When Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra took the plunge into active politics this January, a few months before the Lok Sabha election, there was great enthusiasm among Congress workers and leaders that this would herald the reversal of a prolonged series of electoral losses in Uttar Pradesh. Not only was Priyanka given the charge of eastern UP, but she started off in right earnest by carefully selecting places to visit, people to meet and things to say.
But in less than six months, the magic has waned. Priyanka is now like any other Congress leader, shorn of all political clout despite the resemblance with late Indira Gandhi, and lacking in the charisma to help her party win elections.
Her arrival was marked by an impressive road show in Lucknow on February 11, and some time later she started holding meetings for pre-election preparations. Her role was crucial in selection of candidates, stitching up alliance with a small regional party known as Mahan Dal, and generally keeping the party workers’ morale high.
However, despite her efforts to enthuse the party workers, her lack of maturity in making political statements impacted her credibility. First, she said at a party workers’ meeting that the Congress was actually preparing for the 2022 Assembly election, implying that the party did not expect much in the Lok Sabha election. She tried to make amends by clarifying that workers were also getting ready for the Assembly elections. Second, she said in response to a question that the party had put up candidates in such a manner so as to win cut votes of rival party, implying that the party was more in the role of a game-spoiler rather than playing for victory. Here also she tried to make emends by saying that actually the Congress was trying to help defeat the BJP wherever possible. And third, she almost non-seriously asked a group of people (mostly women) during an election meeting whether she should contest this election from Varanasi. Her statement quickly made the headlines and it was considered as a sign that she might contest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi. A few days later, however, it was announced that she was not contesting the election at all.
These flip-flops indicated that Priyanka did not understand the signals that emanate from off-the-cuff statements of eminent politicians, and such statement actually end up causing enormous damage to party’s prospects. Even though her brother Rahul Gandhi kept up the campaign pressure against Modi and BJP, but Priyanka’s impact had started diminishing by the time polling had reached mid-way.
And now, when the Congress has been badly mauled and left with only one seat in Rae Bareli represented by Sonia Gandhi, it is review time for the party. Priyanka visited Rae Bareli to review the party’s performance in eastern UP and during this exercise, she blamed the workers for not working hard enough to ensure party’s win. While pulling up party workers for failing to work for the Congress, Priyanka also said she will find out the names of the workers who did not work for the party in the election and take action against them.
Even UP Congress president Raj Babbar said that Priyanka had done her job well but party workers, local leaders, candidates and the organisation could not derive any benefit from this. He went to the extent of saying that party workers, local leaders and candidates were actually unable to prove themselves and rise to the occasion.
The statements have caused a lot of unease among Congress workers and district level leaders across UP. Although none of them want to speak openly about it, they feel that it was more a case of failure of leadership of the party than workers. “In fact the workers have always been more enthusiastic than leaders of the UPCC. We organised meetings, people came to listen to our leaders, there was visible enthusiasm to see and listen to Priyanka. What else were we expected to achieve?” asked a worker in Lucknow. Similarly, district level workers from Kanpur, Prayagraj and Unnao also echo the same sentiment. Many feel that the choice of candidates was such that it helped the BJP.
The ambiguous relationship with the Samajwadi Party and eventually the approach towards joint candidates of SP and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also did not help the Congress emerge as a challenger against the BJP. An office bearer of the Congress says that the party needed to display greater aggression against the SP-BSP to even look like a serious player.
A review meeting for western UP was held in Lucknow, chaired by Jyotiraditya Scindia, who lost his traditional Guna seat in Madhya Pradesh. Incidentally, top state Congress leaders including Imran Masood from Saharanpur, Salman Khurshid from Farrukhabad, Jitin Prasada from Dharuhara, and Sri Prakash Jaiswal from Kanpur did not attend this meeting. It was a lacklustre affair with no critical observations.
Now, it is learnt that that the Congress has decided to actually take the 2022 Assembly election with seriousness and Priyanka could visit the state more frequently in coming months. A report quoting party sources said that Priyanka could meet party workers twice a week without prior appointments and frequency of her tours of UP could also increase in the near future. By elections are due for 11 Assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh after MLAs from these seats were elected to Lok Sabha.