of the charisma of the Gandhi scion, political observers in the state said. Brahmins constitute around 8% of the population and between 10% and 20% of votes in approximately 40 Lok Sabha constituencies.
The BJP’s ascendency after it threw its weight behind the building of a temple at Ayodhya, considered to be the birthplace of Hindu god Rama, was linked to the support of upper castes and OBCs.
“There seems to be a paradigm shift in the Brahmin votes towards the Congress primarily attributed to the charisma of Rahul Gandhi and secondly there is a decline in the Brahmin representation in the BSP,” said Sudhir Kumar, a political observer and a professor at Lucknow University.
Mayawati’s successful formula for creating a Dalit-Brahmin-Muslim alliance in 2007 failed in the last Lok Sabha elections because the BSP chief was seen as going out of the way to please the upper castes at the expense of its core vote bank. “In 2009, we took our core vote bank (Dalits) for granted,” admitted a minister in the Mayawati government, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The BJP started losing the upper caste support base in 1999, when the Virat Brahmin Mahasabha, a conglomeration of Brahmin leadership, took a view that the then BJP-BSP ruling coalition was not showing any preference to them. This is exactly what the Congress wants to exploit.
“Uttar Pradesh did not see any development since 1989. The voters have tried all kinds of combinations in Uttar Pradesh—with BJP, BSP and SP. Now they want peace and development, which will keep the Congress in their preferred list,” said Ganesh Shankar Pandey, vice-president of the Uttar Pradesh state Congress.
The votes of the Dalits, who constitute 15% of the population, are split between all parties in Uttar Pradesh. Among the Dalits, the Valmikis and the Jatavs stand solidly behind Mayawati, while the Congress is eyeing the Pasi community, the second largest among Dalits after the Jatavs.
Though Gandhi’s wooing of Dalits by taking up their cause as well as surprise night stays at their houses were considered to have yielded results initially, Congress workers at the ground level in Gonda and Barabanki districts say the middle leaders failed to take this forward.
“Rahul Gandhi wanted Congress leaders to interact more with Dalits by following his moves. However, the leaders hardly went to their houses nor did they succeed in touching their hearts,” a state Congress leader said on condition of anonymity.
With SP workers’ morale at a low and with the BJP’s attempts to revive the Ayodhya issue, the Congress, seen as a party that relies more on rhetoric to win elections, is hoping to consolidate Muslim votes in its favour.
But such voters prefer to differ. The community’s disillusionment with the party was apparent after the Allahabad high court ruled in October that the disputed land at Ayodhya will be divided among Hindus and Muslims, with the former getting two-thirds of it.
Mansoor Ahamed, a resident of Shankar Nagar that homes around 20,000 Muslims in Balrampur district won by the Congress in 2009, said: “It was the same Congress and the Gandhi family which triggered this dispute by opening the Babri Masjid for Hindus to offer prayers (in 1986). The Muslims feel that the Congress had a role to play even behind the verdict.”
Claiming that the 16th century Babri mosque was constructed at the birthplace of Rama, some Hindu organizations had demolished it on 6 December 1992.
“Our party is confident that the Muslims would stay with it especially because the party was the first to condemn the verdict and because of the return of prominent Muslim leader Azam Khan to the party fold,” said Akhilesh Yadav, a Lok Sabha member from the SP and party general secretary.
The emergence of the Peace Party led by Ayub Ansari, who claims the support of the backward Muslims, has sent disturbing signals to the Congress as well as the SP. But Congress leaders in Lucknow claim there could be an alliance with the Peace Party.
“We are open to the idea of an alliance with the Congress as long as our demands are met. A final decision will by the party president,” said Ramshankar Singh, vice-president of the Peace Party in Lucknow.
The Peace Party is following the BSP’s strategy in the 2012 elections. While its core vote bank is formed by backward Muslims, it has fielded a large number of non-Muslim candidates, and could be a concern for the Congress and the SP as it is trying to woo the same categories of voters.
Issues and roadblocks
The Congress, however, has not been able to build on the gains achieved in the 2009 national election. In fact, the absence of a strong organizational set-up and dedicated leaders at the local level have led to the erosion in its support base.
For example, Beni Prasad Verma, who switched to the Congress from the SP, won the Gonda seat with an impressive majority in 2009, but the party’s candidate lost his deposit in a by-election a year later from an assembly seat in the same constituency.
Voters complain that many members of Parliament from the Congress have not been taking care of their constituencies. “Many of them do not visit their constituencies, do not spend the funds for the local areas, but prefer to stay in Delhi,” said Rajkumar Srivastava, a voter in Balrampur.
The party has not been able to even make much of the political mileage from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s Rs 7,266 crore drought relief package for Bundelkhand, a region that spans parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which was pushed by Gandhi as a part of a strategy to revive the party in the two states.
Even the much-hyped Youth Congress elections, the brainchild of Gandhi to ensure democratic process in the party, has left many dissatisfied. “Though there was due process for the election, the results show that only those who belong to prominent leaders’ camps are getting elected. The process failed to achieve what it was meant for,” said a Youth Congress leader directly involved with the process. He declined to be named.
Badri Narayan, a professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute in Jhusi, Allahabad, pointed out that Gandhi or the Congress could not sustain the momentum that had been created.
“Gandhi’s moves had inspired the Congress rank and file and also captured the imagination of the farmers in many parts of the state,” Narayan said. “But somehow, he has just left it there and failed to take it forward.”
Narayan, who along with fellow professor Pradip Bhargav, has visited Bhatta-Parsaul to gauge the impact of land issues on politics, added: “No party or leaders could make use of the opportunity this incident had created. Gandhi did not show any interest in making it a larger political issue spreading across the state. If he has taken the issue village to village, it would have made a huge difference in the Congress party’s prospects against Mayawati. It is an utter political failure.”
SWOT ANALYSIS STRENGTHS
• Charisma of Rahul Gandhi
• Upper castes moving towards the party
• Absence of party machinery
• Party failed to sustain momentum from Bhatta-Parsaul
• Simmering disgruntlement among party workers against local leadership
• State missing effective opposition party
• No efficient local leaders
This is the second of a three-part series that looks at how the three main political contestants in Uttar Pradesh—the BSP, the BJP and the Congress—are positioning themselves in what seems to be an increasingly fragmented electorate ahead of the state assembly elections. The third part will examine the BJP’s preparations.