If its purpose was to pick up equity in the talking space, the Congress has already marked its presence in the poll discourse in Uttar Pradesh. From obscurity to a degree of identity—howsoever nebulous!
That’s the immediate gain from former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s projection as the party’s face for the corresponding office in the crucial Hindi heartland state. Together with film star-politico Raj Babbar, the new president of the party’s UP arm, she’s a name that needs no introduction.
But can charisma alone pull the Congress out of electoral oblivion in a province where it hasn’t tasted success for a quarter century? Not really. The party was as much in the talking space in the 2012 state elections when Rahul Gandhi led the charge from upfront. The result: a meager gain of six seats over its tally of 22 in the outgoing House elected in 2007 when the BSP formed a government of its own.
In the longer run, the party needs to work beyond projecting faces to reclaim its Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin construct decimated over the years by its main rivals: the SP that took away a big share of Muslims; the BSP that snatched Dalits and Muslims and the BJP that has claims to the Brahmin vote.
“We cannot overnight reconstruct what we’ve squandered,” admitted a Congress leader. The immediate goal, he said, was to fight for an honorable outcome; to win back sections of social groups that once gave the party the electability it had in UP.
The argument makes sense. As a national party, the Congress gave the BJP a veritable walkover in UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It didn’t contest for even a respectable defeat--- winning just the seats held by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi of the 80 returned from the State.
The Congress now has 28 seats in the 403-member assembly. Its effort is to make the most of an uninspiring scenario with a two-pronged strategy that entails ‘enthusing cadres and consolidating presence’ in the 100-odd assembly constituencies where it won, stood second or wasn’t a too-distant third. “If we can double our strength to even 50- plus, it will be a big psychological jump in the run-up to the 2019 general elections,” reasoned a UP-based leader.
For that to happen, Priyanka Gandhi will need to campaign outside the family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli. In fact, Dikshit has almost made that a precondition to carry out the responsibility devolved on her: “Priyanka’s a very popular leader. My plea would be that she campaigns with me across the state….”
Besides attracting the Brahmins, an elite social group known to influences subaltern castes, the Dikshit-Priyanka combination of “experience and youth” could have traction with young voters across caste and gender. That the Congress’ hope, against hope! Whether the party machinery in its obtaining moribund state can translate that into votes could be a challenged difficult to surmount.