Priyanka Gandhi had spent just a few hours addressing roadside meetings in villages constituting the Rae Bareli Lok Sabha constituency and the word was out that the BJP candidate, Arun Nehru, would lose the elections. It was September 1999 and Priyanka’s decision to campaign for her mother in Amethi and in the neighbouring Rae Bareli was just as sudden as the
announcement this morning of her formal entry into the Congress and anointed general secretary.
In 1999, the Congress was almost a thing of the past in Uttar Pradesh and had lost Rae Bareli in 1996 and 1998. The BJP had roped in former Rajiv Gandhi loyalist, Arun Nehru, as its candidate and he seemed poised to win the seat. Priyanka simply went around the villages and her meetings were not even planned; she told the small groups that had gathered at her roadside meetings that her uncle (without naming Arun Nehru) had betrayed the trust her late father had placed and pleaded that he be taught a lesson.
A Formidable Political Force
Arun Kumar Nehru, once Rajiv Gandhi’s close aide, lost the election by a margin of 90,000 votes. He came fourth place, behind the Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in that order. The Congress won 10 seats from Uttar Pradesh and its total count – 114 -- was the worst of its tally until then. In Uttar Pradesh, however, the Congress had won 10 seats against the none it had in 1998. Priyanka Gandhi did contribute immensely to the party’s improved state in 1999. 2004 was another election and the Congress revival is history as much is the debacle of 2014.
The Congress party’s stock has shored up quite a lot since then and particularly after the party wrested power from the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajastan; Rahul Gandhi certainly emerged the leader of the opposition combine against Narendra Modi’s BJP in the past year and the cynics in the media alone seem to be building castles of a Mayawati or a Mamata Banerjee or a Yashwant Sinha as contenders to the Prime Minister’s Office post May 2019. Rahul Gandhi’s silence notwithstanding, he is clearly the front-runner for the top office; or his nominee will be Prime Minister.
Such a conclusion was based on the concrete alliances that have been made across the different states and among them the SP-BSP sealing a deal among themselves for Uttar Pradesh. Based on the outcome of the by-elections from Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Saharanpur, all of where the SP received the BSP’s unconditional support and the defeat of the BJP in all these places, all that was needed was common sense (and not rocket science) to conclude that the BJP is in for a massive loss from the 72 Lok Sabha seats it won from UP in 2014.
Similar losses from states where the BJP swept in 2014 – Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Delhi – appear certain and hence 272 will remain a pipedream. And all these losses were bound to lead to additional numbers to the Congress as well as strong SP and BSP contingents in the Lok Sabha post-May 2019. This along with Mamata Banerjee and others could have led to a 1996-like situation; and political parties and leaders, who are adept learning lessons in self-preservation were unlikely to repeat a 1996-like response insisting on a non-Congress-non-BJP government. They all have the 2004 and 2009 experience to learn from and hence gather around the Congress.
Priyanka Gandhi’s decision to plunge and take up the party’s affairs in Eastern Uttar Pradesh has upset this reading. With her taking up a formal role and her brother assigning to her eastern Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is not a marginal player, in any sense, in Uttar Pradesh. And the SP-BSP combine cannot see all the anti-incumbency votes landing on their laps in the natural way. The Congress could end up taking the chunk of the anti-BJP votes in Uttar Pradesh. The question, then, is whether it could help the BJP?
Eye On UP?
Well. The Congress, from whatever Rahul Gandhi has stood for since the post-poll alliance he organised in Karnataka in May last year, may not intend doing this. And such a decision to draft in Priyanka Gandhi would not have been taken without weighing the consequences.
Is it then possible that the decision is the outcome of a reading that the SP-BSP combine could end up pushing the upper castes rally behind Adithyanath’s BJP; this is likely given the animosity of the upper castes against all and any empowerment of the others. Such a consolidation could help the BJP add up a few seats to its kitty in eastern Uttar Pradesh. A concerted Congress campaign in the region, however, is bound to hurt the BJP most alongside the damage it can cause to the SP-BSP there. Priyanka Gandhi’s push, less than 100 days before the polls are held, raises a whole lot of imponderables.
Well. A week, it is held, is a long time in politics. The political discourse and prospects for May 2019 has changed a lot overnight; between January 22 and 23, 2019. Meanwhile, the Congress will now enter into a phase with at least two power-centres, unprecedented in its short history. The union government, meanwhile, will end up pulling some more stops on the Robert Vadra front and this will put the onus on Manohar Lal Khattar.
V Krishna Ananth is Professor of History, SLABS, SRM University AP, Amaravati.