Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics shows the Congress still has the capacity to dare. It will boost the morale of its workers, seek to wean away the upper caste supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and entice Muslims to its fold. Priyanka is charismatic and should, therefore, at least on paper, have a cross-community appeal in the era of caste and religious polarisation. She will certainly strike a chord among women and the young.
The decision of India’s grand old party to make her general secretary for Uttar Pradesh East conveys a message that the Gandhis want their home state to become their political citadel, as it had been for decades, as Gujarat is for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This may or may not happen in 2019, but it is certainly their plan for the future.
From this perspective, the Congress understands that its existential crisis stems from its weaknesses in North India. Its victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan mean the party does not have to target the entire North for political recovery. For the next five years at least, the Congress can concentrate its energies on Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where it had been reduced to irrelevance. This explains its decision to field Priyanka, touted as the party’s biggest gun in its armoury, just three months before the Lok Sabha elections.
However, there could be negative fallouts, as well. For instance, Modi will claim, in a more stentorian tone, that the Congress is a dynastic party. But Modi has been flinging throwing this charge around for months now, even before Priyanka’s surprise entry into politics. It can’t damage the Congress any further. If anything, Modi’s focus on Priyanka will only enhance her importance.
Some believe the Priyanka factor, even though its efficacy is still to be tested, will prompt the government to speed up the investigation into the alleged dubious land deals of her husband and businessman, Robert Vadra. With Priyanka in politics now, any action against Vadra will seem a desperate method to malign and neutralise her appeal. It just might trigger a sympathy wave for Priyanka. Her entry, therefore, is not only astutely timed, but also suggests that the Opposition no longer fears Modi as it did, say, two years ago.
Obviously, Priyanka will have an echo across Uttar Pradesh, not just in Uttar Pradesh East, of which she has been made in charge. The reason behind assigning her the region is to send a signal to Brahmins, who are not only numerous there but also dominant because of their large land holdings. Uttar Pradesh’s Brahmins have been restive under the chief ministership of Yogi Adityanath and view his rule as the rule of Rajputs. The rivalry between Rajputs and Brahmins is proverbial, though they do combine whenever there is a challenge to the upper caste hegemony.
In this sense, the Priyanka card is a counter to the Modi government’s decision to reserve 10 percent quota for the economically weaker sections, essentially a caste-neutral code for the upper castes. They have been the nucleus of the BJP’s support, but a substantial percentage of them did switch their vote to the Congress in the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The 10 percent quota was designed to check their desertion from the BJP.
Priyanka’s entry is aimed at tempting the Brahmins to return to the Congress. The Gandhi-Nehru family has a Brahmin identity. The community, too, has had a history of identification with the family. It is this old relationship with the Brahmins that the Congress wishes to rekindle — remember, for instance, how Congress president Rahul Gandhi was projected as a ‘janeudhari Brahmin’.
But Brahmins, as a social group, have their own interests to protect. This is ensured through their support to the BJP, though they are said to be restive now. Why should they then ditch the BJP for the Congress? This is where Uttar Pradesh East matters. Priyanka’s responsibility of Uttar Pradesh East would also include the state’s central region. It is in the region carved out for her that the Congress has a set of relatively strong leaders, regardless of whether they are Brahmins. Think RPN Singh, LaliteshPatiTripathi, Ajay Rai, Sanjay Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi (or will it be Priyanka?). Will Phulpur and Allahabad, both associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family, sing a different tune this time because of Priyanka?
Memory matters in politics. Even though the Congress never stood a good chance of performing well in Uttar Pradesh for over two decades, it still managed to get a chunk of Brahmin votes. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, according to the data of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 11 percent of Brahmins voted for the Congress. After the BJP, it is usually the second most favoured party of the community. In 2009, the Congress polled 31 percent of Brahmin votes. Then again, in the 2009 Assembly elections, it had polled the second highest votes among Brahmins — 19 percent. It was, however, the fourth favourite in 2007, but still bagged 13 percent of the votes.
It is also true that the decision of the Samajwadi Party and the BahujanSamaj Party to exclude the Congress from the alliance prompted the party to bring Priyanka into the battlefield. There are 28 Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh East. It is thought that the SP-BSP alliance could, on the basis of caste arithmetic, take away as many 20 of them. The Congress cannot endure yet another clobbering of the kind it suffered in 2014.
Although all three – SP, BSP and the Congress – have positioned themselves against the BJP, the Congress hopes that Brahmins, plus the energy that strong candidates and their communities bring in, will convince Muslims to vote for it. Muslims, as is well known, do not vote for a non-BJP formation until it has the support of at least one dominant group, or numerous social groups, in each constituency. In this sense, Priyanka is a counter-challenge to the BJP, but it could also cause a headache for the SP-BSP alliance.
Priyanka is also bound to have an appeal for women and the youth. That the Congress wants to target them can be gleaned from the fact that JyotiradityaMadhavraoScindia has been given charge of Uttar Pradesh West. Like Priyanka, he is young, articulate and has a high recognition value. Scindia could well have an impact in the Bundlekhand districts of Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress has certainly created a buzz through Priyanka and has its supporters in Uttar Pradesh jubilant. It certainly makes life difficult for the BJP, but could also have some unforeseen consequences for the SP-BSP alliance, which is largely protected because the OBCs have never been really been inclined to the Congress, and the Dalit subcaste of Jatavs remain solidly behind Mayawati. Regardless of whether the Priyanka card succeeds, the Congress has shown a dare it rarely does.