Opinion | Can Priyanka help Congress regain its lost ground in UP?

A file photo of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (Photo: AFP)
A file photo of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (Photo: AFP)

Priyanka knows that the way you speak and carry yourself may turn the tide in your favour

We are passing through a unique time when media headlines impact the thought processes of people at all times. At this juncture, truth seems to be stuck between the many contradictory arguments we hear. If we look at Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s joining active politics in this perspective, many doubts and questions will be resolved.

There is nothing new about politics for Priyanka. She was born into a political environment. Priyanka knows well that in changing times, the way you speak and carry yourself may turn the tide in your favour. In 1999, when Arun Nehru, her close relative and one-time confidante of her father, joined the electoral battle in Raebareli on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket, it was she who had taken charge in the Congress. Rahul Gandhi had not joined active politics and for Priyanka, too, it was the first time she was addressing the masses. At that time, she had made an emotional appeal to the people of Raebareli: Will you vote for a person who stabbed my brother father in the back? These words proved disastrous for Arun Nehru. He came fourth in that election.

Those were tough times for the Gandhi family. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was in power earlier in the decade, had made some subtle attempts to weaken the position that the family enjoyed. During that phase of transition, the brightest star in Indian politics, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was fast approaching the pinnacle. And, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the influence of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati had led to the Congress shrinking in the state. The majority of the party looked up to Sonia Gandhi as the saviour. In these difficult circumstances, Priyanka changed the game in her mother’s constituency.

In the same manner, she did not hesitate in sending out a clear message to the country and the BJP by accompanying her husband Robert Vadra to the Enforcement Directorate this time around. The question that will now be asked is that whether as a Congress general secretary, Priyanka will be able to revive that magic?

The answer to this is not clear. The Congress faces a coalition of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the state. The SP was a prominent part of United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II. This new alliance has influence across the state. The BJP, too, has not only formed a majority government in Uttar Pradesh, but has also strengthened its organization. In such a situation, it’s very difficult for the Congress to carve out a niche for itself.

Moreover, the Congress’s organization in the state is thin on the ground. It has been almost three decades since the party was in power in UP. Millions of voters are now used to a political environment without the Congress. The party lacks young workers on the ground to influence voters. Senior Congress activists and workers have a limited circle of influence.

Not only this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is there as the main rival. He is the member of Parliament from Varanasi. He is firing on all cylinders to ensure another shot at power. True, the BJP doesn’t enjoy as much popularity as it did in 2014, but Modi has succeeded in salvaging his reputation by presenting an attractive interim budget and offering reservations for the poor among the upper castes.

Not only this, the BJP also has Amit Shah as its president whose organizational capabilities are unquestionable. Shah has been visiting booth workers across different parts of the state even before Priyanka entered the arena. Modi addresses the people directly, whereas Shah consolidates booths by mobilizing party workers.

It’s clear that Priyanka has to grapple with various issues. The prospects look difficult, but politics is a game of possibilities. As I have said before, personalities are becoming the face of ideologies in these difficult times. Priyanka is no exception and the party has appointed Jyotiraditya Scindia as in-charge of western UP to help her. Scindia is an articulate leader with an impressive personality. The Congress is going to address the country’s largest state on the strength of these two faces. It’s important to note that in Bihar, the party did not have any such impressive personality. Despite this, the Congress organized a massive rally in the state on 3 February. The rally was considered the biggest the party has held in 28 years.

After the victory in three assembly elections in December, the Congress has definitely been re-energized. But it will have to really work hard to regain lost ground in the Hindi belt. In this sense, this week will prove to be decisive.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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