New Delhi: The Congress party is struggling to find candidates to contest zilla parishad, or district council, polls in Uttar Pradesh, illustrating the once dominant party’s waning political influence in India’s most populous state.

“Right now, we do not have enough people to contest the zilla parishad elections in Uttar Pradesh. We have not yet formally started selecting candidates, but we are facing a crunch of people coming up to contest elections on our backing," a party leader aware of the developments said requesting anonymity.

While assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are still two years away, the Congress’s immediate focus is on the zilla parishad polls later this year. Political parties usually do not field official candidates in zilla parishad elections. Instead, they choose to back certain contestants.

The Congress party, which faced its worst ever general election defeat last year, is struggling to revive itself in the politically crucial state, where it has been out of power for over two decades. The party has seen a severe erosion of its voter base in Uttar Pradesh from 18.25% in the 2009 general election to 7.5% last year.

“Last year’s defeat has certainly compounded the problems in Uttar Pradesh, but the fact remains that consistent efforts were not taken by the party on the ground to build a local-level leadership. We are now trying to fill these gaps and reach out to as many people on the ground as we can, but there is not enough time," the leader cited above said.

To rally its supporters, the Congress party plans to protest the controversial land acquisition bill across Uttar Pradesh on 22 July, a day after the monsoon session of Parliament is set to begin.

The Congress party has opposed amendments to the land acquisition law proposed by the Narendra Modi-led government. The party claims the changes in the law will hurt farmers’ interests and favour large businesses.

Panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh include electing representatives for village panchayats, block panchayats and district panchayats.

It is conducted once every five years. If the Congress party decides to back candidates in all 75 districts in Uttar Pradesh, it would need more than 2,300 candidates with every zilla parishad having at least 30 members.

“Our main focus is on the district-level polls because that is where most of our ground support comes from. Our strength on the ground has gone down; but usually in such polls, the ruling party of the state (Samajwadi Party) has an edge," said a second party leader aware of the developments. He, too, declined to be named.

Uttar Pradesh, which sends both party president Sonia Gandhi and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi to the Lok Sabha, is critical to the political revival of the Congress party.

Rahul Gandhi is citing the Modi government’s anti-poor and anti-farmer policies to revive the party in the state.

“As far as the panchayat elections are concerned, the Congress party may not be finding enough candidates. But what remains is the fact that the Congress party may be making efforts, but it will not change its political prospects in Uttar Pradesh," said Kashi Nath Singh, a political analyst and professor at Banaras Hindu University. “Even after the repeated efforts by Rahul Gandhi, the party neither has a strong organization nor can it boast of strong leaders at the ground level. The Congress party has a long way to go as far as Uttar Pradesh is concerned."