Priyanka Gandhi set to storm eastern UP

A rattled BJP has fallen back to ridicule the induction of Priyanka Gandhi and to downplay her impact on the electoral prospects in Uttar Pradesh

Priyanka Gandhi set to storm eastern UP

Sharat Pradhan

The office of the Uttar Pradesh Congress was suddenly abuzz with unusual activity. The impressive white double-storeyed, three – quarter of a century old building in the heart of Lucknow was suddenly the place where all roads seemed to be leading to. Both young and old partymen who rarely took the trouble of venturing into the precincts for the past several years were pouring in.

Two hours later, some Congress enthusiasts were seen putting up a hoarding at the Mall Avenue circle that leads you into the sprawling, albeit neglected premises. The hoarding announced Priyanka Gandhi’s formal plunge into active politics.

By next morning the tiny round-about outside the UPCC office was surrounded by many more such hoardings, which began springing up in other parts of the city as well. What followed was a convoy of vehicles with huge Congress flags tied beside the bonnet zooming inside and the occupants coming out to raise the slogan – “Priyanka nahi Aandhi hai; desh ki Indira Gandhi hai”.

Evidently, party workers, who had been lying dormant for years, suddenly appeared to have been re-invigorated. Clearly, the very announcement of Priyanka Gandhi’s anointment as the national general secretary – in charge of East UP – seemed to have infused some kind of adrenaline into the blood vessels of Congress workers and leaders alike.

The ripple effect began to be felt in other parts of UP. It showed more prominently in Allahabad (renamed Prayagraj by the state’s saffron clad ‘name-changer’ chief minister Yogi Adityanath).

Describing her as “Ganga ki Beti”, hoardings with portraits of Priyanka together with her mother Sonia, brother Rahul and grand-mother Indira Gandhi sprung up at several prominent spots in the city currently celebrating the Ardh Kumbh . One of the hoardings put up in the vicinity of Anand Bhawan, the home of her great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, declared, “Ganga ki Beti jeetegi UP”.

The idea clearly was to throw down the gauntlet to UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who trooped into the Kumbh to hold a meeting of his cabinet in the thick of the mother of all festivals. “This is for the first time in history that a meeting of the UP cabinet was being held at the Kumbh”, declared Adityanath triumphantly at a specially convened press conference in the Kumbh mela township. If that was meant as an achievement of sorts, people did not seem too enthused.

Notwithstanding his obvious bid to even exploit the Kumbh to garner Hindu votes ahead of the crucial general elections, commotion in the top BJP hierarchy was becoming increasingly visible over the arrival of Priyanka. Top leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not resist the temptation of reacting sharply to the deft move by Rahul Gandhi, thereby only displaying how rattled they were. That they have started getting the jitters was reflected in their sudden recourse to the Ayodhya temple card that had been kept in reserve to be used as the last straw.

While the BJP was still trying to get over the discomfiture caused on account of the rapprochement and alliance between Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Priyanka’s arrival on the scene seemed to have come as a bigger and unexpected jolt to the entire saffron brigade. After all, that was something the party bigwigs had never factored in while thrashing out their strategy for the 2019 Lok Sabha election that would determine the political destiny of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

BJP had virtually written off the Congress, ever since NDA bagged 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP in 2014, heralding the rise of Narendra Modi to power. There seemed to be a serious crisis of leadership in the Congress and what the party needed desperately was a leader of stature, taller than the rest.

Priyanka Gandhi fitted the bill. She had it all - a high profile , excellent communication skills , a natural connect with crowds and above all the charisma, that is widely believed to be reminiscent of her charismatic grandmother Indira Gandhi.

Her entry into the arena is likely to further dent the BJP, particularly in the large urban pockets of the state where the Modi wave had virtually swept away the opposition in 2014. The large floating votes of the urban youth gave BJP the surge and took it to a record win. Remember, the youth had helped the rise of Akhilesh Yadav, who emerged as some kind of a youth icon when the state went to poll in 2012. Two years down the line the same youth got disillusioned with Akhilesh and got enamoured with Modi because of the tall promises made by him. Five years later, their hopes have turned into despair, as Modi failed to live up to their aspirations.

