By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
Ms. Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into the Congress is a shrewd move by the AICC to galvanise the party cadre in Uttar Pradesh and to tap the residual loyalties of the people towards the Nehru-Gandhi clan in the forthcoming General Elections. It is equally a backlash against the SP-BSP decision to keep away Congress from the alliance in Uttar Pradesh. In a way, it is an aggressive and strategic response to Akhilesh-Mayawati combine’s move. Congress President has signaled that what Congress may be losing due to exclusion will now come back to it via women, many of who are all likely to gravitate towards it under the charm offensive.
To begin with, women politicians get special traction from the electorate all across the nation. In Priyanka Gandhi (at 47) they see an image of her grandmother Indira Gandhi, who not only exuded charm, but demonstrated extraordinary courage by being decisive and resolute. One should not discount personal charm in Indian politics, especially when a woman, with an aristocratic face like her ruling-ancestors, plunges into the political arena seeking to reclaim the political family’s lost glory. (Remember! Superstar of 1970s, Rajesh Khanna won the New Delhi seat on the Congress ticket in a by-election in 1992 against Shatrughan Sinha, who fought on a BJP ticket.)
The Congress has designated her as General Secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh, a region mired in extreme backwardness, and expects to recapture old loyalties and send out signal to the younger generation that ‘Enough is enough with casteist and communal parties. Come back to the grand old party that took India where it is today’. Feminine charm will be used against casteist and communal appeal.
The Missing Pole
As things have stood till last week, cursory surveys had indicated that Congress may emerge as the largest party, with 180-200 seats in the 543 (elected)-member Lok Sabha. The BJP may be down to 160-175, and ‘the others’ (BSP, SP, TRS, YSRC, Shiv Sena, AIUDF, AIADMK, PDP, NC etc combined) may notch 160-180 seats. (Ref. Deccan Herald, Bengaluru, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019). The likely scenario is that Congress could be the pole around which majority among ‘the others’ will converge to form the Union Government. Given the past monopolistic tendencies in the Congress, other parties do not seem to be comfortable with the idea of the Congress re-emerging on the national scene and would like to see a weak centre. This has been the major concern for SP-BSP to keep the Congress away. But as things stand today, Union Government needs a central pole with a pan-Indian appeal to be durable for some tenure. Most of the South Indian regional outfits have therefore made up their minds to back Congress’ claim for that position. But SP-BSP and perhaps Mamata Banerjee are not yet agreeable to it.
Upper Caste Votes
Upper caste votes in UP are crucial. The race to garner them has begun in earnest as SC, OBCs and Muslims were likely to tilt towards the SP-BSP combine. Among the Indian states, Brahmins have the largest proportion in this Hindi-speaking state, i.e., variously put between 11% to 13%. This was one motivation which pushed the BJP to bring in the legislation for 10% quota for the poor (to say so) upper castes. The Congress would not like to sit quiet and eyes them covetously. After all, the Nehru-Gandhi clan had a Brahmin ancestry and many people look at them as more authentic Brahmins despite gene-mixing during the interim years.
It is true that the Hindutva narrative of the BJP has pushed the Congress and its President to enter into a competition of religiosity. But it is certainly different from a communal competition. The BJP and its cronies openly spew hatred against the Muslims. Congress does not indulge in a hate campaign. Nor does it set up goons to attack them. Yet, the dominant narrative of Hindutva has compelled Rahul Gandhi to go on a temple-run. This tilt from secular fulcrum is painful, but has to be taken in the stride till the axis of the narrative itself veers off to more substantial issues such as roti, kapada and makaan. For this to happen, the ones who have an interest in the nation remaining secular need to devise ways to influence media and other forums where issues are debated and highlighted. Currently, saffron elements have infiltrated deep into the institutions that prepare, propagate and push the agenda.
Rahul is maturing fast. He knows that the Congress victory in the recent Assembly election was neither emphatic nor convincing. It won by a whisker in Madhya Pradesh, and there was no landslide in Rajasthan as was being predicted. It lost Mizoram after being the ruling party for two terms. It was only Chhattisgarh where it won hands down. In this scenario, he has to push himself assertively, rejecting backfoot play. It is a now or never scenario. Priyanka’s induction is one such deft move whereby he has been able to recapture the national imagination. However, it is now certain that cases against Mr. Robert Vadra, Priyanka’s husband, would now be expedited. It remains to be seen how all these impact the events in the run-up to elections and the outcome.