Sonia Gandhi's roadshow in Varanasi tomorrow is making clear the outlines of the Congress strategy in Uttar Pradesh: target the BJP, ignore SP and BSP. Trying to turn the narrative from BSP vs SP to Congress vs BJP, the party hopes to reap gains not only in Uttar Pradesh, but also recast its national image.
It is rare for an opposition leader to storm into the prime minister's bastion and challenge the ruling party head-on. The very idea of a roadshow in Varanasi is reminiscent of Modi's roadshow in Varanasi for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. That election, Arvind Kejriwal landed up in Varanasi, raising his stature from that of a Delhi leader to someone willing and able to take on Modi.
The Congress party hopes to achieve the same with the roadshow tomorrow. With the loss of Assam and Kerala, the Congress is seen as a party fading away from the Indian political landscape. Taking on not just the BJP but Modi himself in his own Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress is trying to show it isn't down and out. The grand old party has enough life left in it to put up another fight and rise like a phoenix.
Until now, the Congress party has shown reluctance in campaigning in urban areas as they are strongholds of the BJP. With Sonia Gandhi on the streets of Banaras, the party taking a complete about-turn to show it is no longer afraid of the BJP-RSS muscle in cities. Not just any other city but Varanasi, which hasn't seen a BJP defeat in the Lok Sabha all these years of the SP and BSP sweeping away political power in Uttar Pradesh. The municipal body and the Vidhan Sabha seats in Varanasi city have all been dominated by the BJP for 25 years.
Normally trying to save the Gandhi family from all risk, the Congress is going to the other extreme, and exposing Sonia Gandhi herself in Modi's citadel. It's a high-risk plan. There will be no one to blame if it fails. Success, however, could bring high rewards.
Where the Gandhis go for election campaigning, they helicopter in, address rallies, helicopter out. This time, the party started its campaign with by putting all its state leadership in a three-day bus tour from Delhi to Kanpur, to show a new Congress leadership that is accessible to party workers and voters alike.
Then, on 29 July, there was an interactive session between Rahul Gandhi and part workers in Lucknow. It wasn't an event where people were bused in to listen to one speech after another. It was a show of strength for a party that is considered dead on the ground. These are workers who have been prepared by strategist Prashant Kishor's team over the last four months.
This time it is a 6 kms long road-show over 3-5 hours, not a rally with a crowd bused in. Sonia Gandhi is going to the voter herself. Her message? Modi's failure. A Varanasi road-show considered successful will help make the point that Modi's support and charisma are on a downward slope. She will ask about the grand promises to clean up the Ganga, the welfare of weavers, the plight of the city. It's a campaign that's been called Dard-e-Banaras.
While the prime minister has announced grand plans for Varanasi's revival, these haven't yet seen fruition. Even his adopted village has people unhappy. The Congress hopes to show up Varanasi as a symbol of Modi's failure to deliver on sky-high promises.
Sonia Gandhi is going to the voter herself. Her message? Modi's failure.
More than voters, it is the Congress worker whom this act is aimed at. The idea is to give Congress sympathisers and workers the message that the general is willing to lead from the front. Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati haven't yet made such efforts to take on Modi in Varanasi. By outdoing them, Sonia Gandhi is also sending a message to Muslim voters about who occupies the prime slot amongst anti-Modi forces. She isn't willing to vacate that position for a Nitish Kumar or Arvind Kejriwal so easily. The location is Varanasi, but the target audience isn't just Uttar Pradesh, it is Delhi and Ahmedabad alike.
Her roadshow will begin from an Ambedkar statue. Dalits in Uttar Pradesh aren't about to desert Mayawati en masse, but the significance of starting with Ambedkar will not be lost on Dalits across India at a time when the BJP is under fire for the flogging of Dalits in Gujarat.
Sonia Gandhi will also visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple, considered a must for any good Hindu visiting Varanasi. She will end her roadshow at the statue of Kamlapati Tripathi, veteran Congress leader from the state, not co-incidentally a Brahmin. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress sees the Brahmin vote as its passport to reincarnation. Having announced Sheila Dikshit, daughter-in-law of another late, veteran Brahmin Congressman from the state, the party hopes the state's 10% Brahmins will look towards it once again.