The Congress’ preparations for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections appear to have run into rough weather, with at least eight of its sitting MLAs seeking tickets from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. At present, the Congress has a strength of 29 MLAs in the 403-member Lower House of the country’s most populous state that has elected eight Prime Ministers until now.
Sources said that six MLAs of the party were negotiating with the BJP, while two others were engaged in parleys with the BSP. Political pundits expect that the UP electoral battle would be primarily between Mayawati’s BSP and the BJP, which has 71 MPs from there. The Samajwadi Party, which formed the government in 2012 following a landslide victory where its nominees secured 229 seats, is facing a huge anti incumbency factor and is also trying to fight the perception of worsening law and order in the state.
In an unusual move, the Congress had sounded its poll bugle last month itself by declaring septuagenarian former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as its CM face in UP, after strategist Prashant Kishor was able to impress upon the high command the necessity to have a Brahmin mascot in the election. To begin with, Dikshit’s name was endorsed by both Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and subsequently Rahul also backed her candidacy. It must be noted that initially Rahul favoured a younger person to be projected as the CM and seemed inclined towards Jitin Prasada, son of the late Jitendra Prasada, former political adviser to Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao.
A source close to a Muslim MLA seeking a BSP ticket stated that contesting the polls on the Congress platform was much more of an arduous task than contesting as an independent. “The mood is against the party and there is neither any infrastructure nor the finances in any segment of the state. Only those candidates would be in the fight who have their own resources. In such a scenario where is the wisdom of being a flag bearer of the grand old party, which would struggle to reach even double digits in the Assembly polls?”
Another MLA commented that it was not going to be easy to ward off the twin challenges of Samajwadi Party’s muscle power and the electoral potential of the BSP. He said that some of the local party leaders were also in touch with former Congressmen, who on the eve of the 2014 Parliamentary polls joined the BJP. Jagdambika Pal, former Chief Minister and erstwhile Congress leader, who is currently a BJP MP from UP, is believed to be much sought after as a facilitator for the entry of potential Congress winners into the BJP.
Sources said that Dikshit had been offered a choice of three constituencies to contest the polls. However, she is reluctant to enter the fray knowing full well that when she could not win from her home turf of New Delhi despite being the CM for three terms, how could she be victorious in a state she has been out of touch with for so many years. The charge against Dikshit is that she never cared to visit UP even for a short time while she was the CM of adjoining Delhi.
Dikshit is not the only one who is hesitant to get into the heat and dust of UP politics. If sources are to be believed, other top leaders like Raj Babbar, the PCC chief; Nirmal Khatri, the screening committee boss; Sanjay Singh, chairman of the campaign committee; former ministers in the UPA government and many erstwhile office bearers of the Congress were actively resisting pressure to fight the polls.
There was momentary enthusiasm amongst the cadres who flocked in big numbers to Lucknow to greet Dikshit soon after the Congress became the first to get off the blocks in July. A Congress leader, well versed with the style of functioning of his party, stated that the activists gathered at the state capital to gauge whether the CM nominee indeed had the support of the high command. Secondly and more significantly, the permutation and calculation of some was that if the Congress leadership was involved directly in the UP polls, the money disbursed to nominees would also be huge—somewhere near Rs 1 Crore per candidate. This would enable them to save most of the sanctioned amount after securing the nomination, since the chances of winning in any case were going to be bleak.
There is also a growing resentment against Prashant Kishor in the party. Many see him as an agent of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, since he appears determined to make him the principal opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 showdown. Evidently, Nitish Kumar’s future projection would be at the cost of the Congress and by entrusting the poll strategy to Kishor in Uttar Pradesh, the party high command has inadvertently ensured that it stands nowhere.
Another sign of the low Congress morale in Uttar Pradesh can be gauged by the informal indications being expressed by the ticket aspirants. Most of them want Priyanka to lead the campaign and have conveyed it to the leadership directly as well as obliquely that Rahul Gandhi’s presence on the campaign trail should be minimal. A handful of Congress leaders also believe as well as feel that Sonia Gandhi’s road show in Varanasi, where she also happened to fall ill, was not an accurate way of measuring the mood in the state. There was a mammoth crowd during the road show due to the fact that it passed through areas comprising a huge minority population. The crowd was desirous of seeing Sonia Gandhi and at the same time wanted to a convey a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected from there, that it was high time that some sort of development should at least be initiated in the constituency. However, the presence of such surging numbers in no way reflected support for the Congress, as the Muslims in UP would vote like the Muslims elsewhere. In other words, their vote would be cast in favour of any candidate who would trounce the BJP, and that said, the Congress is not likely to be the party to do so in 2017.