Fortune favours the brave — a dictum the Congress seems to have adopted after months of hesitation and timidity. It has gone ahead and announced Sheila Dikshit, former chief minister of Delhi, as its chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh. This may not ensure a victory for the Congress, but indeed fetches it a share under the spotlight in the run-up to what will be India’s most watched election. The party is also obviously galvanised by its recent successes in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, in both of which the government was left embarrassed.
The entry of Ms Dikshit will make other parties sit up and take note of the Congress, especially the BJP, which had all but written the grand old party off in these polls. While Ms Dikshit is not from UP herself, she is married into the family of the late Umashankar Dikshit, a weighty Brahmin Congress leader from the state — and in the Indian tradition can be considered a legitimate claimant to his legacy. She has the advantage of having been a successful three-time chief minister of the Capital, something which gave her high visibility on the national stage. The Congress has done well not to project a member of the Gandhi family as many had expected it to do. It has opted for someone with a proven track record in both politics and administration. The BJP, on the other hand, has so far not been able to make up its mind on whom to project in the state. It has seasoned warhorses in its political armoury as well as younger candidates who are considered feisty like former HRD minister Smriti Irani. Now, what was expected to have been a three-way contest among the BSP, SP and BJP could be thrown open. This also makes the Congress an attractive option as an alliance partner for the BSP that had in the past expanded its base vote of Dalits and Muslims with Brahmin support.
The entry of Ms Dikshit will require a Herculean push by the party to be a real contender for the top stakes. The party has atrophied in many parts of the state over the years as it lurched directionless from election to election. For the present, it lacks a social base while its contenders do — SP (Yadav-Muslim), BSP (Dalit-Muslim) and BJP (Forward Castes and non-Yadav backward).
The fact that Ms Dikshit is a Brahmin may work in her favour and perhaps at the BJP’s expense. But in the overall picture, the party will have to go beyond all this and frame a message that will work, something it has not been able to do for years. If Priyanka ventures out of Amethi and Rae Bareli to campaign, the contest might get keener, given her appeal among youth cutting across identities.