New Delhi: As Rahul Gandhi left for a foreign visit at the end of the year, reportedly to Italy, the Congress spent the last week of 2021 building a plan for 2022.
With five assembly elections at the start of the year, and Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh going to polls towards the end, the Congress is looking to further its ‘Hindu-vs- Hindutvawadi’ pitch against the BJP — as articulated by Rahul on more than one occasion — while also testing Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the party’s general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, as its potential ‘woman face’, senior party leaders told ThePrint.
The other agenda for the party is to bring order to its state units, the leaders said.
The ideas were discussed at meetings the general secretaries in charge of different departments in the party held with their teams, the senior Congress leaders added.
However, while most in the party seem to agree with the push to distinguish between “Hindu and Hindutva”, not all are convinced.
Among the states going to the polls this year — Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh — the Congress is in office in only one, Punjab.
Over the past few months, the Congress has faced significant challenges in the state, with differences between Punjab party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and former CM Captain Amarinder Singh resulting in the latter’s resignation. Amarinder is now contesting the assembly election in alliance with the BJP.
In Uttarakhand, too, former CM Harish Rawat raised concerns about attempts to “bind my hands and feet” ahead of the elections, before the party handed the complete charge of the campaign to him.
In Goa, the Congress emerged as the largest party in the 2017 assembly election, winning 17 seats in the 40-member House, but the BJP eventually formed the government in coalition with two other parties. A series of defections has since left the Congress with 2 MLAs in the state.
A similar turn of events in 2017 led to a BJP-led government in Manipur.
Also Read: Less Rahul & other central leaders, Congress to make Harish Rawat star of Uttarakhand campaign
Priyanka Gandhi the ‘woman face’ of Congress?
Ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections, slated for February-March 2022, the Congress launched the ‘Ladki Hoon, Ladd Sakti Hoon’ campaign in the state, with Priyanka as its face.
This will be the first state election that the party will be fighting with her at the helm. However, while the campaign has been launched for the UP polls, party insiders say electoral gains are not its only aim.
“This is an experiment that we are trying,” said a Congress functionary on the condition of anonymity.
“There is no specific sub-group of women we are trying to target in Uttar Pradesh. But this is an attempt to see how Priyanka is accepted as a woman leader and whether she’s able to hold the female electorate like other women leaders the country has seen, be it Indira Gandhi and Jayalalithaa or Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati,” the functionary added.
“The point is to gauge how women react to her and then see if she can be deployed to influence women in other states where the Congress is strong organisationally.”
Congress spokesperson Gourav Vallabh said Priyanka’s presence on the ground and her “ability to react to conflict head on when confronted with the state machinery of the BJP is what the party is banking on”.
“If you see Priyanka Gandhi’s visit to Hathras or Agra, where she was hounded and even detained by the BJP government, you can see that she was the first person standing against the state machinery,” he told ThePrint. “In fact, there were male leaders of the party with her, but she was protecting them from the police lathis. It was not the other way around.”
Multiple Congress leaders ThePrint spoke to said on the condition of anonymity that Priyanka is a fresh face and a lot more “congenial” than her brother. Many senior leaders, they added, are therefore pushing for her to be given a larger organisational role.
“While the campaign may not show electoral results in Uttar Pradesh, it may give us the clue that similar campaigns with Priyanka as the face may work in states like, say, Karnataka, where the recent local body polls show that the Congress has retained its significant voteshare,” said a Congress MP.
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‘Hindu Vs Hindutvawadi’
The Hindu-vs-Hindutvawadi campaign is a pitch that the Congress is planning to employ in the long term to counter what they call the BJP’s version of an “ideal Hindu”.
In the past month, at Congress rallies in Jaipur and Dehradun, Rahul Gandhi has invoked this pitch.
“In the country’s politics today, there is a competition between two words. One word is ‘Hindu’, the second word is ‘Hindutvawadi’. They are not the same. They are two separate words. And their meanings are also different”, said Gandhi in Jaipur. “I am a Hindu but I am not a Hindutvawadi,” he added.
The party is also planning a targeted social media strategy for 2022 around the same narrative.
“The BJP is working on hatred and narrative-driven politics. Rahul ji has clearly defined the ideological difference between what the BJP thinks is Hinduism and what the Congress thinks is Hinduism,” said Congress social media in-charge Rohan Gupta. “We are going to push this further through trends, live shows, videos etc throughout 2022. It is ideological warfare.”
But there is some level of uncertainty about this approach among some party leaders.
The Congress MP quoted earlier said while the narrative was in line with what many leaders within the party ideologically feel, there was “no method to the madness”.
“I honestly don’t think we will be able to pull any Hindu votes from the other (BJP) side with this narrative. At most, it will convince some fence-sitters,” the MP added. “But the Hindus who do not vote for the BJP will not be convinced to vote for the Congress with such a narrative because they don’t vote as Hindus. Internally, it is not clear who the target group for such a campaign is.”
The Hindu-Hindutva debate was something that political strategist Prashant Kishor had also questioned in an interview to ThePrint.
“At the aggregate level, the BJP has been able to win about 50 per cent Hindu votes on the basis of Hindutva in the last many elections,” Kishor said.
“The other 50 per cent Hindus do not subscribe to the BJP’s definition of Hindu or Hindutva and do not vote as Hindus. I’d rather focus on that section than debating about Hindu and Hindutvawadi.”
However, Sanjay Kumar, co-director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti, said a “soft Hindu” stance may be the need of the hour, not just for the Congress, but any political party that wants to take on the BJP.
“One factor that has worked against the Congress since 2014 is that it was seen as a party that appeases the Muslims or the minorities. On the other hand, wherever the Congress has been faced with a regional challenge, it has lost the Muslim vote to the regional party,” he added.
“Therefore, the Congress has to focus on Hindu votes as well. The biggest change in Indian politics over the last decade has been that now no political party can be seen as ignoring the majority community. The message needs to go that the party is not anti-Hindu.”
‘Opposition unity & bringing order to state units’
The Congress is also concerned with the falling out that it seems to be having with other members of the national Opposition, especially the Trinamool Congress (TMC) — primarily in light of several defections and the Bengal-based party’s expansion plans — and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a rival in Delhi as well as Punjab (AAP was second-largest party in 2017), and also in the upcoming Goa elections.
“Some leaders have said that the party should consider ceding UPA (Congress-led coalition) chairmanship to another party. It is a serious consideration that has been floated. However, a decision is yet to be made,” said a senior Congress leader who is also an MP.
“The Congress’ performance in the upcoming five state elections will probably help in the decision-making process.”
Meanwhile, the party is also trying to combat the threat from other regional parties by trying to strengthen its organisation in state units.
The churn in Congress’ Punjab and Uttarakhand units is said to have prompted this.
A section of the party feels that the results of the Karnataka local polls have proved that having a strong regional leader helming state units, and making all the decisions, is the best way forward for the party.
“We need leaders like (Karnataka Congress chief) D.K. Shivakumar in all our state units. In the places where the Congress has fallen to third or fourth place, there is a need to come back to second place or at least form an alliance with the party in second place,” said the first Congress MP quoted above. “However, the high command is having a tough time negotiating the ambitions of regional leaders.”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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