Congress does not carry enough political weight to secure a dominant position in anti-BJP alliance formations across most states.
Just before the last parliamentary elections in 2014, some senior Congress leaders indicated that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra could enter active politics, especially if the Congress party suffered a rout in that election. The Congress suffered its greatest electoral defeat. Its seat tally in the Lok Sabha dwindled to a mere 44 out of 543 seats.
In the years that followed, Congress continued to suffer electoral defeats. Nevertheless, from the brink of a political abyss, the party pulled back; last December, it won assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. After playing a secondary role for some years, Priyanka has waded into direct political activity.
The Congress hopes that her political campaigns and active involvement in organisational work will not only help Rahul Gandhi but also revive the Congress’s political fortunes.
Her focus is on Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 LS seats. Any party or alliance that wins maximum seats in the state will have a powerful say in government formation at the Centre. In 2014, the BJP-led NDA swept the state, bagging 71 seats.
However, the state was a former bastion of the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi family. Over the years, the party has witnessed steady erosion of support base to the SP, the BSP and more recently, to the BJP. At present, apart from the two constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Congress’ political heft in UP is very limited.
To ensure that anti-BJP votes do not split to the disadvantage of BJP’s political opponents, several parties have tried to form alliances. The Congress, at present, is a relatively emaciated, but it’s still a national party. Though it does not carry enough political weight to secure a dominant position in anti-BJP alliance formations across most states, its trying to position itself as a presiding political entity within the context of the power structure in New Delhi.
Even then, however, it is being challenged by regional parties such as the SP, BSP and West Bengal’s TMC. Successfully navigating the political terrain of UP is a challenge. Since the 1990s, it has been observed that broader the ambit, including community and caste identities, apart from the core vote of a political party, the greater its political expediency. The BSP has been typically supported by the Yadav-led vote bank, while SP’s support derives from a consolidated Yadav vote bloc. The BJP’s vote base was traditionally confined to so-called upper castes. But of late, through an increasing narrative of development, good governance and non-appeasement, it has been successful in accruing a percentage of votes across the board. The aftermath: BJP rode to massive victory in the last state assembly elections.
The Congress has not wielded much influence in the state, circa 1990. Its former winning coalition constituents, the Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims, have drifted to vote other political parties. The changed political scenario, absence of appropriate policies, and lack of concerted leadership to the UP unit of the party have collectively contributed to its decline. Today, it is struggling to recover lost ground. But would it be relatively easier than otherwise?
The SP and the BSP have built their respective political identities around anti-Congress, anti-BJP rhetoric. BSP leader Mayawati and SP President Akhilesh Yadav have explicitly refused to strike any electoral alliance with the Congress. They are confident of their own alliance against the BJP-led NDA. Currently, they are prepared to extend only surface courtesies to Congress.
Priyanka Gandhi has embarked on a boat journey across eastern UP to increase adherence for the Congress. She accuses the BJP of agrarian distress, stressed employment rates, and divisive politics. Whether the amiable reception she receives across the banks of the Ganges would translate to votes for Congress candidates is moot.
Meanwhile, in an interview, the BJP Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, has insisted on the relative improvement of law and order in the state, implementation of certain welfare schemes, and non-discriminatory policies of his government. His work will strike a chord with some sections of the electorate.
The way ahead for the Congress seems to be tortuous.