Priyanka could energise Congress cadres, but can she take on the might of a united SP-BSP alliance?
Brahmastra is the fireball that can destroy the world. It is the weapon of last resort. It’s taken out when you have nothing else left. Bring out the Brahmastra, or face certain death.
Priyanka Gandhi has long been called the Congress party’s Brahmastra. She’s finally been used because the Congress was facing certain death in Uttar Pradesh. After the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s formidable alliance in the state, the Congress looked like a non-factor. Uttar Pradesh appeared to be a bipolar contest for the first time since 1985.
Making Priyanka Gandhi the general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh will help re-energise Congress party workers not just in UP but across the country. Particularly happy will be the Allahabad unit of the Congress, which has often openly demanded that Priyanka Gandhi be launched in politics.
Apart from keeping up the morale of the party workers and sympathisers, Priyanka’s entry has a novelty that will make sure the Congress does not go out of the discussion in Uttar Pradesh. The media will rush from Delhi and Lucknow to Deoria and Lalganj to figure out if the Priyanka factor is working for the Congress. “Is Priyanka making a difference?” will be a question asked on a daily basis. The hype alone will make sure the Congress doesn’t look like it’s over in UP.
Yet, it is unlikely that Priyanka Gandhi’s entry in politics will change the party’s fortunes overnight. Its seats will likely remain in single digits. Here’s why.
1. Three-cornered contest?
But can Priyanka Gandhi in east UP (along with Jyotiraditya Scindia in west UP) actually make Uttar Pradesh a three-cornered contest? For now, that seems unlikely.
The caste arithmetic is such that the Congress is not even in the race in 75 of the 80 seats. Voters who are even inclined to consider the Congress will see that the Congress is not in a position to actually win the seat. Winnability will be either with the BJP or with the SP-BSP-RLD combine. This is particularly true of Muslim voters. Unless the Congress can create a perception of winnability, Muslim voters won’t desert the SP-BSP, Priyanka Gandhi notwithstanding.
For those who are unhappy with both the BJP and the SP-BSP, Priyanka will make the Congress look like a respectable third option. This could help the Congress end up with a respectable vote-share but not a great strike rate in terms of seats.
2. National versus regional?
By launching Priyanka Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Congress will hope to make the Lok Sabha election in UP national in character, therefore de-emphasising the SP-BSP alliance. This is how the Congress surprised itself by winning 21 of the 80 seats in 2009. To counter the SP-BSP alliance, the Congress has been harping on its 2009 performance. But 2009 was a four-cornered contest and UPA 1 was fairly popular with NREGA and a farm loan waiver scheme. The Congress had dumped the SP’s offer of a pre-poll alliance and the BJP was very weak.
2019 is not 2009, but who knows Priyanka may be able to help project her party as the main national competitor of the BJP and thereby win a few surprise seats?
In case, the Congress adds to this surprise move by making Priyanka Gandhi contest Varanasi against Narendra Modi, it could change this election nationally and give a serious fillip to the Congress’ chances in UP.
The damage will, at best, be minimal.
3. Brahmins for Priyanka?
It is said that the Congress is favoured by Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh. Could Priyanka Gandhi’s entry attract Brahmins towards the Congress once again? This could help earn some Brahmin votes especially since the politics of the state is seen as being dominated by Thakurs, the chief minister’s caste.
Yet the Brahmin attraction towards the Congress is often exaggerated. Most Brahmins are also deeply into Hindutva politics and the Congress is an option only when the BJP is weak.
In the Phulpur bypoll last year, the Congress put up a Brahmin candidate, Manish Mishra, who won less than 20,000 votes. The joint SP-BSP candidate won 3.42 lakh votes. This is Phulpur, Jawaharlal Nehru’s seat!
Should Brahmins shift to the Congress in a big way, that will mostly hurt the BJP and help the SP-BSP, but not convert into seats for the Congress.
4. OBCs for Priyanka?
It is possible the Congress could pull a surprise by making a big pitch for the OBC or even Dalit votes in UP. Priyanka Gandhi could, in that case, be part of a larger, long-term plan to revive the Congress in UP.
This could be reflected in not just the party’s choice of candidates but also its campaign promises. Should the Congress do something radical like backing 52 per cent quota for the OBCs, it could begin to seriously hurt the SP-BSP alliance.
OBCs other than Yadavs have been sticking with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh since 2014. Now, thanks to anti-incumbency and disenchantment with an upper caste chief minister, OBCs could shift to the SP-BSP alliance. Even a small shift of non-Yadav OBCs could be fatal for the BJP on a large number of seats.
If the Congress comes in the way of that process, it will help the BJP survive the onslaught of the SP-BSP alliance. Will it take a risk that big? Unlikely.