The Congress' present campaign in Uttar Pradesh is very different from the previous two ones. In 2012, the party was optimistic following its successful performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha election and greatly fancied its chances of reviving its fortunes in India's most populous state.
In 2017, the party's morale was at its lowest and it first sought to remain afloat by roping in strategist Prashant Kishor and then through a pre-poll alliance with the Samajwadi Party.
In both these elections, the face of the Congress in the state was Rahul Gandhi. In the 2012 poll, he sought to capitalise on the 2009 success as well as his agitation against the Mayawati government's land acquisition at Bhatta Parsaul. In 2017, Rahul and sitting CM Akhilesh Yadav were the 'UP ke Ladke' taking on the Gujarati duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the then BJP President Amit Shah.
This time, however, Rahul has given way to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is now unambiguously the face of the party in Uttar Pradesh.
So far, Priyanka Gandhi seems to have aced the optics part at least. Her detention by the UP Police, her subsequent meeting with the families of the farmers killed in Lakhimpur Kheri, and then her rally in Varanasi, generated a great deal of buzz in the media and social media.
Ground reports suggest that at least people have begun talking about Priyanka Gandhi and the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
This in itself is an achievement as till now the election seemed moving towards an increasingly bipolar direction, more than many other elections in the past.
So, what can the Congress realistically look forward to in Uttar Pradesh?
There are five different elements to this.
WHAT'S THE PRESENT SITUATION OF THE CONGRESS?
The latest survey by CVoter has predicted that the Congress could get a vote share of 5.6 percent and win three to seven seats. This is an increase of 0.6 percentage points compared to the September survey by CVoter.
If this is the final result, it would be a net decline for the Congress compared even compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in which the party secured 6.2 percent votes and led in eight Assembly segments.
"This is not an accurate reflection of the Congress' strength in UP. We have no illusions. We know we may not be among the top two parties. But we are expecting a higher vote share than is being predicted (by the CVoter survey)," said a party leader involved with the Uttar Pradesh campaign.
Even in terms of seats, the leader felt that the survey was underestimating the Congress and that the party was confident of a double-digit tally.
"We aren't like the BSP that has a uniform strength across UP. We have pockets where we are strong and this is conducive from the seat point of view, though not so much from the vote share point of view," the leader said.
THE PROPOSAL TO CONTEST A SELECTION OF SEATS
Keeping in mind the reality that the party isn't uniformly strong across UP, the Congress is actively considering focusing on only a fraction of the total number of seats in UP and deploying a bulk of their resources and time on them.
Two types of seats would be the most important in this selection – seats where the Congress has strong candidates of its own and seats where it is the main Opposition to the BJP. The Congress had followed this approach even in the Lok Sabha elections, deploying a bulk of their resources in around 30 seats and a much smaller portion in the remaining 50.
It isn't clear how many seats the party would eventually contest, but its main focus will be on around 80-100 seats.
The party is also said to be open to an alliance with the Samajwadi Party, but the latter is yet to respond positively.
LACK OF A SOCIAL BASE AND THE 2009 MODEL
The main problem that the Congress is facing is the lack of a social base. It doesn't have any core vote bank, like Upper Castes and a section of OBCs for the BJP, Yadavs and a major chunk of Muslims for the Samajwadi Party, and Jatavs for the BSP.
It isn't even like smaller parties like RLD, SBSP, and Apna Dal, which are associated with certain specific caste groups.
Congress has always been an umbrella party and can hope to revive only if one of the other players declines, just as they grew at its expense three decades ago.
However, the success of the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, in which it got more seats than the BSP and BJP, provides an important blueprint for the party. It showed that the party's biggest gains were among three caste groups: Kurmis, Brahmins, and smaller Upper Castes.
There were some incremental gains among Muslims and non-Jatav Dalits as well but the major gains came from the above sections.
Even in the present scenario, these would be the most important target groups for the party.
It is interesting that the party has made Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel its senior observer for UP. He was also an active part of the Congress' mobilisation around the Lakhimpur Kheri deaths. Baghel is a Kurmi and one of the most prominent OBC faces of the Congress.
The party is also hoping that making a Dalit the CM of Punjab would at some point help the Congress regain its base in this section.
THE PRIYANKA FACTOR
Through Priyanka Gandhi, the party is trying to send the signal that it is the primary non-BJP force in Uttar Pradesh.
Though this may not be the case on the ground, the fact remains that Priyanka Gandhi is a bigger draw for the media and anti-BJP issues do get more visibility if she raises them.
This is clear in the manner in which her Varanasi rally on Sunday got good coverage in the regional media.
SP leaders allege that this "disproportionate coverage to the Congress is at the behest of the BJP". They say that the media serves BJP's interests by projecting the Congress, AIMIM, or AAP as the main Opposition.
"They will give prominence to everyone as the Opposition voice except the party which is the real Opposition – the SP," said an SP leader.
Despite the SP's criticism, it can't be denied that Priyanka Gandhi's entry has created a buzz for the Congress.
However, opinion within the Congress is divided on how tangible this "buzz" is.
One section of the party says that "her occasional visits don't address the structural problems of the party in UP".
"Several organisational issues have been left unaddressed. Influential leaders have either left or are in the process of leaving," said a party leader.
One major line of criticism is party leaders have no access to Priyanka Gandhi. They accuse PCC chief Ajay Kumar Lallu and a few other leaders like Rampur Khas MLA Aradhana Misra of completely blocking access to Priyanka Gandhi, causing other leaders to feel sidelined.
They cite the exit of leaders like Annu Tandon, Rajaram Pal, Lalitesh Pati Tripathi, and the rumoured exit of Imran Masood as the consequence of this style of working.
However, the counter opinion is that under Priyanka Gandhi, the party's grassroots outreach has increased significantly and on ground the party is stronger than it has been in several years.
THE REAL BATTLE IS 2024, NOT 2022
The Congress has been weakening in UP Assembly elections for three decades now. The last time the Congress won over 10 percent of the total number of seats was way back in 1991. And after 1993, the only election it cross over 10 percent votes was in 2012, when it secured 11.6 percent votes. This was when the party was in power at the Centre and Rahul Gandhi was the face of its campaign.
At the Lok Sabha level, the party was wiped out in 1998 but did marginally better after Sonia Gandhi took over, getting 10 seats and 14.7 percent votes in 1999, nine seats and 12 percent votes in 2004 and 21 seats and 18.3 percent votes in 2009 before its decline in 2014 and 2019.
What is clear in these results is that Congress has tended to do better in Uttar Pradesh in national elections than state elections. It appears that the party is yet to be seen as a major state level alternative. Part of the reason is that it lacks a state-level leader like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Kalyan Singh, and Akhilesh Yadav.
Realistically, this may apply to the present as well. It seems the Congress' focus would mainly be on the 2024 Lok Sabha election and not so much the 2022 Assembly election. The party would need to make sizeable gains here if it has to have a chance of defeating the BJP at the Centre.
With this in mind, the result of the 2022 election may not make much of a difference to the Congress. If the BJP wins, it is the BSP and SP that would be the worst-affected, not the Congress, which may still have a few other states to look towards.
If the SP somehow manages to do well and come close to forming the government, it may need the Congress' help. And the latter can hope to capitalise on this at the Lok Sabha level and capture a larger chunk of the anti-BJP vote in 2024.
The worst-case scenario for the Congress in 2022 would be if it performs poorly and Priyanka Gandhi gets the flak for it, ruining a future card for the party.
Therefore it won't be surprising if the party chooses to contest only a portion of the total number of seats, making it clear that the Assembly poll was only a stepping stone for its main battle – 2024.