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Lessons from UP Priyanka put to use in Himachal — ‘rebel management’, no naming PM, women’s issues

Another takeaway was importance of understanding bipolar campaign, thereby not attacking rivals but making space for Congress. Focus was on winnability during ticket distribution.

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New Delhi: The Congress’ victory in Himachal Pradesh, which ended its three-year losing streak in assembly elections, came as a shot in the arm for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, whose leadership and organisational skills were under scanner after the disastrous show in the Uttar Pradesh polls in March.
The woman-centric campaign of the general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh had failed miserably then, with the Congress tally coming down from 7 to two in India’s politically most important state.
According to members of her team, Priyanka, who was the Congress face in the just-ended Himachal campaign, used lessons from the failed outing in the hill state.
The first lesson was the importance of understanding a bipolar campaign, thereby not attacking the opposition but “making space for the Congress”.
“If you notice, she had not mentioned the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in any of her campaign speeches. There was also no direct mention of PM Modi. A mistake in UP was trying to make a bipolar campaign tripolar. The focus this time was on positive campaigning and, therefore, raising the issues of OPS (old pension scheme), unemployment, and women,” a member of team Priyanka told ThePrint.
In her first rally, while promising to bring back the OPS and guaranteeing one lakh jobs to the youth, Priyanka harped back to her grandmother Indira Gandhi’s legacy and the role of the former PM in Himachal’s statehood.
“Indira Gandhi wanted her ashes to be placed in the Himalayas as well. When you look around the snow-clad peaks, you will realise that Indira Gandhi is also a part of it,” Priyanka had said.
Another important learning from UP, which saw Congress leaders quit and switch sides before the polls ostensibly because they were unhappy with team Priyanka, was the importance of “rebel management”.
Given that the BJP’s factionalism was one of the reasons for the ruling party losing the polls, this tactic came handy. Another strategic move was bringing in Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel, a senior leader with heft, to mediate between sparring leaders instead of Priyanka being the go to person.

Priyanka was clued-in to what was happening

A Congress functionary, who was involved in the Himachal campaign, told ThePrint that after the initial exercise of setting up the team and working with Baghel and state poll in-charge Rajiv Shukla to decide on strategy, Priyanka did not involve herself in the political management, though she would be clued-in to what was happening.
“Baghel had the seniority to scold or seek accountability from local leaders. He was also senior enough to mediate and placate state-level leaders in case of factional fights or rebellions after ticket distribution,” the functionary added.
There was also more focus on “winnability” during ticket distribution which Priyanka had accepted went wrong in UP.
“At least four surveys were conducted and an independent firm was roped in to conduct them,” said the functionary from Priyanka’s team, claiming that the first survey showed the Congress was in a position to win approximately 24 seats with 38 per cent vote share.
According to the Election Commission’s final numbers, the Congress won 40 seats in the 68-member assembly with a vote share of 43.9 per cent.
Even as some concessions still had to be made to accommodate factional groups, the ticket distribution was done largely based on winnability data from this survey. While Priyanka camped in the hill state for about 3 weeks in the run-up to the elections, as opposed to the nearly 2 months she had spent in UP, her involvement in the Himachal polls was evident since May.
For example, after the Chintan Shivir and embarrassing losses in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress decided to appoint one AICC secretary for each district in Himachal in preparation for the polls. There were 12 secretaries in all, of which one-third were from Priyanka’s team in Uttar Pradesh.
According to party sources, the initial team-building was also done by her. It is learnt that Rajiv Shukla, a leader from Uttar Pradesh, was appointed state in-charge for Himachal on her recommendation. Baghel, known to be on good terms with Priyanka, was thereafter appointed as senior poll observer with Sachin Pilot, also close to Priyanka, as his deputy.
While both Baghel and Shukla were instrumental in gathering resources for the polls, the party’s communication and social media teams were largely handled by Baghel’s political advisor and former journalist Vinod Verma. The AICC secretaries chipped in in the form of customising content and literature for their districts.
In the weeks before the Himachal election, Priyanka held multiple rallies in Solan, Nagrota, Harauli, Shillai and Mandi. The Congress has won handsomely in all these areas.
“Heartfelt thanks and greetings to the people of Himachal Pradesh for giving mandate to the Indian National Congress. This victory is the victory of the resolution of the people of Himachal for the issues and progress. Many best wishes to all the leaders and workers of the Congress party. Your hard work paid off,” Priyanka tweeted after the results.
She will be closely involved in the selection of the state’s next CM as well, ThePrint has learnt.

The Congress’ New ‘Woman Face’

In the first meeting of the Congress’ Steering Committee after the election of new party president Mallikarjun Kharge, it was decided that Priyanka will lead Mahila marches in all state capitals next year in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
It is a role that Priyanka has been positioning herself for since UP, where she ran an albeit unsuccessful campaign on the ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon’ slogan. The party’s entire campaign was on the back of women’s issues and 40 per cent poll tickets were allotted to women.
In Himachal too, some imprints of her UP campaign could be seen, for example, the promise of Rs 1,500 income support for women and the Har Ghar Lakshmi Abhiyan — a door-to-door programme specifically to contact women.
In the past, some of Priyanka’s political decisions have been detrimental for the party. For example, in Punjab, her insistence on siding with Navjot Sidhu over incumbent CM Amarinder Singh was one of the reasons that led to the Congress’ embarrassing defeat to the AAP.
She has also been criticised for insisting on sending three leaders from Uttar Pradesh — Rajiv Shukla, Pramod Tiwari and Imran Pratapgarhi — to the Rajya Sabha when many would say it made no strategic sense given the party had only two MLAs from UP and thereby no stake in the state.
Four  years after she took the plunge into politics, the Himachal polls are being projected by the Congress leaders as her first major achievement.
(Edited by V. S. Chandrasekar)

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