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The road to Delhi leads through Lucknow. The sooner the Grand Old Party realises this fact, the better it will be for its fortunes. After tumbling from 21 Lok Sabha seats won in Uttar Pradesh in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to just two family pocket boroughs in 2014, this dismal tally took a further hit when Rahul Gandhi lost Amethi to Smriti Irani by 55,120 votes in the 2019 general elections. Only Rae Bareli is left with the Congress. It is in this severely attritioned condition that the party has entrusted the task of a UP revival to Rahul Gandhi's sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. But there seems to be a hint of reluctance still about how far the party wishes to run a campaign centred around her.

Priyanka had all but kicked off a presidential-style campaign when she landed in Lucknow for a three-day visit the previous weekend. Large parts of the city—from Hazratganj to Parivartan Chowk, from Mahanagar to Alambagh and obviously the Mall Avenue area where the party office is situated—were covered with flags, posters and hoardings welcoming her. You could see vehicles with the Congress flag in all parts of Lucknow—a rare sight for the city of Nawabs.

Congress party workers too, for a change, looked rejuvenated and full of zeal welcoming their leader. Even some party leaders you can’t spot otherwise duly turned up. A huge reception at Lucknow airport, a grand convoy proceeding towards the heart of the city Hazratganj, a two-hour silent protest outside the Hazratganj GPO Park Gandhi statue, followed by some sharp words in a speech where Priyanka tore into the state government—the entire visit was choreographed for maximum impact.

But the question remains: for how long? In a sense, if the party seriously wants to revive itself in UP, it couldn’t have asked for a better time. To begin with, there are many issues to capitalise on. And the best thing in favour of the grand old party is that, unlike in West Bengal, the main alternative to the BJP in the state, the Samajwadi Party, seems inactive: all it has to show of late in terms of activism is a protest held on 15 July that was originally scheduled for four days earlier. And, in Priyanka, the Congress has someone with the charisma needed to create a splash.

The only problem is, will these para drop visits serve any good? The zeal among party cadre will be too short-lived unless there’s a well-charted programme to make the party visible. She needs to shift her base to Lucknow at least for the next few months, until the assembly elections early next year. Though, in a media interaction, she hinted at shifting to Lucknow this August, whether it will happen remains unknown.

News that poll strategist Prashant Kishor would be working with the Congress surfaced recently after his meeting with the Gandhis. Soon, though, the talk was that the meeting was neither for Punjab nor for the UP elections; rather, it was for something bigger. Apparently, the general elections of 2024. It’s worth mentioning that it was after the 2017 UP assembly polls that Kishor’s relations with the Congress took a bad turn. After a terribly poor poll performance, he had blamed many Congress leaders for their arrogance and for not listening to him. If he actually signs up, his first job should be to do something about UP. The only viable idea would be to turn out another ‘magical’ campaign, targeting all other parties with a single line, building a credible narrative around Priyanka, presenting her as the only viable option to the people of the state, combined with a well-crafted manifesto.

For any of this to happen, the party would need to expose its biggest asset in the state to the test of electoral appeal. As they say, the higher the risk, higher the returns. The party can’t just let UP become another West Bengal or Delhi. Keeping Kishor out of a UP strategy and not upping the ante with a high-risk gamble woul be a huge mistake. It may not be able to build any momentum for 2024 without something in its hands in UP.

Syed Kamran is a freelance journalist.

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