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Why Priyanka Gandhi can be BJP’s best friend in 2019 Lok Sabha elections

The Congress strategy seems to be aimed not so much at defeating the BJP as denying the SP-BSP alliance a victory in Uttar Pradesh.

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The Congress is desperately trying to shoot itself in the foot. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry into politics and her Ganga yatra from Prayagraj to Varanasi is but the latest example of that. It is true that her appointment as the Congress’s general secretary in charge of eastern UP has enthused Congress party workers. She has also drawn considerable crowds and is likely to garner a sizeable number of votes for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.

However, the question worth pondering over is: Does this serve the Congress’ principal objective, which is to prevent the BJP from returning to power after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? The obvious answer is no. A resurgent Congress party in UP, especially if the resurgence is likely to have limited impact, could, in fact, pave the way for PM Narendra Modi’s victory. Trend analyses and electoral arithmetic indicate that UP, with its 80 Lok Sabha seats, will decide the fate of the Modi government.

Priyanka Gandhi’s entry and the Congress party’s decision to contest most of the seats in UP alone are more than likely to tilt the balance in the BJP’s favour. These twin decisions will do so by cutting into the support for the SP-BSP alliance in UP, since the alliance and the Congress have overlapping political bases in the state. Given the disastrous performance of the Yogi Adityanath government in UP and the impact of demonetisation, GST, unemployment, farmers’ distress and deteriorating law and order situation on the voters, it was reasonable to expect that in the absence of the Congress-Priyanka factor, the BJP’s share of seats would have been cut to half to about 35 or 40. The SP-BSP combine was expected to pick up the remainder. Priyanka Gandhi’s entry has put this calculation in grave jeopardy.

Also read: BJP has a poll strategy for Priyanka Gandhi — ignore her

The Congress strategy seems to be aimed not so much at defeating the BJP as denying the SP-BSP alliance victory in UP as revenge for the latter’s refusal to accommodate the Congress in the alliance. Had the Congress been sincere about preventing the BJP’s return to power and certain that Priyanka Gandhi’s charisma would make a difference to the outcome in UP, it would have put her up, in consultation with the SP-BSP combine, as the opposition’s joint candidate from Varanasi while eschewing three-cornered contests in the rest of UP. This would have made the Varanasi contest a high-profile and high-stakes fight with broader implications for the UP elections without detracting from the SP-BSP alliance’s chances of attracting votes in the rest of the state.

Furthermore, it would have tied down Prime Minister Modi to his constituency, thus reducing his capacity to campaign across the country for BJP candidates. The current scenario of three-cornered contests in UP, with the Congress unlikely to gain more than a handful of seats, is tailor-made for a BJP victory not only in the state but in the country as a whole.

But this is not the end of the story. Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment as Congress general secretary has played into the BJP’s hands by reinforcing the image that the Congress is not only a dynastic party but also that the dynasty wants to maintain its control of the party well into the future since Priyanka Gandhi has children and Rahul does not. Priyanka Gandhi’s physical similarity to Indira Gandhi is also a mixed blessing. While it does endow her with some charisma, it also reminds the older generation of the excesses committed by Indira Gandhi, like the Emergency. The subaltern castes and minorities in UP bore the brunt of these excesses. They were also largely responsible for her humiliating defeat in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections. It is, therefore, imprudent to believe that everyone is enamoured by Priyanka Gandhi’s resemblance to her grandmother. It could cut both ways.

Priyanka Gandhi also carries a great deal of negative baggage in the form of her husband Robert Vadra because of his alleged involvement in land scams. Whether proven or not, most people believe that Vadra has been involved in shady deals and thus amassed ill-gotten wealth. Now that she has entered politics, Vadra’s negative image has made Priyanka Gandhi fair game for her husband’s detractors. This has further played into the hands of the BJP’s troll army, whose primary goal is to demean the Gandhi family and the Congress party.

Also read: Priyanka Gandhi can be to Congress what Sunil Gavaskar was for India in West Indies

A footnote: Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala also defies political rationality. If he needed to stand for a second seat in the south he should have chosen a constituency in Karnataka that would have pitted him directly against a BJP candidate. Standing against the Left Front in Kerala sends the wrong message for several reasons.

One, it denotes that he is too afraid to take on the BJP even in a southern constituency. Two, it signals that he is looking for a safe seat because he is apprehensive that he will lose Amethi to BJP’s Smriti Irani. Three, although the Congress-led UDF is pitted against the Left Front in Kerala, inducting a heavyweight outsider like Rahul Gandhi into the battle is an unwarranted slap on the Left’s face. This is especially unwise since the Congress will need the Left parties as allies to form a government in New Delhi in case the BJP-led NDA falls short of a majority.

