The Congress party’s electoral strategy for Uttar Pradesh seems to be evolving every day. It might continue to evolve until the day before polling, or if I may say so, on polling day itself. For it is clear, the appointment of key strategist Prashant Kishor, with a 100 per cent strike rate, is not enough for the faction ridden, patron-client relationship model that the party thrives upon. The prospect of Priyanka Gandhi saving the old and not so grand party from repeated electoral debacles seems dim. If she indeed is the trump card that the Congress is trying hard to conceal, then the party would not be fishing for an alliance with the Samajwadi Party, whose internal feuds are bound to cause problems for ensuring a second term. Neither does Mayawati seem like a reliable option. For Madam is struggling to keep her flock together and prevent further defections to the BJP. Neither is the BJP sitting pretty in UP, where it might need a great deal of cajoling and wooing, as many are not ready to forgive the party for the loss of jobs and cash crunch caused by demonetisation. The impact of demonetisation has not fully kicked in and a few more months of cashless existence are bound to cripple the farmer in the villages or the masons employed in different cities across the country. Several political pundits have already written off the Congress in the UP 2017 elections, with or without Priyanka Gandhi. Who will get the crown in 2017 is an immature question, considering the campaign has not formally been launched and demonetisation is unfolding each day, which is bound to change the situation on the ground. However, despite the khaat sabhas, promises of loan waivers and farmer relief, along with the promise of secularism, the Congress is still struggling to chalk out a strategy and is fishing for an alliance. The question is why does the party continue to remain irrelevant in Uttar Pradesh?
For one, the Congress vice-president’s declaration on the 132nd foundation day of the Congress that the Prime Minister’s policies are failing the people of this country is not cutting much ice. Accusing the current government of instilling fear in people’s mind reflects the Congress vice-president’s lack of understanding of the marketing strategy of the current government. The government’s schemes for unearthing black money despite its pitfalls, are a means to show that it is serious about the issue even if the means and the amount may be way below our expectations. The Congress is at pains to explain exactly how this is happening. Although one cannot doubt that the failings of the government may be out there, but the Congress has not been able to tap that valuable resource. The suit-boot jibe is losing its depth and slowly its substance. The party’s handling of the charges of corruption in the UPA 2 regime is very shabby. It ducks the question of its own corruption, while calling demonetisation the biggest scam of independent India. Either the Congress thinks that the voter today is naïve or lacks political astuteness. The corruption allegations are some of the fundamental weaknesses of the Congress strategy today, as the faces accused of financial bungling continue to hold key posts in the party. Nor is the party ready to admit mistakes, and to a common man, this reeks of arrogance. Compared to the image that the BJP-led government has been able to build in the eyes of the people as a scam-free government, the Congress allegations seem hollow. It needs to address the question of its own corruption. Indira Gandhi, the late matriarch of the party also admitted to the possibility of the excesses under the nasbandi scheme during Emergency.
Although the past few months have shown that “the Family” is changing, the change is not immediately apparent. Rahul Gandhi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have been more forthcoming as far as the media is concerned or to put their message out there. The interview of the Congress president with India Today was unprecedented and unexpected. She spoke when no one expected her to. However, the changes are cosmetic, even if they are a digression from the trend, for it would take more effort than just interviews for the party to get a grip on itself. The realisation that other Opposition parties are important, especially the Trinamool Congress, the faction ridden Samajwadi Party, the one-man army Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the Bahujan Samaj Party has come too late, and little can be reaped from this show of brotherhood between the Congress and these parties. For the opposition to the government and its policies may unite them, yet the Congress is fighting these very parties that have eaten into its votes in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Yet the need for an alliance in Uttar Pradesh is strongly felt as the Congress needs the SP more this time than it ever did, even more than the trying times of the nuclear deal. Even though the Congress looks to make some gains in Punjab and actually wrest power from the corrupt Akalis, Uttar Pradesh is politically a more important state. A resurrection in UP even as a minor alliance partner will pay dividends for the party at the national level. The workers at the state level are bound to be energised, especially since Congress workers in Uttar Pradesh are few and thus precious. Moreover, the party would gain some ground level support and some organisational power, which it completely lacks at the moment. That realisation has dawned and those leading the UP campaign are in desperate need for an alliance with the Samajwadi Party. The Congress aligning with the SP is bound to work in favour of the BJP as the party would gain from exposing both partners during and after the elections. The Congress could gain from the SP’s ground level support, which it lacks. For there is no other mantra, given the time the Congress has for the party to be hopeful to go beyond 10-12 seats.
The suit-boot jibe is losing its depth and slowly its substance. The party’s handling of the charges of corruption in the UPA 2 regime is very shabby. It ducks the question of its own corruption.
The SP’s feud promises to be a bumpy ride for the bicycle symbol, for several parallel candidate lists are bound to create confusion in its ranks and hamper the party’s chances of coming back to power.
Moreover, the uncle-bhanja internal feud had to be tackled before the party could even look at an alliance. An aging Mulayam Yadav would not be able to rein in his brother and trim his political ambitions and neither is his son ready to cow down. If Akhilesh Yadav is to play a smart political game of coming back, yet distancing himself from the infamous elements in the party, it will only work as long there is no confusion at the ground level. For the Congress, it needs to go beyond the suit-boot jibe, the promise of loan waiver for its message to reach the smallest qasbah in Uttar Pradesh. It needs to offer something more substantial to the voter.