Two Steps Back, One Step Forward

If Priyanka joins the campaign across UP, along with Rahul's consistent efforts, Congress might hope to push the electoral threshold beyond predictable limits

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

On December 28, barely two days into it, Anna Hazare broke his fast. Poor health, his handlers said, was the reason. The television audience interpreted it differently. Unlike his previous 'fast fest', despite the publicity blitz by Team Anna, Hazare just did not get the crowds. Even Bollywood celebrities ditched him. Worse, not only was he saying nothing new, his acerbic remarks about Parliament and our independent electoral system, including his extremist, violent language and daily threats, were being resented across the spectrum. The Hazare campaign, earlier backed by the RSS, seemed much too biased against Congress, and brazenly pro-BJP, and the Hissar bye-election proved it again. The Mumbai and Delhi flop show, thus, seemed inevitable. However, Hazare and his noisy crowd would be back on the streets of Delhi with greater aggression if the Congress does badly in the six assemblies where it is due for elections.

Circumstances have forced Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi to walk this difficult agneepath to revive his beleaguered party in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and other states where elections are due in February-March, and thereby attempt to stand up to the challenge posed from the streets of the country. An improved performance in the assembly elections could inject vitality into an anemic UPA government, which has been haemorrhaged by scams, indecision and lack of character. It is a mammoth challenge for the youthful scion of the Gandhi family, whose performance has not really measured up to his ambitions of reviving the fortunes of the party of his forefathers.

In the past few years, since he took upon himself to recapture the old glory of Congress and help it come to power on its own, the results have not kept pace with his monumental efforts. First in Bihar, and then in Tamil Nadu, his hard work came to grief. The defeat in Bihar was particularly distressing. All the padyatras and rubbing shoulders with the unwashed masses yielded just four seats. That defeat, surely, rankled.

In UP, he has followed a similar strategy of covering hundreds of kilometres on foot and trying to connect with the common man. In the last few years, he has slept in the decrepit huts of Dalits and farmers, eaten food with the poor, and organised innumerable, informal chaupal meetings, and interaction sessions with students. He has tried to revive the dilapidated Congress machinery at the grassroots, and its youth and students wings. He has vigorously articulated the cause of weavers, the marginalised and all those who have got a raw deal from the Mayawati-led state government. His hard work has been praised by his own partymen as well as his detractors. There is growing unanimity that Rahul has a certain authenticity and honesty, that he has great stamina as well as the ability to take defeat.

On paper at least, Congress seemed capable of doing well in the UP elections for the first time in 22 years. And there are reasons. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, Congress had surprised itself and others by winning 22 Lok Sabha seats, which translates into 110 assembly segments. Then, both the regional parties, Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) seemed to be slipping. Roadside tea shops and dhabas began to reverberate with a common refrain that the national party was back in reckoning. That seemed a turning point.

And then, like an epidemic, bad news began to erupt from Delhi. First came the killer price rise and then a series of financial scams – one after another. Within no time the image of Congress as a party that can provide better governance began to flounder. Its reputation was in tatters. Since then, it has been all downhill for Congress. Out of the 21 bye-elections the state saw since 2009, the Congress has won just one seat from Lucknow West, that too due to dissension in the BJP. Many of their candidates forfeited their deposit.

In the last few years, Rahul has slept in the decrepit huts of Dalits and farmers, eaten food with the poor, organised innumerable chaupal meetings, and interactions with students

Despite its indifferent performance, the party looked on a good wicket as the BSP regime got embroiled in massive scams and murder cases, while its policies began to alienate non-Dalits. What enraged the people in UP was the manner in which Mayawati was wasting precious public money in building grand monuments of Dalit icons (and her own statues) instead of progressive social transformation or development, especially for the abjectly poor. Tales of her alleged corruption acquired mythical proportions. These gained credence as she dropped 20-odd ministers charged with corruption. Besides, others in the party and government got embroiled in all kinds of dubious deals, including crime, corruption and murder cases.

Perceptions depend on where people are located. While the Brahmins and upper caste sections, who rallied around her to show the door to Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2007, are disenchanted and angry at Mayawati, her core constituency of Dalits is experiencing consolidation. However, what could give her confidence is the astounding economic growth that the state has experienced. An essay in the issue (authored by Professor AK Singh) quotes a study by Arvind Virmani which claims that states with an economic growth in excess of 7 per cent can hope to be voted back to power. In UP, this growth has been sharply uneven, largely in the areas of communications and construction, and restricted to the western parts of the state. It is still good enough to be tested in the polls.

BSP got 207 seats in the last elections with a small vote share and limited geographical dispersal. What needs to be seen is how many seats it will lose when its new support base gets denuded. The beneficiary of the anti-incumbency wave against Mayawati seems to be her bête noire Mulayam Singh Yadav. His son, Akhilesh, is running a muscular and robust campaign, and has positioned SP at a level where it can attract anti-Mayawati votes. So not only would he retain his Yadav support base, his party can walk away with the bulk of Muslim votes too. There is a growing impression that SP could emerge as the single largest party if the enthusiastic attendance at Akhilesh's rallies is anything to go by.

In this twin pincer movement of caste-based parties, Congress has felt smothered and largely irrelevant all these years. Its local leadership had either defected or compromised with their circumstances. Rahul's strategy to revive his moribund party has revolved around leveraging the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family, besides reaching out to the party's original support base among Dalits. He has rightly believed that until its traditional constituencies come back, the party has no hope. Expectedly, Congress has wooed Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins. In recent months, it has tried to divvy up the OBC ranks by targeting the 'most backward' and promising them a share in the power pie.

Reports from the ground suggest that the Congress strategy may not be working for obvious reasons. Some Congress leaders fear that the party may suffer a fate little different from what it embarrassingly experienced in Bihar, if it fails to take corrective steps. The crucial question is who will be the chief minister if Congress and RLD come to power? Rahul's aggressive campaign falls flat when there is little clarity about who would implement his vision. Surely, Pramod Tewari and Jagdambika Pal or even Rita Bahuguna Joshi cannot be expected to take on the might of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Locals argue, if Rahul is not willing to lead the state, then why should people vote for him?

In the 2009 elections, Congress had surprised itself and others by winning 22 Lok Sabha seats, which translates into 110 assembly segments

In the 2009 parliamentary elections, Congress won 21 Lok Sabha seats. As a political observer pointed out, voters can differentiate between state and national elections. To surmount this nettlesome issue, Congress has toyed with the idea of fielding Rahul Gandhi's charismatic sister, Priyanka, in the campaign. For years she has confined herself to being the campaign manager for her mother's constituency, a role she has performed with great panache. During her visit to Rae Bareli recently, she announced that she would be willing to campaign in other parts of the state if her brother asks her to do that. Indeed, if she does that, along with Rahul's consistent efforts, Congress might hope to push the electoral threshold beyond predictable limits. That itself will be one crucial step forward for the grand old party.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2012

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