Priyanka Gandhi Effect: Closely Watch These 29 UP Seats & 3 Castes
Days after Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was appointed as the Congress' general secretary in-charge for Uttar Pradesh East, posters depicting her as Rani Lakshmibai were seen in Gorakhpur, the bastion of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The posters, reportedly put up by excited Congress supporters, are a sign that the party will take the battle to the doorstep of CM Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Priyanka Gandhi’s entry provides a formidable challenge to the BJP in terms of optics and help foil the party’s strategy of making it a presidential election. She is also likely to grab a fair share of media coverage, that otherwise could have disproportionately focused on PM Modi. But her concrete electoral impact is far more difficult to predict.
There is no doubt that Priyanka Gandhi's entry will lead to an increase in the Congress' vote share across Uttar Pradesh, in particular the Eastern region that has been assigned to her. But there are diverging viewpoints on two key aspects:
- What would be the extent of the Congress' gains in Uttar Pradesh, both in terms of seats and vote share?
- At whose expense will the Congress make these gains – the BJP or the Mahagathbandhan of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal and Nishad Party?
Let's try and answer some of these questions by looking at data from past elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Battle for Awadh and East UP
Realistically, Priyanka Gandhi's ability to make an impact in Uttar Pradesh will depend on the Congress' own capacity in different parts of the state. The Congress' presence in Uttar Pradesh is not uniformly spread out. It is strong in the Awadh region, which includes the Gandhi family bastions of Rae Bareli and Amethi and seats like Pratapgarh, Unnao, Barabanki and Faizabad, where it has a significant presence as well as strong local leaders.
Even at its weakest during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it had a decent vote share of 17.8 percent in Awadh. It performed poorly in all the other regions of the state. In Western UP, it got just 9.8 percent of votes despite being in alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal.
In all probability Priyanka Gandhi has been assigned two out of these regions – East UP and Awadh – which account for 43 seats according to CSDS' classification we have used above.
Social Groups That Congress Could Win Over
In a highly caste-divided Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi's main challenge would be to woo key social groups towards the Congress. This would also determine whose votes the Congress eats into – the BJP's or those of the Mahagathbandhan. The BJP hopes that her entry would harm the SP-BSP alliance more as the Congress would eat into the Muslim community's votes that are otherwise expected to consolidate behind the Mahagathbandhan.
On the other hand, SP-BSP's calculation is that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi would attract Upper Caste voters who would otherwise be voting for the BJP.
Both calculations are simplistic.
Let us take a look at the Congress' performance among different social groups in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections from 2007 onwards to get a clearer picture.
The Congress' gains between the 2007 Assembly elections and the 2009 Lok Sabha elections are particularly important as they provide a blueprint for the party's revival in Uttar Pradesh. Remember, the party had sprung a surprise in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, winning 21 Lok Sabha seats, ahead of both the BSP and the BJP.
So between 2007 and 2009, the Congress' biggest gains came from three communities: Kurmis (a gain of 22 percent from 2007), “other upper castes” (up 19 percent) and Brahmins (up 13 percent). The category “other upper castes” would include Kayasths, Khatris and Bhumihars.
It gained 11 percent each among Muslims, non-Jatav SCs and Jats.
Now, let's see which parties these communities voted for in 2014.
In 2014, the Congress lost Upper Caste and Kurmi votes to the BJP and Muslim votes to the SP. However, it was still the second choice for Brahmin and non-Thakur Upper Caste voters and it got a fair share of Kurmi votes as well.
So if the Congress under Priyanka Gandhi is able to even partly repeat the 2009 success, it could end up eating into the BJP's support among Kurmis, Brahmins and non-Thakur Upper Castes.
Particularly crucial among these are Kurmis, who are a dominant farming community across central and eastern Uttar Pradesh and don't vote en bloc for any party. Apna Dal, which is a BJP ally, is a Kurmi-dominated party but its presence is restricted to only a few areas. Moreover, it has now split between two factions headed by Anupriya Patel and Krishna Patel. The BJP has also done well is the community due to presence of Kurmi leaders like Vinay Katiyar and Santosh Gangwar.
In 2009, however, the Congress succeeded in getting more Kurmi votes than other parties. The party would fancy its chances of winning over the community this time as well. It is likely to showcase Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, a Kurmi, as well as the party’s Kurmi face in UP RPN Singh. It will also highlight its loan waivers in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan to woo the predominantly agrarian community.
So if the 2009 Congress revival is any indication, Priyanka Gandhi's biggest impact could be among communities that have tended to support the BJP more than others.
However, if the Congress also gains among Muslims, non-Jatav SCs and Jats like 2009, it could harm the Mahagathbandhan as well.
X-Factors: Women and Young Voters
There are two vote banks that the Congress would hope to tap by projecting Priyanka Gandhi: Women and young voters. Their impact cannot easily be predicted as different parties have benefitted from their support at different points of time.
Women voters have played a key role in swinging elections in Uttar Pradesh, particularly at the Assembly level.
Take for instance the 2012 Assembly election, in which the swing for or against a party was stronger among women than men.
The importance of the women's vote is also evident in the fact that in the last two Assembly elections, the turnout among women has been higher than that among men.
The BJP has already begun tailoring its campaign for women voters' by focussing on schemes like Ujjwala. The Congress and Mahagathbandhan are likely to do the same.
In the 2014 elections, BJP benefitted a great deal from the support of young voters – 51 percent voters in the 18-22 years age group voted for the party. In all other age groups the party got less than 45 percent of the votes, indicating a distinct edge among younger voters. By projecting comparatively younger leaders like Yogi Adityanath, Anupriya Patel, Akhilesh Yadav, Priyanka Gandhi and Jayant Chaudhary, every party is likely to try and capture the support of the youth.
29 Battleground Seats
There are 29 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh – both east and west – where the Congress is likely to attach special focus. One seat is of course Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency Varanasi, which falls under the area assigned to Priyanka Gandhi. There is already speculation that Priyanka Gandhi could contest against the prime minister. Whether she does that or not, she will definitely be campaigning intensively in the constituency.
Besides Varanasi there are 28 other seats where the Congress would hope to gain from her campaigning. These are seats which the Congress had either won in 2009 or those where it managed to retain a vote share of over 10 percent in 2014.
In the other 51 seats, the Congress is unlikely to be a match for either the BJP or the Mahagathbandhan even if Priyanka campaigns there.
The party's best chance is in seats which it won in 2009 and retained a respectable vote share in 2014. Incidentally most of these seats are in the region assigned to Priyanka Gandhi.
In a few of these seats, however, the party might suffer because of the defection of key leaders to other parties: Beni Prasad Verma in Gonda, Jagdambika Pal in Domariyaganj, Rita Bahuguna Joshi in Lucknow and Nandgopal Nandi in Allahabad.
Therefore realistically, the possible electoral impact of Priyanka Gandhi’s entry could be summarised in five points.
- Bringing Congress to a winnable position in around 10 seats other than the family bastions. Particularly important here would be seats where it has strong leaders such as: Pratapgarh (Rajkumari Ratna Singh), Unnao (Annu Tandon), Barabanki (PL Punia) and Faizabad (Nirmal Khatri), Kushinagar (RPN Singh), Kanpur (Sriprakash Jaiswal) and Dhaurahra (Jitin Prasad) to name a few.
- Emerging as a strong force in at least 15 more seats
- Improving the party’s vote share across the state
- Wooing a significant chunk of the BJP’s support among Brahmins, other Upper Castes and Kurmis
- Making some gains among Dalits and Muslims.