Anyone suggesting Sheila Dikshit will be the next chief minister of Uttar Pradesh would be laughed at. But the fact that she has been named as the Congress party's chief ministerial candidate - a rare practice in the party - speaks of the seriousness with which the Congress is taking Uttar Pradesh.
If campaign strategist Prashant Kishor had his way, the announcement would have happened months ago. The indecisive, faction-ridden, floundering Congress party has at long last decided to let Kishor have his way in UP.
The announcement is being greeted with scepticism. The Congress party, for long the number four player in the state, desperately needs a revival. Can Dikshit be the face of the new Uttar Pradesh Congress? The three-term Delhi chief minister is 78.
She had an angioplasty three years ago, but is otherwise in good health. Not that age is any reason for retirement in Indian politics. Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal is 88, Tarun Gogoi recently ended his 15 year stint as Assam chief minister at 81, and prime minister Manmohan Singh was 81 when he demitted office.
Yet at this age, can she really campaign like a chief ministerial candidate? Candidates seeking executive office helicopter in and out of village fields during elections, addressing at least 4 gatherings every day. In the Bihar election last year, Lalu Yadav was doing as many as 9.
Dikshit's age may also be used by the other three parties to counter her image of a good administrator who turned Delhi around between 1998 and 2013. In Uttar Pradesh politics, a face more credible has not been seen.
The 10% Brahmin vote in UP has become the first vote. Over the last few elections, Brahmins have found themselves to be on the winning side. They help create the noise and the buzz about which way the wind is blowing. That is why it was important for the Congress to have a Brahmin face. Disenchanted with the BJP for not replacing Atal Behari Vajpayee with an equally senior Brahmin face, the community was happy to make common cause even with the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, known earlier for its anti-upper caste rhetoric.
The only trouble with trying to use has a Brahmin leader is that she is not Brahmin, at least not by birth. Born in Kapurthala, Punjab, she is a Punjabi Khatri. Miranda House alumnus Sheila Kapoor became Dikshit when she married Vinod Dikshit, an IAS officer, whose father, Congress leader Uma Shankar Dikshit hailed from Unnao near Lucknow.
Uma Shankar Dikshit passed away in 1991, and is a distant memory in UP. UP's Brahmins take these things very seriously. They don't see Murli Manohar Joshi as one of their own because he is a Pahari Brahmin from Kumaon. Sub-caste matters, too. What they look forward to is a son of the soil Kanyakubj Brahmin. This is why Saryupari Brahmins like the BJP's Kalraj Mishra are not very popular.
She may not be son of the soil, but she is daughter-in-law alright. Another way Dikshit helps Kishor's strategy is to woo the woman voter. So far, the woman voter in Uttar Pradesh has not been seriously mobilised independent of caste or other factors. The team of Dikshit and Priyanka Gandhi, along with Kishor's promise of giving tickets to women to counter goondas, may work with the woman voter.
While there may be doubts about her age and her Brahmin-ness, it's perhaps the best face the Congress could have, given that no leader in the Uttar Pradesh Congress can match the political stature of Mayawati or even Akhilesh Yadav. Dikshit is an insider-outsider for UP, having contested four Lok Sabha elections from the state, even though she won only one of them.
The Congress now looks all set to make a grand beginning to its Uttar Pradesh campaign in early August, having met all of Prashant Kishor's demands.
Given that she has been a Delhi politician for two decades, she does not belong to any particular camp in Uttar Pradesh Congress. Similarly, the new Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee chief Raj Babbar is not part of any of the established camps in the party. These choices, therefore, steer clear of the party's infamous factionalism.
The Congress now looks all set to make a grand beginning to its Uttar Pradesh campaign in early August, having met all of Prashant Kishor's demands. The Congress has replaced the UPCC chief Nirmal Khatri, Priyanka Gandhi has agreed to campaign across the state, and the woman of Kishor's choice, Dikshit, has been named chief ministerial candidate. The ball is now in Kishor's court, who has promised a Congress campaign that Uttar Pradesh has not seen, and bets that he will deliver the chief minister's chair.
The party made Dikshit Kerala governor but she lost that to the Modi sarkar. The party didn't give her a Rajya Sabha ticket and having handed the Delhi Congress over to Ajay Maken, did not use her in the Delhi assembly elections last year. If at this age she spends her energies campaigning in UP and that does not yield results, she may not be wrong in feeling like a sacrificial lamb.