NEW DELHI — Priyanka Gandhi Vadra formally joining politics is key to the Congress Party’s efforts to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, senior Congress leaders told HuffPost India on Wednesday.
Congress Party sources said that the party is banking on a three cornered fight —the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) in one corner, a Priyanka Gandhi fronted Congress in the second corner — reducing the BJP to single digits in Uttar Pradesh.
UP is India’s most politically significant state, sending 80 lawmakers to Parliament.
While discussions of her joining have been going on for “sometime,” Congress leaders said the decision was made after the BSP and the SP formed their own an alliance, earlier this month.
A section of Congress leaders believes that a BSP-SP alliance could repel certain sections of the voting population, the non-Yadav Other Backward Class (OBC) communities, the non-Jatav Dalits, and the Brahmins, who might then consolidate in favour of the BJP.
The non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs were once loyal to the BSP chief Mayawati, a Jatav Dalit, and the SP, founded by Mulayam Singh Yadav and now led by his son Akhilesh Yadav, respectively. Over the course of two decades, however, these loyalties have fragmented. In the wake of the Narendra Modi wave that swept UP in 2014, the BJP has made significant inroads into these communities and is expected continue to canvas their votes in 2019.
The Congress Party wants to present itself as a viable option for voters from these two groups as well as the Brahmins, and a charismatic leader like Priyanka Gandhi could help achieve this goal, party sources said.
The Congress Party announced that it will contest all 80 seats in UP after the BSP and SP chiefs said their parties would fight the Lok Sabha election together. But now the party is facing a cadre crunch ahead of the crucial general elections scheduled for this summer.
The Congress, which has been out of power in UP for over two decades, has neither the workers nor the resources to challenge the formidable electoral machinery of the BJP led by Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
Instead, party leaders said, the Congress hopes that Priyanka Gandhi, through sheer force of her personality and her resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi, can help galvanise voters.
A senior Congress Party leader in UP called her the “ X factor.”
“You can either rely on a strong sangathan (cadre) or the X factor. Two months is not enough to revive the sangathan. Priyanka Gandhi is the X factor,” the leader said.
“It has been done with a view to help the SP and the BSP,” the leader said. “There is an understanding.”
On Wednesday, the Congress Party appointed Priyanka Gandhi as the General Secretary for Uttar Pradesh East, effectively making her in-charge of the party’s election campaign in eastern UP, regarded a bastion of UP chief minister and Hindutva hardliner Yogi Adityanath.
While Priyanka Gandhi has campaigned for her brother and Congress president Rahul Gandhi and her mother Sonia Gandhi in Amethi and Raebareli respectively, and has been involved in framing election strategies for the Congress, this is the first time that she has been given a formal post.
Senior Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, was appointed General Secretary for Uttar Pradesh West.
Congress leaders said that it was unlikely that Priyanka Gandhi would contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but her stepping into the fray at this stage, is laying the groundwork for a Congress comeback in the 2022 UP assembly election.
“This is long-term, taking into account the big picture,” the leader said.
The rise of the Congress Party in UP, however, would be antithetical to the interests of the two main regional parties, the BSP and SP.
Congress workers in UP have been pushing for Priyanka Gandhi to join them in UP for a long time, but the 47-year-old politician, and mother of two children, has steered clear of upstaging her 48-year-old brother, Rahul Gandhi.
Now, with Rahul Gandhi ensconced as party president, Priyanka Gandhi’s role in the party has been formalised.
Priyanka Gandhi, who is currently in the US and is expected to take charge in February, has an uphill task in the few months remaining before the election.
With the exception of Amethi and Raebareli, the traditional bastions of the Gandhi family, the Congress Party did not win any other seat in UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Of the seats in which the Congress Party finished second — Barabanki, Saharanpur, Ghaziabad, Padrauna, Lucknow and Kanpur — only Padrauna is in eastern UP.
While some regard Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics as a turning point for the Congress in UP, analysts are skeptical about the impact she will have in the state.
“It is too little too late,” said Ashutosh Mishra, a political science professor at Lucknow University, arguing that invoking the image of Indira Gandhi would no longer fly with the new generation of voters.
“Priyanka Gandhi should have stepped into UP politics a decade ago. The moment has lost its punch. The edge has gone,” he said.
Bhagwati Prasad Chaudhary, who heads the Congress’s Scheduled Caste department in UP, said, “This is the moment that Congress workers have been waiting for. The Congress Party has finally entered the fight for UP.”