The Congress party cadre in Uttar Pradesh sees the entry of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into active politics — as the general secretary for Eastern UP — as a game changer ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, for which the party has been left out of the SP-BSP alliance.
Priyanka will take charge next month. Before that, she is likely to hold a meeting with party leaders from UP in Delhi to assess the political situation on the ground after the SP and BSP came together to take on the BJP.
As per the Congress’s organisational structure, Eastern UP has 40 Lok Sabha constituencies. These include Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi, and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s home turf Gorakhpur. Over a half dozen Union Ministers have been elected from seats in Eastern UP.
The Gandhi family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the constituencies of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi respectively, are also part of the Congress’s Eastern UP regional unit. Immediately after Wednesday’s announcement, party leaders in UP had begun to speculate on the possibility of Priyanka contesting the Lok Sabha election for the Rae Bareli seat, replacing her mother.
Phulpur, also in this unit, has been a strong Congress bastion in the past, having elected Jawaharlal Nehru and Vijayalaxmi Pandit. However, the Congress has not won the seat after the Lok Sabha elections of 1984. In the byelection of 2018, the SP candidate won the seat with the support of the BSP.
This is first time that Priyanka will hold an organisational position in the party. She has visited UP in the run-up to elections in the past, but has confined herself to Rae Bareli and Amethi, where the local people identify with her as the daughter of the Gandhi family. There have been repeated demands for several years from Congressmen and Congresswomen, in both UP and elsewhere, that she enter active politics.
Priyanka has been a star campaigner for the Congress in her mother’s and brother’s constituencies. She has been taking charge of organisational meetings in both Rae Bareli and Amethi, and had campaigned in these Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and in the Assembly segments in these two districts ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections. According to sources, Priyanka had an important role in the making of the SP-Congress alliance and in the seat-sharing arrangement between the parties for the 2017 elections. The alliance, however, faced an embarrassing defeat in the polls.
With Priyanka’s appointment, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and the party have signalled that they are willing and able to make an unhesitating, confident, and no-holds barred charge in UP. She will travel across the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the region, freeing up Rahul to campaign and attend organisational meetings elsewhere in the state and the country.
— Congress (@INCIndia) January 23, 2019
The Congress feels that Priyanka will be able to capitalise on the latent goodwill that the Nehru-Gandhi family continues to retain in many parts of UP. She is widely seen as a natural campaigner and crowd-puller who connects easily with large sections of voters. Her physical resemblance with her grandmother Indira Gandhi has been pointed out repeatedly, and the Congress will be hoping for a rekindling of the party’s old emotional appeal.
For Priyanka, this is a crucial and challenging assignment. The Congress has been abandoned by the other anti-BJP forces in the state, and if Priyanka is able to deliver, to an extent at least, new opportunities can open up for both her and her party in UP and across India.
As Priyanka takes up her assignment, the two obvious parameters to measure her success or failure will be (1) whether, and to what extent, she is able to dent the BJP’s upper caste votebank, and (2) how she is able to impact the chances of the SP-BSP alliance. Initial answers to both questions will begin to emerge as the campaign picks up in the coming weeks, and will be visible in the response of voters as well as in the reactions of the SP-BSP and BJP. It is important to remember that contesting the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha bypoll separately last year, the Congress had cut into the upper caste votes of BJP, and played a role in the victory of the SP-BSP combine.