Priyanka Has a Tough Task Ahead; Optics Alone Can’t Win Elections
Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and Jyotiraditya Scindia, wave at supporters during a rally in Lucknow on Monday, 11 February 2019.
Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and Jyotiraditya Scindia, wave at supporters during a rally in Lucknow on Monday, 11 February 2019.(Photo: AP)

Priyanka Has a Tough Task Ahead; Optics Alone Can’t Win Elections

It’s been years since Lucknow decked out in Congress colours. To be exact, it hasn’t happened since 1989, when the last Congress government in the politically-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh lost power. For the past three decades, Lucknow has been dressed either in the BJP’s saffron or the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) green and red, or the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) blue.

The skyline changed dramatically the day Priyanka Gandhi Vadra descended on the city for a roadshow to mark her political debut. Lucknow exploded with the Congress tricolor, huge hoardings of Indira Gandhi and Priyanka dotted the route of the motorcade, the party office lit up like it was Diwali already, and workers chanted and danced in frenzied abandonment at the realisation of a long-cherished dream.

This was flashback time drenched with nostalgia, but also filled with hope that a new dawn was breaking for the Congress in UP, with Priyanka’s entry into active politics.

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Priyanka Stole What Could’ve Been Modi’s Limelight

It is significant that Narendra Modi was not too far away the day Priyanka landed in Lucknow. He was in Vrindavan, feeding students to mark the 3 millionth meal of a non-profit organisation funded by ISKCON. Yet, it was Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who grabbed eyeballs and dominated the air waves. For once, Modi was overshadowed despite offering photo ops – like personally spoon-feeding some students – which otherwise would have had the media in a frenzy.

The BJP is clearly worried about the Priyanka impact, judging by its shrill responses to her roadshow. And the concern is entirely understandable. In the game of optics, Priyanka is likely to prove more than a match for Modi.

If the coverage of her roadshow is any indicator, she will probably attract more media space than him as the Congress and the BJP square off in the coming weeks. She has already proved that she can take him on, sound-byte for sound-byte, one-liner for one-liner, witticism for witticism.

But elections cannot be won through optics alone. Here are some statistics that reveal the daunting task ahead of Priyanka as she plunges into the complex demographic cauldron of eastern UP, to put the Congress back on its feet in the region.

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Task Ahead for Priyanka

In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, when the Congress surprised everyone, including itself, by winning 21 seats in UP, it garnered a vote share of 18 percent. Five years later, in 2014, this fell to 7.5 percent, with just two seats for the party in the family strongholds of Raebareli and Amethi.

Take another statistic. In the 2012 assembly elections, when Rahul led the Congress campaign, the party won 28 seats and received 17 percent of the vote share. In 2017, it was swept away by the saffron wave. Its seat share fell to four and its vote share to 6 percent.

Now let’s zero in on eastern UP, which is Priyanka’s domain. In 2009, the Congress managed a vote share of 20 percent in the region. This fell to 10 percent in 2014. In the assembly polls of 2012, it won 15 seats with a vote share of 11 percent but in 2017, the saffron tide reduced its seat tally to just 4, with a vote share of 6 percent.

This is where Priyanka has to start, almost at the very bottom. She would have to bump up the Congress vote share by at least 15-20 percent for a credible performance that would win the party a respectable number of seats. It’s a formidable challenge by any standard.

UP’s Favourite: Priyanka, Not Rahul

For the UP Congress, it has always been Priyanka. She, not Rahul, was regarded as the true political heir of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Consequently, the attitude of Congress party workers in the state towards the siblings has always been in sharp contrast.

For instance, Rahul never received such a joyous welcome when he threw himself into the UP assembly campaign in 2012 and traversed the length and breadth of the state in a bid to revive his moribund party where it once dominated.

Yes, he was garlanded with marigolds and showered with rose petals. And hordes of people turned up to catch a glimpse of the Gandhi scion. But they seemed to be driven more by curiosity than excitement.

The enthusiasm for Priyanka, on the other hand, was electrifying.

It crackled through the television screen and dazzled even the media which covered her excruciatingly slow journey through the streets of Lucknow the entire day. Standing atop an SUV, dressed in pale colours, Priyanka sparkled and glowed as she leaned down to shake hands with people. She connected with the crowds in a way Rahul never did and still fails to do.

Priyanka Gandhi, The Fighter

Priyanka has proved that she is a fighter. In fact, much of the combativeness visible in the Congress today is said to be her doing. She believes in going out aggressively and playing on the front foot. This is evident in the way Priyanka Gandhi has come out strongly to defend husband Robert Vadra, who is currently being interrogated by the Enforcement Directorate in cases related to land deals and money laundering.

It is also evident in the way the party flaunted three dynasts at the roadshow – the two Gandhi siblings and the Scindia scion, Jyotiraditya. It’s almost as if they wanted to thumb their noses at the BJP for its determined portrayal of the Congress as a dynasty-driven party. “So what!” They seemed to be saying.

While Priyanka has only now joined politics formally, she has been playing an active backroom role for years, first as her mother, Sonia’s advisor, and now as Rahul’s chief political sounding board.

Priyanka’s Hits & Misses

It is difficult to assess her track record, but the ups and downs of the Congress over the past years suggests hits as well as misses. For instance, she definitely had a hand in helping the Congress to outwit the BJP in the 2004 polls. Priyanka Gandhi is believed to have persuaded her mother Sonia to travel by road, concentrate on corner meetings rather than address only big rallies and give her campaign a personal touch by reaching out to specific target groups like women, tribals, etc. She also tapped into a wide network of NGOs for support.

This is what led to the formation of the National Advisory Committee headed by Sonia in 2004. It included many civil society activists.

On the other hand, Priyanka is believed to have helped coin the infamous “maut ka saudagar’’ slogan for the Gujarat 2007 polls. Modi twisted it around to turn the tables on the Congress, and won that election handsomely.

Again, Priyanka is supposed to have scripted the ill-fated alliance between the Congress and SP in the 2017 UP assembly polls. Both parties fell to their lowest ever seat tally, as a saffron wave engulfed the state.

Priyanka has undoubtedly energised Congress workers. Now she has to put that energy bubbling over to good use. Can she generate enough of a wave to bring her party back in from the cold in UP?

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

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