Can Eastern UP’s ‘Bitiya’ Priyanka Gandhi Turn Cong’s Fortunes?

Will Priyanka Gandhi be able to cash in on her ‘Indira Gandhi 2.0’ card to turn Congress’s fortune around?

4 min read
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Congress President Rahul Gandhi has upped the stakes in the battle for the heartland with the surprise induction of sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the Congress General Secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The move is every bit as dramatic as it is strategic.

It is dramatic because it comes on the eve of the 2019 general election which is less than 100 days away. It is strategic because it has the potential to not only upset the SP-BSP’s arithmetic – if only partially – but also Amit Shah’s boastful calculations of winning 74 of UP’s 80 seats.


Priyanka’s Proven Skills & Charisma

Rahul’s decision to unleash Priyanka, widely regarded as the Congress party’s brahmastra, is a clear signal that eastern UP will be the main battlefield in 2019.

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This is the turf of the BJP’s big guns. Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi lies here. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has reigned over Gorakhpur for five terms. And Amit Shah spent his time in political wilderness in this belt, where he studied the intricacies of the state’s caste politics and used his knowledge to script the BJP’s stunning victories in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and three years later in the 2017 assembly election.

Few doubt Priyanka’s capacity to alter the texture of an election campaign. She first demonstrated her skill in 1998 when she stole Bellary from under Sushma Swaraj’s nose, to help her mother Sonia Gandhi enter Parliament for the first time.

Then, in 1999, she decimated Janata Dal’s Arun Nehru overnight with an emotional campaign in Raebareli where she accused her uncle of stabbing her father in the back.

“Do you want to elect a traitor,” she asked the voters. And Congress nominee Satish Sharma swept to victory on the back of Priyanka’s fervent appeal.

“Priyanka Nahin, Is Yug Ki Indira Gandhi Hai”

Interestingly, the slogan on every voter’s lips in Raebareli at that time was, “Priyanka nahin yeh aandhi hai, is yug ki Indira Gandhi hai (this is not Priyanka, it’s a storm, she is the Indira Gandhi of this era).’’

Rahul is depending on Priyanka’s acknowledged charisma to whip up a similar storm again, twenty years later. It’s a gamble, but a well thought out one. There are parts of eastern UP, particularly the Awadh area, where both the BSP and SP are weak. These are constituencies where Brahmins wield considerable influence because of their numbers, and because of their traditional role as opinion makers.

It may be recalled that in the 2009 general election, the Congress sprung a surprise with a brief revival in UP, winning 21 Lok Sabha seats. Many of these seats came from Awadh where the Congress managed to craft a winning social alliance of Brahmins, Kurmis, Muslims and non-Jatav Dalits.

Rahul seems to be eyeing a similar combination again with Priyanka as the lightning rod to win over the Brahmins this time. This is a continuation of the Congress party’s strategy for the recent assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Brahmins, who account for a significant percentage of the population in MP and Chhattisgarh, were upset with the BJP for amending the SC/ST Act to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that had diluted the law.


To Eastern UP’s Brahmins, Priyanka Is ‘Bitiya’

Rahul’s ‘temple runs’ and his visible use of Hindu symbols were all geared to wooing the upper castes and weaning them away from the BJP. The strategy proved largely successful with the Congress netting all three states.

The move to bring Priyanka in for the Lok Sabha polls is propelled by the traction she has among the Brahmins of eastern UP. They regard her as their ‘bitiya’ and see flashes of Indira Gandhi in her.

It is likely that Priyanka will play on this to model herself as Indira Gandhi 2.0 and reach out to the Brahmins. It may not be difficult because she has maintained contacts with members of the community over the years, something that Rahul has not done.

Priyanka can only succeed at the BJP’s cost.

Brahmins have been with the saffron party since the Hindutva wave swept UP in the 1990s. But after the advent of a Thakur Chief Minister in Yogi Adityanath, they have felt let down by the BJP. The disenchantment has grown after the SC/ST Act controversy, much like the sentiment that manifested itself in MP and Chhattisgarh. Rahul obviously hopes that Priyanka can tap into this disenchantment.

The ‘Robert Vadra Albatross’ & Other Challenges

Rahul has set her a challenging task. Priyanka Gandhi carries the ‘Robert Vadra albatross’ around her neck, and the BJP can be expected to hound her husband with more cases and possibly even an arrest. She is also hampered by the near complete absence of organisational machinery.

The Congress is in a shambles in UP and has been in steady decline, except for a brief flash of revival in 2009. Can Priyanka pull off the impossible with an emotional campaign? 

She does have a way with words, and can match Modi’s oratory. She is also a crowd-puller and has great TV presence. But are those enough to outwit Amit Shah’s formidable election machinery?

In 2014, Priyanka tried to match Modi through select televised appearances and roadshows through Raebareli and Amethi. She came a cropper. 

Congress’s Need to Keep Toehold in UP

In 2017, Priyanka Gandhi was the inspiration behind the SP-Congress alliance for the assembly polls. It proved to be a disaster. But 2019 is not 2014 or 2017.

Today, Modi is on the backfoot defending a lacklustre five years in government.

Rahul certainly cannot hope to snatch UP away from the SP-BSP combine. But if the entry of Priyanka into the 2019 campaign helps the Congress keep a toehold in the country’s most crucial state, Rahul will have made his point – that the grand old party can’t be written off yet.

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(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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