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Rallying support: Congress on the long road to reviving its fortunes

The Congress might have started its Uttar Pradesh campaign on an aggressive note and succeeded in creating an initial buzz but the party will have to go the extra mile to bring back its days of glory.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2016 07:08 IST
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
State Congress leaders are keen on an alliance with the BSP and the aggressive tone of their party’s campaign so far is seen as an attempt to force a rethink in Mayawati’s poll strategy.
State Congress leaders are keen on an alliance with the BSP and the aggressive tone of their party’s campaign so far is seen as an attempt to force a rethink in Mayawati’s poll strategy.(AFP File)

The Congress might have started its Uttar Pradesh campaign on an aggressive note and succeeded in creating an initial buzz but the party will have to go the extra mile to bring back its days of glory.

That seems easier said than done. With nearly six months to go for the country’s most keenly watched elections in the key cow-belt state, the Congress might need more than strategist Prashant Kishor to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat– take its tally from a paltry 28 to more than 200 seats to recapture the Lucknow throne after 27 years.

However, this does not appear to have daunted the spirit of party leaders. “This time, we are fighting the elections to form the government and not just to increase our tally,” Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad said.

The Congress was the dominant political force in India’s most populous state for years but the party’s decline started with the emergence of ‘Mandal-Mandir’ politics in late 1980s. Ousted from power in 1989, the party has been struggling to arrest its falling fortunes ever since.

The rise of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) saw the Congress dropping to fourth position in the state’s political map. With its Ram Temple plank, the BJP too emerged as a dominant political force.

The BJP’s stupendous performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which it won 71 out of the total 80 seats, has given jitters to both the ruling Samajwadi Party and the BSP ahead of the 2017 polls.

While the BJP is banking heavily on upper castes and non-Yadav other backward classes for a repeat of the 2014 performance, the core vote bank of the BSP (Dalits) and the Samajwadi Party (Yadavs) remain intact.

Read: Nothing caste in stone as UP gears up for assembly elections

In the caste-driven politics, the Congress finds itself on the margins and is desperately hoping that its traditional support base of Brahmins and Muslims will return and help in reviving its electoral fortunes.

At the moment, this seems difficult but not impossible.

Traditionalvote bank

Congress relies onthis supportbase that formsa sizeableportion of UP’svoter population

  • Dalits: 21% - 22%
  • Muslims: 18% - 19%
  • Brahmins: 11% - 12%

Irrespective of tall claims, Uttar Pradesh Congress leaders admit that winning around 50 seats in 2017 polls will be a “big achievement” and enable the party to “play kingmaker” in case of a hung verdict.

State Congress leaders are keen on an alliance with the BSP and the aggressive tone and tenor of their party’s campaign so far is seen as an attempt to force a rethink in Mayawati’s poll strategy. The announcement of former Delhi chief minister Shiela Dikshit – a Brahmin – as chief ministerial candidate may have been a part of this plan.

Congress leaders also cite her decision to “support and save” the Harish Rawat government in Uttarakhand and also her help in sending Congress’ Vivek Tankha to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh.

Read: With Sheila, the Congress has raised its stakes in Uttar Pradesh

Political analysts say if the two parties join hands, it will be a winning combination with the potential of decimating its political rivals. “A Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin combination has remained unbeatable in the past and will be invincible even in the future,” said Prof Badri Narayan of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

But the Congress knows that the final decision rests with Mayawati and much depends on her assessment of the evolving political situation.

Till then, Kishor has to put in more efforts to sustain the buzz he has succeeded in creating around the Congress so far. After Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s impressive road show in Varanasi on August 2, he had told some party leaders that it was just a preview of his campaign plan.

As part of that plan, rallies, yatras and road shows will be held at regular intervals in the run-up to the polls. The party is also planning to start the ticket distribution process at least two months in advance. If that happens, it will be a departure from the past, when tickets were usually allocated at the last moment.

Read: Congress falls back on yatra campaign in poll-bound UP

The party will also ask all present and former MPs to give names of candidates for at least two assembly segments in their parliamentary constituencies. The idea is to identify 100 seats where the Congress is in a position to put up a good show.

ELECTION ISSUES

Corruption, law and order, communal disharmony, cow vigilantism, governance, unemployment, price rise

STRENGTHS

  • Top leadership: Soniaand Rahul Gandhi – whotraces his roots to UP
  • Inclusiveness: TheCongress does not claimto be the torchbearer ofone particular caste orreligion but tries toaccommodate al
  • Reach: Though small innumber, a Congresscadre exists in everydistrict of the state

WEAKNESSES

  • Divided state leadership
  • No big faces
  • Intense factionalis
  • Weak organisational structure at ground level
  • Poor public connect of senior leaders
  • Fields rebels of other parties from seats where it lacks winnable candidates, leading to disillusionment among workers

KEY LEADERS

  • Ghulam Nabi Azad (general secretary), SheilaDikshit (chief ministerialcandidate), Raj Babbar(state chief), SanjaySingh (campaigncommittee chief),Pramod Tiwari (coordinationpanel head), SalmanKhurshid, Jitin Prasada,PL Punia, SriprakashJaiswal, Rita BahugunaJoshi and RPN Singh


STRATEGY


  • Rallies, yatras and road shows at regular intervals. After the second phase of the yatra ends on October 9, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi will start his campaign with a public meetingThe party is planning to start the ticket distribution process at least two months in advance.This will be a departure from the past, when tickets were usually allocated at the last moment

  • Present and former MPs will be asked to name candidates for at least two assembly segments in their constituencies. The idea is to identify 100 seats where the party can put up a good show

Organisational weakness has been blamed for the Congress’ poor show in UP in the past but party secretary Prakash Joshi disagrees with it. “Unlike the other parties, it is only the Congress that has strong organisational structure on the ground. We have our committees in each block and district with minimum 21 office-bearers and don’t see that in other parties,” he said.

“But it is the voter who is divided on caste and religion lines and the Congress has never done and will never indulge in such politics,” said Joshi who assists Azad in UP affairs.

Full coverage: Uttar Pradesh assembly elections