Uttar Pradesh is up for grabs in next year’s assembly elections.
With anti-incumbency stalking the Akhilesh Yadav government, Narendra Modi losing his earlier appeal and Mayawati yet to live down her statue-building extravaganza when in power, there is no obvious winner.
Seeing the empty field, the hero of Bihar’s ‘mahagathbandhan’ or grand alliance, Nitish Kumar, decided to try his luck by cobbling together a motley combination of his own Janata Dal-United (JD-U), Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, the virtually unknown Peace Party of Mohammed Ayub Ansari and so on. But the Bihar chief minister’s house of cards fell down even before it was readied with Ajit Singh walking out.
Into this untidy scene walked Prashant Kishor, the US-trained election strategist with two successes under his belt – Modi’s and Nitish Kumar’s victories in 2014 and 2015.
He has been handpicked by Rahul Gandhi to deliver Uttar Pradesh to the Congress and it is a tribute to the putative election mastermind’s courage that he has had no hesitation in taking up what must appear to most as a lost cause.
Prashant Kishor’s venture may also be a display of the over-confidence bred by his two successes. But those were predictable achievements since, in 2014, Modi was on a roll with a scam-tainted Manmohan Singh government committing hara-kiri.
And, in 2015, Nitish Kumar was ready to continue his interrupted reign (he was chief minister from 2005 to 2014 when he resigned to atone for the JD-U’s poor performance in the general election) as the voters knew him as a clean and able administrator. Besides, Modi’s image had started fading by then.
Prashant Kishor, therefore, is facing his biggest test. His opening gambit was to suggest that Rahul Gandhi be projected as a chief ministerial candidate.
It was promptly shot down by, among others, Jairam Ramesh, who said that the Congress vice president was preparing to take over as the party chief in the near future.
In any event, the average Congressman cannot conceive of the larger-than-life heir-apparent who is meant to rule the country becoming a mere chief minister.
The fact that Prashant Kishor at all suggested his name shows that for all his supposed expertise in electoral politics, he hasn’t quite grasped the essence of the Congress’ feudal character which puts the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty above the party.
A belated awareness of this factor may have led to Priyanka Gandhi’s name being advanced as a chief minister. It is no secret that she has long been a favourite of many Congressmen who believe that she has greater charisma than her brother – if only because she tends to revive memories of Indira Gandhi among partymen and even ordinary people.
A third name has also been mentioned – that of Sheila Dixit. But this is in the nature of a last resort, for it is unlikely that the 75-year-old former Delhi chief minister will set the Yamuna on fire if she enters the arena.
But there is little doubt that the person who is most likely to create a flutter, at least in election rallies, is Priyanka – even if this does not lead to a jump in the Congress’ share of votes.
Of all the states, Uttar Pradesh’s association with the Nehru-Gandhis is expected to enthuse a section of voters if a member of the dynasty is named as a chief minister. The Brahmins and the Muslims are mentioned in this context.
But the choice of the people and of the family may not be the same – whatever be Prashant Kishor’s game plan.
It goes without saying that the projection of Priyanka will put Rahul in the shade during the campaign and more so if the Congress shows signs of revival.
It is the possibility of outshining her brother which has made Priyanka keep out of national politics, engaging only in tending to the family’s balliwicks in Rae Bareli and Amethi.
How eager she will be to play a larger role is not known. So far as Prashant Kishor is concerned, he has made the right choice. His has been a common sense approach, apparently aided by a lack of awareness of not only the Congress’s internal politics but also of the dynastic implications which recall the sibling rivalries of medieval times.
The other contenders will no doubt feel somewhat apprehensive if Priyanka appears on the scene. A fresh face is always welcomed by the electorate even if her party continues to be regarded as tainted, cynical and devoid of ideas, especially in the economic field.
However, the fact that the Congress is not too worried about Priyanka’s “baggage” of a husband embroiled in allegedly dubious business deals is evident from the posters that have appeared of Robert Vadra in the rally organized by the party on the Agusta affair.
Priyanka also featured in the placards along with her mother and brother to suggest a churning process in the party.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)