Lucknow: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s more hands-on role in the Uttar Pradesh Congress doesn’t seem to have had any effect in its electoral fortunes.
The Congress remains a bit-part player in the electorally largest state in the country, and in the seven recent by-elections to the UP assembly, its candidates lost deposits on four seats. It garnered just 7.53 per cent vote-share, but did finish second on two seats, Bangarmau and Ghatampur, while in Tundla, its candidate’s nomination papers were rejected.
Notably, Priyanka Gandhi, like most top leaders from opposition parties, did not campaign in these bypolls, something that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP did in every constituency.
Priyanka, the Congress’ general secretary in-charge of UP, hasn’t been to the state unit’s Lucknow headquarters since December 2019, and has visited the state just twice since then — once in February to meet activists injured in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in Azamgarh, and once in October to meet the family of the Dalit woman allegedly gang-raped and murdered in Hathras.
Numerous reports surfaced this year that Priyanka would shift to a house in Lucknow that belonged to late Congress leader Sheila Kaul, at a time when the Centre had asked her family to vacate the government accommodation provided to it. But that didn’t happen, and now, party workers are feeling disappointed after the bypoll results.
Several Congress leaders have told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity that the high command’s lack of active participation in UP has led to a strange situation where the communication gap is even bigger than before.
‘Work from home’ mode
A senior UP Congress leader said: “Amid the coronavirus pandemic, she did interact with some party officials through video conferencing, but no direct communication with the common workers has been possible. If a repeat of the electoral debacle faced by the party during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is to be avoided, then it is time to come out of ‘work from home’ mode.”
UP Congress chief Ajay Kumar Lallu, however, chose to look on the bright side. “The Congress finished as the runner-up on two seats, and No. 3 on one seat. Our vote percentage has also gone up. We have been visibly active as main opposition party in the state. So, it would be wrong to say that the Congress has not become any stronger since Priyanka ji entered the state’s politics.”
He added, “The Congress has been constantly fighting against the BJP government. We will surely learn the right lessons from these by-election results and will plan ahead and work hard.”
During the lockdown, Priyanka Gandhi seemed to be in what the anonymous leader quoted above called ‘work from home’ mode. She wrote a letter to the UP government offering transportation to bring migrant labourers home, which led to the ‘bus controversy’. FIRs were lodged against Priyanka’s personal secretary Sandeep Singh and Ajay Lallu, and the UP Congress chief even spent 26 days in jail.
Priyanka posed several questions to the Yogi Adityanath government on the issues of low level of Covid testing as well as the law and order situation in UP. But all this was on Twitter.
BJP spokesperson Dr Chandramohan said: “Both Priyanka Gandhi and (Samajwadi Party chief) Akhilesh Yadav are leaders only on Twitter. This is why BJP has remained at the forefront. Modi ji and Yogi ji are strong everywhere, from the ground level to social media.”
Series of exits due to ‘prevailing atmosphere’
Priyanka Gandhi was appointed as Congress’ in-charge just prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But the poll results came as a blow, because not only did the Congress get reduced to one seat in UP — Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli — Priyanka’s brother and party president Rahul Gandhi lost from the stronghold of Amethi.
After the disastrous results, the UP Congress leadership was sacked, with president and former actor Raj Babbar being replaced by then-Congress Legislature Party leader Lallu, well-known as a combative politician.
Lallu soon launched a series of agitations against the Yogi government, and with his 26 days in jail for the bus row, the party certainly looks increasingly active on the streets. However, an ‘old versus new’ controversy is simmering inside the UP Congress.
Senior leader and former Unnao MP Annu Tandon recently quit the Congress, citing the growing communication gap and a “depressing atmosphere” in the party. Shashank Shukla, one of the Congress’ all-India general secretaries, also joined the SP, after being denied a ticket for the by-election in Bangarmau.
Aditi Singh, an MLA from Rae Bareli considered close to the Gandhi family, has also taken up a rebellious attitude. Other senior leaders like Sanjay Singh from Amethi, former Pratapgarh MP Ratna Singh, and many heavyweight leaders who had joined from other parties before the Lok Sabha elections have also left the Congress. All of them have cited the Congress’ dismal situation as the reason for their exit.
Former Youth Congress leader Ankit Parihar, who recently joined the Samajwadi Party, said: “It was very difficult to work in the prevailing atmosphere in the UP Congress. I was appointed as its general secretary, but I decided to quit the party because the entire organisation is in the grip of Leftists. The common worker has no say there; not every worker’s voice reaches Priyanka Gandhi’s ears. No one pays any attention there.”
‘We should openly discuss mistakes’
Another anonymous senior Congress leader said the debacle of these bypolls should be reviewed in front of Priyanka Gandhi.
“We should openly discuss as to where and why the mistakes took place. If the party still does not come out of its slumber, then the results in 2022 (assembly elections) will be just like 2017 (when the party won just seven seats),” the leader said.
“We still have 14 months to prepare. We will have to pay special attention to local leaders with a strong base, and Priyanka Gandhi ji will have to personally monitor the entire campaign while being present in Lucknow. Otherwise Congress’ ‘achhe din’ (good times) will never come in UP,” the leader warned.