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How Prashant Kishor And Priyanka Gandhi Could Change UP Politics Forever

13/07/2016 5:40 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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There is no denying that all eyes will be trained on the upcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Given that these elections are the veritable semi-finals before the 2019 general elections, the stakes are high for all the players, not least of all the Congress party, which just about managed to scrape by in the Gandhi family bastions of Rae Bareli and Amethi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Come 2019, does it stand the slightest chance in Uttar Pradesh? Cue the dramatic entry of Priyanka Gandhi and the backstage machinations of ace strategist Prashant Kishor.

While some commentators are saying that Kishor has bitten off more than he can chew by taking on the task of reviving the Congress's fortunes in UP, his track record is impressive. He helped script a stupendous victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the general elections and then engineered Nitish Kumar's win in the Bihar assembly elections last year. His strategy for the Congress's resurgence in Uttar Pradesh is simple and two-pronged: attract Brahmins and make Priyanka Gandhi the face of the party's campaign.

Kishor's strategy for the Congress's resurgence in Uttar Pradesh is simple and two-pronged: attract Brahmins and make Priyanka Gandhi the face of the party's campaign.

There's plenty of scepticism regarding both strategies, but whoever has closely followed Kishor's way of functioning knows that he has an incredible ability to create a wave – a "hawa" to use Hindi parlance. Both his past campaigns are reflective of this. Already, the "leaks" about Priyanka being the Congress's chief ministerial candidate in UP are dominating column inches. Kishor's deft moves have brought the Congress back into the limelight where it was earlier not even being considered a bit player. But what next? Is this just "hawa" or will the winds of change really blow for the Congress? If Priyanka's name is indeed announced as CM candidate or the leader of the campaign, how will it change the shape of the upcoming elections? Let us look at some factors.

Pawan Kumar / Reuters

Priyanka's Charisma

Simply put, Priyanka is as popular a leader that the Congress will be able to muster up. None of their current leaders from the state has either the stature or the popularity to lead a campaign in the country's most significant state. Priyanka on the other hand is massively popular and will give a big boost to the workers' morale. At a time when theatrics rule the charts of domestic politics, Priyanka's good Hindi, witty comebacks and great oratory skills will come in handy during the elections. Kishor has already made an army of more than 10,000 freshly identified workers who'll be trained by his team to campaign at the booth level.

The Gandhi Factor

Let's face it. However many political obituaries of the Gandhis are written and howsoever much there may be a clamour to get rid of the dynasty, the family has staying power. Anybody who has followed the history of Indian politics will agree that without the Gandhis, the party would be fragmented into multiple regional outfits. Remember the infamous tenure of Sitaram Kesari as the Congress president, when many prominent leaders like Arjun Singh, Madhavrao Scindia, ND Tiwari etc deserted the party to form their own? They only returned when Sonia Gandhi took over as the Congress president.

The call for Priyanka to play a prominent role has the backing of more than 600 block chiefs out of the party's 620...

Besides, a Gandhi holding the reins of state elections would give out a strong signal that they don't shy away from responsibilities and only focus on national politics. And not to mention, Priyanka bears a strong resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi. Why should this matter? This is INDIA.

An Upsurge In Workers' Morale

Dedicated cadres who encourage people to vote in favour of a party are just as essential to success as big leaders and grand rallies. Over the years, the cadres of the UP Congress have become extremely disillusioned, with many switching allegiance to other mainstream parties. With Priyanka's entry, not only will she be able to galvanize the whole party machinery but also give them confidence that they actually stand a chance of winning. Besides, it is also widely believed that the call for Priyanka to play a prominent role has the backing of more than 600 block chiefs out of the party's 620 – they are convinced that she can be a game-changer.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
Prashant Kishor

Caste Arithmetic Needs Leadership Support

The math that has been worked out by strategist Prashant Kishor is that the party should mobilize Brahmins who once used to be the Congress's core vote base before they shifted loyalties. His sense is that the party could successfully woo the Brahmins who are feeling increasingly marginalized by SP, BSP and the BJP. The Muslims too will return back to the party's fold as they're known to swing to the winning side. This accompanied by the support of Ajit Singh's RLD and Jat voters and Nitish Kumar's JD(U) with some sections of the Kurmi votes, can form a formidable combination. It makes patent good sense for the Congress to woo the Brahmins and other upper castes. Unlike other states, the upper castes comprise nearly 20% of UP's population, of which Brahmins comprise nearly 9%. As per the election data of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, when the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections won 21 seats in UP, 31% of the state's Brahmins voted for the party. It was the highest percentage of votes the party polled in any social group. But for such arithmetic to work, you need a strong leadership to look up to and Priyanka Gandhi can provide just that. The idea to propose former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's name as a potential Chief Ministerial candidate as well has been done for the very same purpose – she has Brahmin roots and her father-in-law, Uma Shankar Dikshit, was a veteran Congress leader in the state.

If Priyanka is indeed elevated to the helm of the Congress in UP, even an electoral defeat may leave the party better off than it was before.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

The Congress is at its historic low but it would be foolish to expect it to fizzle out just yet from the Indian political landscape. But in order to reinvent itself, it requires a dynamic leadership which is embodied in Priyanka. Plus, her name is also not synonymous to defeat unlike her brother Rahul Gandhi. Her aggressively campaigning during the elections will not only draw huge crowds and dominate media space but also get the general public talk about the Congress as an alternative. This suits Kishor's style of creating a "hawa" during election campaigning. At a time when the party is relegated to a fourth position in the state, there cannot be a better alternative to lead the campaign than Priyanka. Both Kishor and the entire Congress leadership understand that.

If Priyanka is indeed elevated to the helm of the Congress in UP, even an electoral defeat may leave the party better off than it was before. It would be more likely to be in a strong position to dictate who forms the next government in the state and that will be a massive achievement. That is precisely why even though Mayawati has formally rejected an alliance, backdoor negotiations and understandings are still expected. This in turn will be a big letdown for Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, for whom winning Uttar Pradesh is a matter of prestige. It will also send out a signal to the voters that the BJP has fallen weak and that can hamper its chances in the 2019 elections. Whether Priyanka accepts the responsibility and what sort of electoral implications it has on the elections is yet to be seen. But if she agrees to fight this battle, then along with the help of strategist Prashant Kishor, she may change UP politics forever.

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