25/01/2017 9:39 AM IST | Updated 25/01/2017 10:23 AM IST

Why 'Apne Ladke Vs Bahri Modi' Could Backfire In Uttar Pradesh

UP is not Bihar.

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India's Congress Party vice-President Rahul Gandhi (C) addresses a press conference during the party's foundation day celebrations in New Delhi on December 28, 2016. The party celebrated its 131st foundation day during an event at its headquarters in the Indian capital / AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Congress party is launching a new campaign in UP around its alliance with the Samajwadi Party. It's called "Apne Ladke versus Bahri Modi". The campaign could not only backfire for the alliance, and even hurt how Akhilesh Yadav has built his own image before voters.

Akhilesh Yadav takes digs at Modi and Mayawati in passing, but by and large his campaign has been built only around his own development work. Crucially, Brand Akhilesh has been built simultaneous to Brand Modi, not in opposition to it.

The public response to demonetisation is mixed, with non-Yadav OBCs in particular happy about it. If you travel in UP today, you will meet a lot of people who will say Akhilesh is good and so is Modi; Akhilesh for state and Modi for centre.

"Apne Ladke versus Bahri Modi" could for the first time make Akhilesh's campaign about Modi rather than about himself, shifting attention from his campaign pitch to the larger than life persona of prime minister Narendra Modi.

Once it becomes about Modi, Hindu-Muslim polarisation may not be far. And communal polarisation, which helped the BJP win 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh 2014, is exactly what Akhilesh Yadav has been trying to avoid.

"Bahri Modi" could well be a shot in the arm for the BJP, whose leaders are openly complaining how Akhilesh Yadav's family feud is making people forget his shortcomings, such as poor law and order and scams during the Akhilesh regime.

Is the Varanasi MP an outsider?

It is untenable to sell "Bahri Modi" in Uttar Pradesh because Modi is the Lok Sabha representative of Varanasi. Besides, unlike Bihar or Punjab, UP does not have a strong sense of sub-nationalism.

All that the BJP has to do is turn around and ask if Rae Bareli's Lok Sabha MP Sonia Gandhi belongs to UP or is she bahri, outsider.

In Punjab, the Congress has been asserting a similar 'outsider' charge at the Aam Aadmi Party, whose main campaign face is Arvind Kejriwal.

In Bihar, the Lalu-Nitish-Congress Mahagatbandhan came up with the Bihari versus Bahri slogan only after prime minister Modi accused Nitish Kumar of having poor DNA. It was only after Modi made a personal attack at Nitish Kumar that the Grand Alliance, in victimhood mode, could call him an outsider who was insulting Bihari identity.

It worked in Bihar, also, because it was aimed less at Modi and more at Amit Shah, whose posters were all over the state, but who didn't have the mass appeal that Modi did.

To call Modi an outsider in UP, at this juncture, is like making an unnecessary personal attack on him which he could well use to play a victim card. He could well turn around and ask UP's voters, am I not yours? Truth is, there is no great anti-Modi sentiment in UP.

RSS ideologue MG Vaidya's comments on rethinking caste-based reservations have not had the same political impact in UP as Mohan Bhagwat's similar comments in 2015 did in Bihar.

No Short-Cuts

There's another reason why "Apne Ladke" is a bad idea. It is so obvious an attempt to make Rahul Gandhi piggyback on the goodwill Akhilesh Yadav has created for himself, that voters will likely see through it. There are no short-cuts to building Rahul Gandhi's image, especially after he ran a high-pitch campaign for UP's farmers and then suddenly vanished away.

Unlike Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi is not seen as someone who has delivered anything. Neither is he seen as a son of the soil. He is seen as a Delhi politician who, despite occasional bursts of enthusiasm, has failed to rebuild the Congress party in UP.

"Apne Ladke vs Bahri Modi" will appeal only to Muslim voters, but that is unnecessary. Muslim voters are already more inclined towards the Samajwadi Party. The announcement of an SP-Congress alliance by itself shifted the balance of Muslim sentiment from Mayawati to Akhilesh.

However, Akhilesh Yadav has been trying to win votes from across the spectrum, including upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs. Diluting his campaign to include the Congress-BJP binary could hurt this effort.

The shift of focus from Akhilesh Yadav to Rahul Gandhi and Modi may help the Congress improve its image in national politics as a worthy opponent of Modi, but it is bad news for Akhilesh Yadav's 2017 campaign.

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