In the absence of Priyanka, this constituency of the youth was unlikely to think of the Congress as an alternative, simply because of the popular perception till recently that the party was not going to be a serious player in the 2019 electoral war.

With Priyanka at the helm of the UP campaign now, Congress would not be taken for granted. Apart from revival of a good section of its lost traditional vote bank of Muslims, upper caste Brahmins and dalits, Congress could also win the support of the youth that has of late started to cut across caste lines.

Coming to caste, a substantial part of the Brahmin votes could also fall in the Congress lap for the simple reason that there is much disillusionment among them with the BJP. And it is widely believed that Brahmins would avoid going with SP or BSP.

Looking at the recent poll outcome in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, where Congress did get a section of the dalit votes, it would be only natural for a similar trend to follow in UP.

More significantly, it is the Muslim votes that could drift in larger numbers towards the

It took the BJP leadership by surprise when they woke up to a combative, credible and aggressive Rahul Gandhi who challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi confidently and consistently to wrest the initiative and drive the narrative

Congress now that it is seen in a position to put up a fight. It is quite understandable that Congress would be preferred to BSP by a large section of Muslims. Mayawati’s past alignments with the BJP continue to haunt the minds of Muslims who still look at her with suspicion. And the manner in which Mayawati has been blasting Congress is likely to put them off even more. On the other hand, Akhilesh Yadav has been more discreet in his statements about the Congress.

Over the past few months, it has been becoming increasingly evident that a sizeable section of Muslims tilting towards the Congress. Disenchanted with the Samajwadi Party largely on account of the feud between SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and son Akhilesh, they began to look up to the Congress as an alternative. But the support came with a rider, “provided the Congress rises to the occasion and presents itself as a potential contender.”

There was also considerable speculation whether Priyanka would contest herself or not; and whether she would replace her mother Sonia in Rae Bareli or take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi.

For obvious reasons, the BJP leadership would want the narrative to be written as Modi versus Priyanka for the simple reason – she could then be confined to just Varanasi. But she is unlikely to get bogged down to a single constituency as that would hamper her presence in the 40 East UP constituencies which have been specifically entrusted to her.

It took the BJP leadership by surprise when they woke up to a combative, credible and aggressive Rahul Gandhi who challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi confidently and consistently to wrest the initiative and drive the narrative. To their discomfiture they realised that they were left reacting to Rahul Gandhi’s barbs.

Even as BJP was still trying to figure out ways and means to counter a transformed Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi’s arrival on board as a de facto second-in-command has clearly unsettled the saffron ranks.

Although Congress has been down in the dumps for years, the recent victory of the party in three states of the Hindi heartland has made it evident that it is now clearly on the revival path. The ripple effect of the victory in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is bound to be felt in UP which is at the core of the Hindi heartland.

Some senior BJP leaders have been out to undermine and downplay Priyanka Gandhi’s formal induction into politics by asking why she has been reduced to leader of just half of UP.

But with less than 100 days left for the final battle, it was pragmatic on the part of Rahul Gandhi to have made his sister is in-charge of just half the state. After all, reaching out to each of the 40 constituencies within the limited span of three months would also pose a challenge.

Her focus on Eastern UP will keep the top BJP leaders on their toes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to seek re-election from Varanasi, which is at the core of East UP. And both UP chief minister Adityanath as well as his deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya have their one-time political bastions in Gorakhpur and Phulpur – in East UP –where BJP was already jolted badly at the byelections a few months ago.

It is also East UP where farmers’ distress is the worst and the poverty-ridden peasants have always been at the receiving end.

Congress cadres might have just woken up from their long slumber. However, the nuts and bolts are yet to be tightened and the rusted party machinery waits to be oiled. Congress has a mountain to climb and Priyanka Gandhi is seen as not only leading the expedition but also expected to play the role of the Sherpa.

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