When Priyanka Enters Politics, Robert Vadra Will Be BJP's Big Target

With the Congress-Samajwadi Vijay Rath rolling out in Lucknow on Sunday, a day after the BJP unrolled its comprehensive manifesto, the battle lines in UP are now firmly drawn. The third angle of the triangle, four-time Chief Minister Mayawati's agenda, was already apparent a few days earlier. Customarily, she believes less in paraphernalia such as manifestos, and focuses more narrowly on choosing candidates after microscopic calculation of a constituency's caste/community profile.

As Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi and UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's joint campaign got underway, the one big question remained unanswered: will Priyanka Gandhi finally take the plunge into the campaign across the state rather than confining herself as before to the Nehru-Gandhi pocket boroughs of Amethi and Raebareli? For several weeks, the media was agog with reports of her backroom role. It was claimed that it was she who orchestrated the Congress-SP alliance by persuading Akhilesh Yadav to concede a few more seats than his initial offer. Even earlier, it was suggested that under poll strategist Prashant Kishor's scheme, Priyanka Gandhi would lead the Congress's UP campaign, although she would not field herself as a candidate. But Prashant Kishor's original plan has gone awry anyway with Sheila Dikshit withdrawing in favour of the alliance nominee for Chief Minister, the incumbent Akhilesh Yadav.

Once again, Priyanka Gandhi has kept her party workers and the country at large guessing if and when she would directly enter the electoral fray. This is notwithstanding further speculation that she may contest the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Raebareli, considering her mother's indifferent health. Would her formal entry into the fray have made a difference? We can only guess. However, the Congress-SP tie-up is strong enough as it is with approximately 36 per cent votes, adding up their 2012 assembly performance. In any case, fielding Rahul and Priyanka as props to Akhilesh Yadav may run counter to Sonia Gandhi's long-term plans for her children and her party.
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Priyanka Gandhi was closely involved, reportedly holding discussions with Akhilesh Yadav and his wife (File photo)
More importantly, the forthcoming UP assembly polls will probably be the toughest in recent times with the BJP posting a really formidable challenge. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi's undiminished popularity, and the fact that demonetization has not had the kind of negative fallout as his critics had visualized, ground reports (and opinion polls) are already suggesting that the ruling party at the centre is the front-runner at present. To field the Congress's last untested weapon in this uncertain scenario is fraught with considerable risk.

Priyanka Gandhi may not carry any political baggage so far, but the same cannot be said about her husband. The moment she jumps actively into the electoral campaign, the controversies dogging Robert Vadra are certain to be raked up. The BJP is a master at conducting this kind of campaign and Robert Vadra would be a sitting duck for the BJP's campaigners on the ground and in the social media. Congress strategists must have figured that much of their time would be spent defending Mr Vadra and by extension, Priyanka Gandhi, which in turn would dent the party's electoral agenda.

For the Congress, this is a make-or-break election. To use a cliché, the party has stooped (hoping) to conquer. It is not easy for an arrogant party that has ruled India for 60 years to play second fiddle to a regional party in a state a crucial as UP. It may have done so earlier in Tamil Nadu, and more recently in West Bengal, but UP is a different kettle of fish. Although the Congress's base in the state has been steadily sinking since Mandal vs Kamandal politics edged it out in the early 90s, it is a huge admission of defeat to latch on to a regional party's coat-tails in a state where it was predominant for decades and which is the janmabhoomi of the founding fathers of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Once before, the Congress had entered into a pre-poll alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party, but on that occasion, it was the big brother and Mayawati the little sister. But this time by accepting to contest 105 seats against SP's 298, Akhilesh Yadav is the Bade Bhaiyya by far.
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The Samajwadi Party and Congress will contest the polls as an alliance
It would make no sense to expend Priyanka Gandhi on what is clearly someone else's election. If the present alliance performs well enough to wrest power and the Congress improves its tally (albeit riding the bicycle), the last weapon in the armoury can be pulled out by the party for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. If in the interim, Narendra Modi's apparently unstoppable march can be halted or at least slowed, a rejuvenated Congress could hope to emerge again as the main alternative.

Over the years, the Congress has not only lost strength on the ground but also lost the war of perception. With every electoral defeat, Rahul Gandhi's leadership abilities have come under question even within his party (although not yet vocally). A straw poll among Congress workers would undoubtedly reveal bigger support for his sister irrespective of her lack of exposure and experience. Sonia Gandhi probably wants to field her only if victory is certain, but that it won't be in a long time.

Psephologically speaking, the Congress-SP Alliance may seem to be on a sound footing, but it is still behind the BJP's vote share of 2014 when the Modi Wave wrested 73 out of UP's 80 parliament seats. Besides, elections are rarely won on arithmetic, chemistry is what finally decides the outcome. From that point, the BJP is clearly ahead of the other contenders, even assuming the sizeable Muslim vote is cast en masse for the alliance and Mayawati comes a cropper. With Muslim consolidation behind the alliance looming, large counter-consolidation is also inevitable, giving BJP the distinct edge.

Given all these imponderables, the Congress must have chosen caution over adventure, since fielding Priyanka in a lead role would have been nothing short of an adventure with an unpredictable outcome.

The UP election is certain to set the trend for India's political evolution for the remaining part of Narendra Modi's tenure. A decisive victory will lead to the cementing of BJP's growing base and mid-term endorsement for Mr Modi's policies. The Opposition's hopes can soar only if the BJP is conclusively defeated in UP. With the Gujarat elections scheduled later in the year (the first in 13 years without Mr Modi at the helm and an unknown quantity like Hardik Patel sniping away), Mr Modi has to work extra hard to retain the BJP's nationwide grip. But as it is always said, the road to power in Delhi passes through Lucknow!