The answer lies neither in wooing a section of the society nor in finding winnable candidates. The revival of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh largely depends on making people believe that it’s a party capable of ruling the state – not a perpetual loser.
This will be a major challenge facing 37-year-old poll strategist Prashant Kishor when he gets down to preparing for his toughest test yet – reviving the Congress in the state after 27 long years. The general perception that the Congress is not in the electoral race thwarts all its attempts to rebuild its vote bank in the country’s most populous state, with people refusing to sail the ‘sinking ship’.
“The Congress may improve its vote percentage, but the contest between the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be fierce,”said Mufti Zulfiqar , president of the Imam Organisation in West UP.
Zulfiqar said that while the Congress is the only alternative to the BJP at the national level, voters are spoilt for secular choices in the state. Secondly, the Congress is being forced to explore weak options in Uttar Pradesh – unlike Bihar, where a grand alliance of caste-based parties managed to script a resounding victory. “Why would the BSP ally with the Congress when their leader is so strong?” the Imam Organisation chief asked.
The third major challenge lies in raising young cadre. Though the Congress still remains the only party with a worker in every village of the state, most of them belong to the pre-Independence era. “We grew up seeing Congress leaders actively moving from street to street, village to village. Now, it’s a miracle if they even wake up occasionally,” quipped veteran politician CP Rai.
Rai, who is now a SP member, feels that the Congress’ revival will depend more on the face it projects and the issues it raises than any Kishor-scripted strategy.
Gulab Singh, a farmer from Bundelkhand, agreed. “We have Congress organisations everywhere, but they are either defunct or in cahoots with whichever party is in power,” he said.
Dejected Congressmen have been moving to greener pastures ever since the party began losing its sheen in 1989. The handful that stayed back became chiefs in their own right. Today, unlike its SP and BSP competitors, the UP Congress is a party with many leaders and few workers.
The party polled its lowest ever – 7.5% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections – sliding further from the 11.65% polled in the 2012 assembly polls. A complete disaster, considering that the party managed to poll 24.99% (despite conceding all 85 seats) against a united opposition under the Bharatiya Lok Dal even at the height of the anti-Emergency wave in the 1977 polls.
In recent years, the lowest scored by the party in both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections was 8.14% in 1996. But the 2009 elections raised their hopes of recovery, with the Congress winning 21 seats and an unexpected 18.25% votes.
Priyanka Gandhi once described her brother, Rahul, as a “visionary with a good understanding of politics, much better than he is given credit for”. However, the upcoming elections will be more a test for Kishor than the Congress vice-president.
“Prashant has worked with Rahul earlier,” said a Congress leader in Amethi. “They met while Prashant was working as a health expert in 2007-08. He was entrusted with the task of managing the multi-facility hospital set up in Amethi’s Munshiganj town. Prashant shifted to Gujarat after working on that project for a few months.”