With less than two months to go for the 2017 assembly elections, Uttar Pradesh remains anybody's game. "Anything can happen," "hung assembly," "khichdi," "nothing is clear," are the words you hear, no matter who you ask.
There is, however, one certainty – that the Congress party is not in the race, unless it succeeds in convincing 'Netaji' Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party supremo, to ally with it.
The Congress party office in Mall Avenue, the heart of the city, looks like a wedding venue all dressed up, but the bride has run away. The car park is full with cars that still wear outdated banners of Rahul Gandhi's kisan yatra, or even before that, the Sheila Dikshit bus campaign across the state, '27 saal, UP behaal'. Twenty seven years the Congress hasn't been in power, the message goes, leaving UP is in a mess.
The Congress itself is in no mess. It's in a near-coma. For all these rows of cars, where are its occupants? They have gone home, it would appear, waiting for the bride to return.
Inside the antiquated building, once inaugurated by Indira Gandhi, a few old men sit around chatting. It looks like an anachronism - the building, its architecture, its upkeep, its empty rooms, the ghostly old men who walk around. You can hear faint voices threatening to write letters to Sonia ji. The building is called Nehru Bhavan; what else would it be called? Indira Gandhi inaugurated it.
A living museum
All the other parties capitalise on their rich histories, using the past to create new political realities. At Nehru Bhavan, the only reality is a deathly silence. It's as if the groom is still waiting for the bride to return, 27 years later, but is doing little to find her.
The Congress party should turn Nehru Bhawan into a museum. No, seriously. The dusty portraits of leaders starting with the 1920s make it look like a museum anyway. Most of today's voters have not seen the era of Nehru or even Indira. Turning this building into a museum might be a better PR exercise than having it as the party office. Meanwhile, they could build a more contemporary office.
Campuses come to life with people. Adjoining Nehru Bhavan, on the same campus, they have built another building, a media centre. It gets refurbished and re-inaugurated every few years. Every time it gets a new plaque with the name of a new leader. Yet it's as deserted as the main building, a sharp contrast to offices of the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, always bustling with people.
Outside the media block, a few men sit around in plastic chairs enjoying the winter sun, leisurely discussing the day's news.
A spokesperson defends the absence of activity: the campaign is on the ground. The ticket seekers are in Delhi. Go to the districts, you'll see our campaign. No, no, nothing has come to a halt.
It's all a bit strange. Rahul Gandhi's kisan yatra ended on 7 October. From July to August the Congress, on the shoulders of Prashant Kishor's army of young professionals, was campaigning as if the elections were to be held in November. But something happened, the bride ran away. A gargantuan effort that had people talking about the Congress as though it was a serious player, was suddenly abandoned.
Rahul Gandhi went around Uttar Pradesh, from one corner of this vast state to another, demanding justice for farmers. And then the Congress did nothing, at least nothing that made an impact, nothing that would make people talk about the Congress party in the same sentence as elections. It's been nearly two months. Which other party fights elections this way?
Sheila Dikshit who?
In the heart of Lucknow, Nehru Bhavan occupies a prime location. Those giving you directions to addresses in Mall Avenue still use the Congress office as the landmark, not Mayawati's fortress of a house next door.
Outside the office is a roundabout, a gol chakkar, with Congress buntings all over it. Billboards of party leaders cover the entire roundabout. Most names on them are Brahmin; a Mishra here and a Pandey there. Conspicuous by her absence is Sheila Dikshit, the party's chief ministerial candidate.
A few steps away, a washerman irons clothes. He has used a large plastic poster of Sheila Dikshit to cover his shed. Nobody from Nehru Bhawan seems to have objected. Perhaps the idea is to show the Congress is a party of the poor.
A spokesperson insists Sheila Dikshit hasn't bowed out of the campaign. And Prashant Kishor? Oh, he was only ever making the strategy, we were the ones implementing it. "Whatever work the party has assigned him, he is doing it."
Kishor has been in Punjab for many days now. A Congress leader privately admits most of Kishor's team has also moved to Punjab, doubling the effort for Captain Amarinder Singh. There's a sense of relief amongst Congressmen in UP that Kishor has gone away. "He will still do the final campaign," the leader says.
A difference of opinion
The truth is the Congress campaign in UP has suffered because of differences between Prashant Kishor and Rahul Gandhi, a little birdie tells us. During Gandhi's kisan yatra, he travelled across Uttar Pradesh non-stop for a month, not just addressing rallies but also campaigning door to door. The sudden abandonment of UP is explained by Gandhi's refusal to follow Kishor's plan after the Kisan Yatra.
Kishor wanted a number of high-octane campaigns, just like the kisan yatra, which would have meant the Gandhi family spending a lot of time in UP. After the kisan yatra, Kishor wanted the Congress to launch a similar month-long campaign to woo "most backward" caste voters. The idea was to demand an MBC sub-quota within the Other Backward Classes quota, just like it is in Bihar. The spokesperson at Nehru Bhawan didn't even know his party's national vice president, Rahul Gandhi, had made such an announcement.
There were a number of other things on the to-do list, such as getting Priyanka Gandhi to campaign door-to-door. So far, the top leadership of the party remains reluctant to 'launch' Priyanka as it fears failure in UP might get her dubbed a failure too.
Begging for an alliance
Kishor sought meetings with the senior Yadav and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. While these were denied by the Congress party as an official effort, the party is now desperately wooing 'Netaji' Mulayam to sign on an alliance that would also include Jat leader Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal. Akhilesh Yadav is said to be in favour of such an alliance, his difficult uncle Shivpal Yadav against it. Netaji, reluctant about the idea, is yet to take a final call.
Should such an alliance take place, it would have a very high chance of success, helping make the Congress party look relevant in both Uttar Pradesh and nationally. Unless that happens, the silence in Nehru Bhawan will get louder.