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In Picking Raj Babbar as its UP Chief, Congress Shows Some Spunk

Congress’ decision to appoint Raj Babbar as its UP unit chief suggests it seeks to project itself as caste-neutral.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
In Picking Raj Babbar as its UP Chief, Congress Shows Some Spunk

After months of prolonged dithering and confusion, the Congress’ decision on Tuesday to pick Raj Babbar, erstwhile Bollywood star and Rajya Sabha MP, as the party’s UP president, is bold and signals a willingness to put up a fight in the poll-bound state.

Babbar, who replaced a sluggish Nirmal Khatri, was zeroed-in on after several surveys to gauge the popularity of its state-level leaders, including former and present MPs, ex-PCC chiefs and CLP leaders. Party sources said though many leaders such as Jitin Prasad, RPN Singh, Salman Khurshid (all three former Union ministers) and P L Punia and Pramod Tewari are popular in their respective pocket boroughs, Babbar, who was elected to the Lok Sabha thrice from the state, emerged as the sole leader with a pan-UP endorsement.

Displaying newly found aggression, the party also appointed Imran Masood as one of the four vice-presidents. Masood was arrested in 2014 for hate speech against PM designate Narendra Modi while campaigning in the Lok Sabha election. Young and aggressive, Masood polled over four lakh votes though he lost the seat to the BJP candidate.

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Chequered Political Career

Babbar had defeated Dimple Yadav, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s daughter-in-law and wife of incumbent Chief Minister Akilesh Yadav, in Firozabad constituency in 2009. A product of the National School of Drama, with socialist moorings, he cut his political teeth in the Janata Dal then headed by V P Singh but later switched to the SP.

He soon fell out with Amar Singh, leading to his suspension from the SP. In 2008, Babbar joined the Congress. He lost to General (retd) V K Singh in Ghaziabad in 2014, and a year later Rahul Gandhi brought him to the Rajya Sabha.

A senior AICC leader said it will be a collective effort with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi leading the charge while Raj Babbar and his new team will complement their efforts. (Photo: IANS)
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What Role for Priyanka?

The appointment of 64-year-old Babbar, a Punjabi OBC Hindu, as UPCC chief, has come as a surprise to many as the party and its key election strategist Prashant Kishor have been scouting for a credible Brahmin face to lead the campaign in the crucial heartland state.

Congress sources said Babbar not belonging to any major caste will be compensated by Priyanka Gandhi (Brahmin face) who will play a much bigger role in UP than earlier.

A senior AICC leader said it will be a collective effort with Rahul and Priyanka leading the charge while Babbar and his new team will complement their efforts. They will be assisted by Sonia Gandhi and former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit, another Brahmin face, among other top leaders. The party recently appointed Ghulam Nabi Azad as AICC general secretary in-charge of UP replacing a lacklustre Madhusudan Mistry.

Strategy Under Wraps

As of now, the party is keeping its UP strategy under wraps. There is no official word yet on whether Priyanka will be assigned any official position. “We are adopting a calibrated approach and our strategy will unfold gradually,” a party insider said.

The Congress also announced four vice-presidents to balance the caste dynamics. They are: Raja Ram Pal, a Dalit, Brajesh Mishra, a Brahmin, Bhagwati Prasad Chaudhary, an OBC, and Imran Masood, a Muslim. Former UPCC chief Nirmal Khatri has been appointed election screening committee head.

Out of power for over 27 years in the most populous state that sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the Congress has not been able to get its act together in UP. With each successive election, its vote share has been shrinking. In 2012, the Congress could win just 28 of the 403 assembly seats. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party won just two seats – Rae Bareli (Sonia Gandhi) and Amethi (Rahul), down from the 22 it had in 2009, while the BJP swept the state, winning 71 seats.

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Snapshot

A Decisive Move at Last

  • Erstwhile Bollywood actor and three-time MP from UP, Raj Babbar is very popular among the people and has brand value.
  • He is an aggressive campaigner with a socialist image and can connect with the aam aadmi.
  • He is caste neutral as he is an OBC Hindu from Punjab.
  • The Congress, however, has no machinery; no big state leader of the stature of Mulayam or Mayawati.
  • It has squandered considerable time in confusion, and with polls slated early next year, there is little time left to craft a winning strategy.
File photo of newly appointed UP Congress chief Raj Babbar (right) and the West Bengal Pradesh Congress President Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury (middle). (Photo: IANS)
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Relying on Outsiders

Faced with a severe leadership crisis and coupled with a moribund party machinery, the Gandhis did not have many choices in UP but to rely on outsiders. While Babbar is not an original Congressman, newly appointed vice-presidents, Raja Ram Pal came from the BSP and Imran Masood had defected from the SP.

Among the plus points of the new team is that while Babbar is popular, articulate, aggressive and a good campaigner, the vice-presidents are comparatively young and represent Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim-OBC segments.

The 2017 UP election is considered the semi-finals before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and if the Congress does not substantially improve its tally, it will be out of reckoning till the 2024 general elections. A new UPCC headed by Babbar is expected to energise the party cadre and electoral scene– from triangular to four-cornered.

Challenge of Factionalism

With limited resources and manpower at its command, the Congress did not have many options in UP. While the party continues to face many challenges it remains to be seen whether in the perennially faction-ridden UPCC, Babbar and his team will get wholehearted support from local leaders.

The biggest problem facing the Congress is that it has very little time. Babbar has just six-seven months to deliver, whereas rivals SP and BSP have already finalised half of its candidates while the BJP with its 71 Lok Sabha seats is far ahead in the race.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached at @benedict18)

Also read:
Five Best Movies of Newly Appointed UP Congress Chief Raj Babbar
Raj Babbar: From Actor, Politician to Uttar Pradesh Congress Chief

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