Uttar Pradesh: Still room for other friends

On February 11, after the grand roadshow in Lucknow that marked Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s official entry into politics as Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, brother and party president Rahul Gandhi issued a directive to Congress workers not to target the Samajwadi Party (SP) during the Lok Sabha campaign.

Hours later, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, attending a wedding reception in Firozabad district, sounded elated at the ‘success’ of Priyanka’s roadshow. “It’s good that parties fighting against the BJP are getting a good response.

It is even better that the Congress is taking out this campaign,” Akhilesh said, significantly adding that the Congress was part of the grand alliance of the SP, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and smaller parties.

The remark was enough to create a buzz since it was only last month that the SP and BSP had declared their alliance, leaving the Congress out. The Congress retorted by announcing a solo run in UP and, in a bold counterstrike, launching Priyanka.

Congress sources say Priyanka’s debut was prompted by the SP-BSP’s unwillingness to concede more than 10 seats to the party and Congress grassroots workers telling Rahul that not contesting more than half the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP would ruin the organisation in the state.

Some senior Congress leaders, though, cautioned that contesting outside the SP-BSP alliance would divide the anti-BJP vote.

Statistical analyses laid such apprehensions to rest. “We found that in the event of a 50-50 split of non-BJP voters (Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes and Muslims) between the SP-BSP alliance and the Congress, our party will outscore both the BJP and the alliance, if we get decent upper caste support,” says a Congress leader who was part of the exercise.

Priyanka, as a Gandhi scion and Brahmin face, fitted the bill. Her entry is aimed at weaning disgruntled upper caste voters, primarily Brahmins, away from the BJP. “She enjoys massive appeal among the youth and women,” says Praveen Chakravarty, head of the Congress’s data analytics cell.

Akhilesh’s statement indicates the SP-BSP leaderships are rethinking the strategy to keep the Congress out. The past month has witnessed several rounds of discussions between senior SP and Congress leaders.

Priyanka, who was the catalyst behind the Congress-SP alliance in the 2017 assembly poll, has rekindled hopes that the two parties can team up again, with the BSP in tow.

The Congress wants a free run in eastern UP, much to the SP’s chagrin. And for a reason: in 2017, the SP won 27 of its 47 assembly seats from eastern UP. Muslims, who constitute 19 per cent of the state’s population, are a crucial vote bank for both parties.

“The SP and BSP know their rise or fall is inversely proportional to the Congress’s electoral success or failure,” says Manish Hindvi, political analyst and associate professor at Lucknow University.

The SP may be willing to renegotiate, but convincing Mayawati could be a challenge. Congress leaders are hopeful that Sonia Gandhi, who shares an excellent rapport with the BSP chief, may help break the ice, even long distance. Daughter Priyanka is more than willing to be mama’s messenger girl.


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