Few expect the Congress to win Uttar Pradesh when the state goes to polls early next year. The odds are formidable: The Congress last won an assembly election here in 1985; in 2012, it finished fourth with 12 per cent votes and 28 seats. But the party aims to make it a contest this time if its pre-poll preparations are any indication. For one, it has roped in a professional poll strategist who seems to have given a modicum of a plan and some purpose to its campaign. Again, breaking with tradition, the Congress has announced its chief ministerial candidate. The party has not stated it officially, but it is clear that the leader has been chosen with the intent to woo Brahmins, who constitute over 10 per cent of the state’s electorate. But though Sheila Dikshit is the prospective CM, Rahul Gandhi looks set to lead the campaign — he embarked on a month-long kisan yatra from Deoria in eastern UP on Tuesday. He is expected to travel across the state and connect with the state’s farmers, who had ceased to be a political constituency after the onset of identity politics in the 1980s.
The two constituencies the Congress evidently wants to appeal to, however, speak of two different political imaginations. Addressing Brahmins as a vote bloc is in sync with the prevailing caste-centric politics in the state, whereas farmers constitute a constituency spread across caste groups. The Congress, historically, has been a platform for numerous interest groups. A large section of Brahmins arguably voted for the Congress in the past, but so did many others. The absence of a core community vote it could call its own certainly hurt the party when politics in UP became fragmented along caste lines. But it is ironical that the party now wants to experiment with identity politics at a time when identity politics seems to have exhausted its potential in UP — major parties in the state are now trying to build caste and community coalitions. The Congress’s pre-poll discovery of Brahmins as a vote bank, its highlighting of the caste connections of Dikshit, whose popularity in Delhi had more to do with her abilities as an administrator, is a throwback to a more narrow-spirited politics.
In contrast, the “khaat sabhas” are a return to old school mobilisational politics that needs to stage a comeback for a forward-looking strategy for the future. Agriculture is central to the UP economy and the political mainstream has long ignored the concerns of farmers and peasants. The Congress’s khaat sabhas may not fetch the party electoral gains immediately, but they have the potential to turn the spotlight on a constituency that deserves greater attention.