Can the Congress make a comeback in Uttar Pradesh (UP) after more than a quarter-of-a-century in next assembly polls early next year? Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, is busy with kisan yatras and khat panchayats in UP to positively answer this question.

 

Congress demonstrated its seriousness by roping in famed strategist Prashant Kishore (PK), who was credited with Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar’s victory in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

 

Congress is at its lowest ebb in UP; it won 28 seats and 11.63% votes in the 2012 assembly elections. The party is strategizing for victory in next elections. The only question is: how many seats the party will win? 

 

Let’s look at Congress' strategy on ideological, organizational, mobilisational and leadership fronts.

 

Congress is known for its centrist ideology with leaning slightly towards the left. Inclusion and secularism are its twin ideological mantras.   

Congress is known for its centrist ideology with leaning slightly towards the left. Inclusion and secularism are its twin ideological mantras.   

Congress inclusiveness as demonstrated by its rainbow social coalition was challenged by the rise of caste parties BSP and SP led by Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav respectively during the 1980s. These parties represented Dalit and OBC aspirations and identities. Congress had failed to give them due share in leadership structure.

 

The SP-BSP hijacked Congress’ secular agenda when it facilitated opening locks of Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid that subsequently led to its demolition in 1992. Earlier, the 1984 anti-sikh riots in wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination compromised its secular credentials.

 

For the coming polls, Congress is trying to win over estranged social denominations. But, besides harping on its traditional commitment to secularism, the party has nothing new to offer.

 

The Congress strategy on organizational front is weak. The party lost power in UP on 5 December 1989 when its chief minister Narayan Dutt Tewari passed on baton to Mulayam Singh Yadav. By being out of power for more than 25 years, its supporters drifted to other parties.

 

Congress suffers from the high-command culture. That has harmed its grassroots organization. Party workers complain that despite hard work, they are ignored. Those who manage to reach out to the high command get positions in local units. That demoralizes them. Allegedly, tickets are allotted to outsiders or non-performers who have some clout with the high command.

 

Is Congress doing anything to revamp party at local levels? It cannot win elections through spontaneous mobilisation of voters only during election time. How can the party expect local Congressmen to sincerely campaign for its candidates?

 

However, the mobilisation strategy of Congress is a little more robust this time. The idea to mobilise farmers, Dalits and the youth through Rahul is effective. It transforms caste-calculus into class-mobilisation. If Congress’s reported strategy to persuade its LS contestants to be candidates for assembly polls comes true, the party could be in the fray in about 80 constituencies. One  LS contestant looks after five assembly segments. If they were to contest just one segment, they could become strong contenders.

 

Also, Congress has hidden votes. In the 2009 LS elections, it lost six seats it held, retained only three (Amethi, Raebareily and Kanpur), but won 18 new seats taking its tally to 21 seats. The party also registered accretions in vote share across all social denominations.

 

Also read: When a Khat-fight broke out in Uttar Pradesh

 

The current Dalit yatras and khat charchas could enable Congress to reach out to such hidden voters and drag them towards Congress.

 

But, Congress has erred terribly on its leadership strategy. It has dusted out leaders with precious little appeal. Sheila Dikshit, Raj Babbar and Sanjay Singh are its chief ministerial candidate, state president and chief campaign manager respectively. None inspires confidence among people. Many thought Priyanka Gandhi would be roped in this do-or-die poll.

 

Rahul appeals to people despite his weaknesses. Congress is utilizing his services in the hope that he would enthuse people voters. But voters will weigh up the credentials of local candidates and chief ministerial candidate before casting their verdict. It is possible that Rahul may face embarrassment and his elevation to party president may be prefaced with gloom.

 

On the social engineering front, the party strategy is sluggish. Congress roped in a Brahmin CM candidate and a Thakur campaign manager. Does Sheila hold any attraction for Brahmins? And, why should Brahmins vote Congress when BJP and BSP are better options as both may catapult them to power. Thakurs had been with SP since the Raja Bhaiya episode and they may continue to support it.

 

Raj Babar is an OBCs, but not an OBC leader. Will he attract OBCs to Congress when they have better options in SP and the BJP (Narendra Modi is OBC)?

 

Rahul had been targeting Dalits. His current yatras focus on having meals with them. If Dalits come out of identity politics and move to development politics, they have a better option in Modi’s BJP.

 

Muslims may shift to Congress in constituencies where the party comes is reasonably competitive. Here it may be helped by the running feud in the ruling Yadav clan.

 

It is quite likely that Congress' seriousness about reclaiming its erstwhile rainbow social coalition in UP may bring some dividends for the party in UP 2017. But will that be enough to make Congress a robust   political alternative in the state?

 

Dr AK Verma is Chair, Department of Political Science,  Christ Church College, Kanpur