Congress' Worst Nightmare: What If Priyanka Gandhi Fails In UP?

She stands between the Grand Old Party and political irrelevance.

11/07/2016 8:02 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
Adnan1 Abidi / Reuters
Priyanka Gandhi waves to her supporters during an election campaign meeting for her mother Sonia Gandhi, chief of India's ruling Congress Party, at Samodha village in Rae Bareli district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh April 22, 2009. India is holding a general election between April 16 and May 13. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA POLITICS ELECTIONS)

NEW DELHI -- Priyanka Gandhi Vadra taking on the role of Congress Party's star campaigner for the Uttar Pradesh polls is eagerly awaited, but while the 44-year-old sister of Rahul Gandhi is seen as the only hope for the Grand Old Party, unleashing her in the U.P. election is also its biggest gamble before the 2019 national election.

So far, conversations about Vadra in U.P. have been more or less on the lines of her being a "game-changer" who will reverse the fortunes of the Congress Party in India's most politically significant state, and how her success could threaten her brother's pre-eminent position within the party.

But according to Congress party sources who spoke with HuffPost India, there are sections in the party that are concerned about the possibility of a dismal or mediocre result even if Vadra jumps into the fray, and the party losing its trump card before the national election in 2019.

With Vadra at the helm, it is highly unlikely that the Congress Party could plunge to further depths in U.P. so what does she or the party have to lose, is the popular thinking. But party insiders, who would like to see Vadra work her presumed and untested magic in the national election, are afraid that she could be prematurely sacrificed at the alter of unpreparedness and systemic failures within the party.

While the Congress has strategist Prashant Kishor on its side, the Grand Old Party is plagued by poor campaigning, indecision and infighting, which has already led to its defeat in one state election after another this year. Political observers point out that these problems need to be addressed before a fresh face can make a difference.

Concerns about exposing Vadra too soon are not entirely new. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, she was considered for a fleeting moment as the only personality who could take on Modi in Varanasi, but this was considered too risky, especially since BJP would project beating a member of the Gandhi family as the ultimate defeat.

READ: Priyanka Could Easily Eclipse Rahul As The Face Of The Congress Party

All this head-scratching would of course be redundant if Vadra, who is married to controversial businessman Robert Vadra, puts her foot down after the U.P. polls and washes her hands off politics once again. For almost two decades now, the mother of two children, who reminds people of her grandmother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi, has refused to enter politics despite being seen as possessing a natural flair for the job. But it won't be easy for her to ignore the fact that the Grand Old Party needs her like it never has before.

The ABP-Nielsen Poll in March had the Congress Party along with the Rashtriya Lok Dal winning just 13 out of the 403 seats in the U.P. State Assembly, which is less than half the number of seats it got in 2012. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress Party managed to win only two seats, which were from the Gandhi family's loyal constituencies.

Ashutosh Mishra, political science professor at Lucknow University, said that Vadra was no doubt the most "potent and charming weapon" which the Congress Party had in its arsenal, but she would not be a "game changer" for the U.P. polls. "The best that they can hope for is some revival," he said.

Not only has the Congress Party been missing an electoral base in Uttar Pradesh since 1989 (when regional parties captivated Dalits, Other Backward Classes and the Muslims), Vadra would also be in a battleground where there are no dearth of strong personalities such as Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and his son, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, who has started breaking out of his father's shadow.

READ: Why Brahmins Hold The Key To The BJP's Fortunes In Uttar Pradesh

With the BJP and the Samajwadi Party hijacking the development issue, and everyone projecting themselves as the messiahs for the Dalits and the backward classes, Vadra's strategists will have to figure out who they can still appeal to for votes, how can they woo upper castes while winning over the OBC leaders deserting Mayawati's party, and which issues they can own while campaigning.

"When it comes to the State Assembly Election, the political chess board is very competitive, and evenly divided between the BSP, SP and the BJP," said A.K. Verma, a political science professor at Christ Church College, Kanpur.

Verma says that the Congress Party has "hidden voters," but to inspire them to vote, Gandhi and the strategists of the Grand Old Party would have to leave the comfort of Delhi and bring their fight to U.P.

Badri Narayan Tiwari, a professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, added that Congress Party would also need to play a serious round of catch up with the BSP and the BJP when it comes to grassroots campaigning and setting up booth committees, which ensure that the word from the top permeates to every village.

"Priyanka will create admirers, but they are the ones who bring admirers to the booth," he said.

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