Tactical or strategic: Decoding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s big role in UP politics
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a formidable campaigner. In speech, she can be firmly soft and softly firm, deftly using her charisma to connect with the audience.
She first donned the mantle of poll campaigner in 1999 in support of family friend and Congress candidate Satish Sharma. His BJP rival in those elections in Rae Bareilly was Arun Nehru, her father’s estranged cousin who left the party to join VP Singh’s Jan Morcha at the height of the Bofors controversy of the 1980s.
At her first public meeting, Priyanka asked the crowds whether they’d vote for the man who stabbed her father in the back: “kya aap uss vyakti ke liye vote karenge jisne merey pitaa ke peeth mein churi bhonki thei.”
It was then widely believed that Priyanka’s intervention changed the game, destroying in one blow the prospects of Nehru who finished fourth in the election won by Sharma.
That was two decades ago. Neither Rae Bareilly nor Amethi are today a cakewalk for the Congress. Mayawati made a valid point while giving her reasons for the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance leaving for the Congress, seats represented by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in Parliament. She said: that’s to ensure they don’t get bogged down in their constituencies and are free to campaign across India.
In sum, Priyanka’s launch in a formal party role is on a difficult terrain; she is in charge of east Uttar Pradesh. The BSP-SP combine in eastern UP will be formidable; and the BJP is resting its hopes on the political clout of the Narendra Modi-Yogi Adityanath duo in the region bordering Bihar. Modi’s Varanasi is in east UP, so is Yogi’s Gorakhpur.
In immediate terms, Priyanka’s elevation as AICC general secretary has earned the Congress a part in UP’s poll narrative from which it was absent after being kept out of the BSP-SP tie-up. But the airwaves the party has come to dominate cannot create a presence on the ground where social alliances of the kind the SP-BSP have, are required to take on the BJP. The consequences could be deleterious if it turns out to be a spectacle without substance, like the Rahul-Akhilesh Yadav partnership in the 2017 UP assembly polls.
That brings one to the efficacy of the Priyanka factor in the upcoming polls-and the objective behind bringing her on-board the party at the current juncture.
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For one, her arrival will motivate and galvanize cadres in UP and beyond, especially in states where the Congress retains political primacy. For that reason, old timers foresee her role expanding beyond what’s assigned to her for starters.
If true, that’ll be the strategic dimension of Priyanka’s organizational role. The tactical part of it could be to force a rethink in the BSP-SP camp for affording the Congress a respectable space in the anti-BJP lineup.
Akhilesh Yadav is expected to be more amenable to the idea. But can he, or will he prevail over Mayawati who thinks little of the Congress’s non-transferable vote?
If it becomes the third corner in the fight, the Congress in a ‘spoiler’ role could hurt the BSP-SP more by splitting the youth and the minority vote. The other edge of the knife will cut into the BJP’s forward caste base. “If the alliance includes us, the BJP’s tally will be reduced to less than ten,” claimed a former president of the Congress’s UP unit. Conversely, the saffron party could win 20-25 seats.
The tactical aspect of the Congress move found robust expression in Rahul’s first comments on Priyanka’s organizational avatar. Underscoring ideological similarities with the BSP-SP combine and the high esteem in which he holds Maywati and Akhilesh, he said: “We have no enmity…We will cooperate with each other. They can come and talk to us. All three of us want to defeat the BJP.”