Also read: Modi created India’s north-south divide, Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad will unite them

Taken together all these decisions signal that there is a serious lack of strategic thinking within the Congress leadership. This shortfall could bring the BJP back to power in New Delhi, thus subverting the Congress Party’s principal objective.

The author is the University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington DC.

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  1. Indira Gandhi’s favourite excuse, whenever something went wrong, was to blame the “foreign hand”. Congress and its dwindling legion of supporters, is already looking for reasons for its impending defeat, it’s updated version of “foreign hand”.

  2. Why all thug bandhan allies are acting against national interest like poverty, infra structures and farm distress? What they did when they were in power, corruption, more corruption and appeasement of minority but no development projects. Why they just wants to please one minority at the cost of majority? They actively pursue policy of divide and rule instead treating all citizens equally.

  3. Yes the Congress wants to beat the BJP, but not by commenting suicide. Firstly, it needs to survive as a national party. She, it needs to be the largest party in Parliament amongst all the non-BJP parties. To achieve both of these it needs to put in a great performance in UP. No party can claim to be a national party without a significant presence in UP. So the Congress strategy is understandable in the light of what it needs to do for its own future as opposed to the simplistic objective of beating the BJP.

  4. The author is singling out Congress because of its vote share in UP, which is less than SP-BSP, so according to him the minor vote bank partner should sacrifice to the larger vote bank partner in interest of anti-modi/BJP combine.

    I am not endorsing this, but just explaining for other commenters who has said “why only Congress, and not sp/bsp”

  5. SP-BSP combine had ignored Congress while they stitched the alliance in the first place. Hence Congress is left high and dry to work on its own. One cannot expect Congress to sit quiet and watch SP-BSP combine to score a victory over Modi. It is, in fact, doing its best to work its own future. If SP-BSP lose seats because of this they cannot blame Congress. Because they can’t have both – ignore Congress and blame it too for the results. If SP-BSP fail to get the desired seats and allow advantage to Modi to get what he wants then it should be the former which should be blamed. Because they should have had enough sagacity to include Congress while making the alignment. Rather they were too arrogant to ignore Congress for which they should pay heavily. The final results are nobody’s guess.

    • Not only in UP,why Mayavathi is setting up candidates all over India? It appears that for her Congress is the bigger enimy or adversory as you want to put. I am raly amused to see why , for example, she put up a cndidate in Hardwar, Utharkhand?Only to defeat congress.The motive or reasons behind her conduct is beyond comprahension.ED,IT, CBI?

  6. I tried find out who this Mohammed Ayoob . I do not know if he is the same “Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington, DC, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University.” although frm the pencil sketch and photograph it appears so.
    He may be right. Not intentionaly but unwittingly Priyanka may be BJP’s best friend. But the bizare part is tha he claims the Congress for it.Is he not aware that Congress was rejected best efforts on its part to join the alliance. not withstanding its best efforts.What does Mr. Ayub expect Congress to do? to pack up, desolve the party unit and go home.The onus is Congress’s as much as on Myavathi akhilesh to keep BJP out. A minor gesture from mayavathi Akhilesh part wouldn’t have created this problem.Over and above Ayoob sugrests that Priyanka should contest against Modi so that mayavathi and akhilesh can sabotage and she can sit back at home(Even now the possibility of Priyanka contesting from varanassi can not be ruled out an din fact i would welcom it if if she can be protected from treachery)
    Well my answer to professor Ayoob is this. i am more concerned about BJP’s return to power more than you. And personally you have no problem because you are protected by teh system there where as i am exposed the Sangh depredators. still iwould trust dongress more than Mayavathi or akhiles, who, how can you assure me will not join BJP in a later .After all it was the same Akhilesh mayavathi duo that you saw in Bangalore last May. Congress has taken the best decision. Handfull of seats if they so good. If not we in India will suffer.If so sobe it. Please don’t sermonise. i agree and accept the fact that you are great accademcian. But don’t be supercillious and biased

  7. Is the writer holding a brief for the SSP _BSP alliance or for BJP? Some of his criticism against Congress can certainly be questioned. When Mr.Narendra Modi can fight from two places why not Rahul Gandhi ? As far whether Karnataka would be suitable or Kerala ,let us leave it to the wisdom of the Congress party.

  8. The same applies to Maya and Akhilesh. If they were sincere about defeating BJP, they could have accomodated congress by giving some respectful share. I think this is a long term game. Country survived 5 years or Modi and can survive 5 more but its important for congress to revitalize and strengthening UP is essential.

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