Congress president Sonia Gandhi is understood to have conveyed her displeasure to political strategist Prashant Kishor after reports regarding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s role in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections were “leaked out” to the media. Kishor, who was summoned to 10 Janpath a few days back, was asked why the media was speculating about Priyanka when no decision regarding the level of her participation in the polls had been taken.
Kishor is apparently unfamiliar with the style and complexities of Congress politics and therefore could not immediately comprehend why the high command had chosen to seek his explanation, since he had a negligible role in the circulation of the news featuring Priyanka. It is apparent that after conjectures about Priyanka appeared both on electronic as well as the print media, certain functionaries created the impression amongst top leaders that it was Kishor who was responsible for this perception. He was firmly told by the Congress president that henceforth he should deal with Ghulam Nabi Azad, general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, rather than talking directly to either Priyanka or Rahul.
Relieved over the development, senior leaders looking after Punjab affairs are hoping that in due course Kishor may have to report to either Asha Kumari, the state in-charge, or Ambika Soni, the head of the campaign committee. However, this seems unlikely as Rahul Gandhi appears inclined to deal with Punjab himself.
In his meeting with senior Congress leaders, Kishor had earlier attempted to make a strong case for the party’s tie-up in UP with Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party. He had prepared a proposal where the Congress was going to ask for 100 seats to contest the polls in alliance with the SP. Nevertheless, he was curtly informed that there was no express reason for Mulayam to be so very generous towards the grand old party when in the SP chief’s opinion there was a fair chance of his party returning to power.
Meanwhile, with Sheila Dikshit being declared as the party’s Chief Ministerial nominee for UP, Kishor is jubilant, since it was his idea that the party should project a well known Brahmin face in the state. Dikshit, who is a Punjabi and was married to former Union Home Minister Uma Shankar Dikshit’s son, has already proclaimed herself to be the “Bahu” of Uttar Pradesh. In a move which is being viewed as a political suicide by the party cadre, Dikshit was chosen over and above the seasoned Pramod Tiwari, one of the most experienced Brahmin faces of the party, as well as young Jitin Prasada, whose father Jitendra Prasada was the political adviser to both Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. Party workers have already started wondering whether Dikshit’s projection was the oblique admission of defeat by the high command.
Dikshit has the dubious distinction of forfeiting her deposit, while she was still the Delhi Chief Minister when she contested against Arvind Kejriwal from her New Delhi Assembly segment in 2013. She was trounced by more than 26,500 votes and the Congress secured just eight out of the total 70 Assembly seats under her leadership. Her record in UP has been equally dismal as she lost the Lok Sabha elections from there thrice—in 1989, 1991 and 1996. The fourth defeat she suffered in the Parliamentary elections was from East Delhi, where she was vanquished by Lal Behari Tewari of the BJP in 1998.
Her detractors in the party are wondering why she has been declared as the Chief Ministerial nominee when in an interview to a TV channel she clearly stated that she had no intention of contesting the Assembly elections in 2017. “It is akin to making a film where a guest artiste masquerades as the main figure. What is the leadership trying to prove? She cannot win from anywhere in UP and she is the CM face. It is a foregone conclusion that the party has lost even before the battle has begun. Dikshit is a Punjabi and so is Raj Babbar, the newly appointed president of the UPCC. In addition, Nirmal Khatri, the head of the screening committee is a Punjabi too. Is this the team for UP or for Punjab?”, a senior Congress leader from the state wanted to know.
Sources said that Dikshit’s supporters were desperate to get her a primary position in the party in view of fresh investigation being launched into allegations of corruption against her. Their attempt is to term any move by the government in a corruption case as political vendetta. Rahul seemed inclined to project a younger face as he believes that it is the young voters who should be targeted. The thinking of some in his core group was that more than 75% of the state’s population was under 40 years of age and hence there was a remote chance that they would have ever heard about Uma Shankar Dikshit, who hailed from UP but was essentially a Delhi based politician, whose clout was there due to his proximity and the patronage he received from the Nehru-Gandhis. In addition, Sheila Dikshit herself is not a known figure in UP and became popular subsequently due to the extensive support she received from the English speaking electronic media in particular. However, Kishor was adamant on a Brahmin face and Priyanka Vadra, prompted by some of Sheila Dikshit’s supporters, gave her approval for the former Delhi Chief Minister. Others fell in line subsequently. Rajya Sabha MP and close Priyanka confidant Rajiv Shukla is said to have played a significant role in Dikshit’s selection. The rationale of a well known Brahmin as the Chief Ministerial face and Sanjay Singh, a Rajput as the campaign in-charge was that the Congress should woo upper castes in order to weaken the BJP. It is another matter that if their plan is to succeed they will end up weakening the secular Bahujan Samaj Party, whose supremo Mayawati enjoys the support of the Brahmins.
Political analysts in UP believe that Mayawati is the strongest contender for the position of Chief Minister in the state, with the BJP being her main adversary, since the five-year rule by the Samajwadi Party may have resulted in enormous anti incumbency sentiments. If that is the case, the Congress is already fourth and by hoping to win the polls on the strength of leadership provided by a 78-year-old leader, it is clear that the party has put all its eggs in the wrong basket. Many supporters of the party believe that the Congress may struggle to reach double digits in the 403-member UP Assembly.
Further, it is unclear what kind of a role would be assigned to Priyanka. If Kishor would have had his way, he would have projected her as the Chief Ministerial face, when, in fact, she is still the most potent weapon in the party’s armoury to take on the BJP in the 2019 showdown. It is evident, therefore, that Priyanka would selectively campaign without having any formal role to familiarise herself with the terrain in preparation for the big fight later. On the other hand, Dikshit would hardly be able to cover the sprawling state due to limitations of her age and would just make token appearances at some rallies. Besides, Dikshit would be there to take the flak for the impending defeat. This would clear the decks subsequently for Priyanka to assume a larger profile.
After the party had lost in the 2012 UP elections, Sonia Gandhi had publicly admitted that one of the reasons for the defeat was that there was a lack of an organisational set-up in most places. In the process, she had acknowledged her failure in building the party infrastructure. Little has changed since then and the Congress barely managed to win two seats, Rae Bareli and Amethi, from the country’s largest populous state in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The challenge is to face this election with diminished cadres and very few workers outside the two Gandhi bastions.
Dikshit’s announcement could also create problems for the Congress in Punjab, where Captain Amarinder Singh has been putting pressure on the high command to declare him as the Chief Ministerial face. The party so far has been reluctant, but will have to cave in to his demand if it does not want the situation to deteriorate further. The Aam Aadmi Party has made deep inroads in the state and is emerging as the main challenger to the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP dispensation, which has been in power for the last nine and a half years. It is only Amarinder Singh who can keep the Congress in the fight and if he is denied his claim, he may resort to actions that could have far reaching ramifications for the party not only in the state but also elsewhere.
The Congress is facing enormous problems at other places also and it would be an uphill task to take on the BJP in Uttarakhand and Gujarat next year. Uttarakhand, once again, has been facing nature’s wrath, with landslides and cloudbursts claiming many lives. The relief operations are inadequate and could cost the party dearly. In Gujarat, the AAP is in talks with Hardik Patel and could thus emerge as a formidable force. It appears that the saffron brigade does not expect any threat from the Congress in the Assembly elections next year.