Congress in UP: Flattering to deceive since 2007

Congress in Uttar Pradesh: Flattering to deceive since 2007

Will Congress eat into the anti-incumbency votes and hurt SP, or amplify the anti-establishment chorus in UP but eventually get elbowed out?

In November 2004, Congress president Sonia Gandhi fresh from her party's victory in the Lok Sabha elections six months back made one of those rare appearances at a media conclave. Asked to comment on the declining fortunes of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, she announced that some significant remedial measures were in the offing. "Expect some announcement Friday, Saturday or Sunday," she said. 

A couple of days later, Salman Khurshid, a known Mulayam Singh Yadav baiter in state politics, was appointed to lead the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee. Although Congress extended support to the Samajwadi Party government in UP, it made no bones about its intentions to box Mulayam Singh Yadav into a corner. It set the ball rolling to woo back Muslims who had left the Congress in droves after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

With nine Lok Sabha members and 25 MLAs to back him in the state, Rahul Gandhi led the Congress charge against the SP government ahead of the 2007 Assembly polls. Promising to "restore the glory" of the state, the Gandhi scion started his "yatra" from Mohan Nagar in Ghaziabad. Media reported, "a large crowd waited at the UP Gate to get a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi whose convoy took three hours to travel a distance of 15kms."

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Rahul Gandhi did all that an opposition party should to hold the incumbent government to account. But when the election results trickled in, the Congress was further down by three MLAs, winning just 22 seats in the house of 403. Mayawati romped home in the 2007 elections to win a clear majority with 206 seats.

The Congress's efforts, however, bore fruits in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Hurt by Mulayam Singh Yadav's overtures to former chief minister Kalyan Singh, Muslims deserted the SP in pockets. The Congress won 21 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP. It inflicted more misery on the SP when Raj Babbar defeated Mulayam Singh Yadav's daughter-in-law, wife of his son Akhilesh Yadav, Dimple Yadav in the Firozabad Lok Sabha by-poll.

Once again, Congress set out to reclaim its lost glory in the heartland state. This time, under the guidance of former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh, made in charge of the state. Rolling up his sleeves, Rahul Gandhi marshalled his forces against the state government - this time led by Mayawati. Accusing her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of protecting the corrupt, Congress promised food to the poor by enacting the food security bill.

People were again not convinced, and they found Mayawati's alternative in the Samajwadi Party instead. It projected itself as the "new SP", under Akhilesh Yadav, a party that has turned a new leaf, denying tickets to mafia and musclemen. It succeeded by a fair margin in convincing people and garnering their votes by winning an unprecedented 224 seats. The Congress improved its tally by a mere six seats from 22 to 28.

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Five years later, in the wilderness after the rout of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress joined hands with the SP to contest in just over a hundred seats. It registered its worst-ever performance in UP since Independence when only 7 of its MLAs could make it to the state legislature. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the election with a massive three-forth majority.

Three intriguing patterns emerge from assessing Congress's UP performances in the last decade and a half. First, on two occasions, at least in 2007 and 2012, the party made a concerted bid to reclaim its position in the state polity. Backed by its central government, it challenged the incumbent in power. It tried to hold both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati accountable as chief ministers. The party sought to woo back some of the constituencies it had lost to Mandal parties. Yet, people did not see it as a credible alternative in the reckoning.

The main opposition party - the BSP in 2007 and SP in 2012 - mobilised resentment against the governments in both cases. The 2012 election results are all the more telling. Just two years back, the same state had elected 22 Congress MPs to the Lok Sabha. A rough conversion of the Lok Sabha seats into assembly segments would show Congress led in more than a hundred MLA seats in 2009. In 2012, it could win a mere 28. The electorate voted for the Congress in more significant numbers when they could see that the party could form the government at the Centre because of its ability to win elsewhere in the country. Ten years later, even this perception lies shattered in the face of two consecutive and comprehensive drubbings in the Lok Sabha polls.

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Has the electorate started perceiving the Congress as a party of absentee landlords who would return to the field only at the time of an electoral harvest? The SP and BSP appear to have heavily invested in the state, and its leaders operate out of Lucknow. It is precisely this reason that Narendra Modi decided to contest from Varanasi in 2014. The Congress, on the other hand, seemed to be more headquarter centric. The high command model worked well for Congress until it had an organisational bulwark to back the central leadership operating out of Delhi. The party also had strong second rung leadership to influence the outcome at the local level, and the Congress in 2022 has neither.

This is why political observers view the party's renewed bid to regain its prime position under Priyanka Gandhi with great interest. The Congress general secretary in charge of the state has made active interventions in the last six months. She has travelled far and wide, meeting farmers killed in Lakhimpur Kheri, challenging Yogi Adityanath in Gorakhpur and promising 40 per cent tickets to women in the Assembly polls next year.

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Will this translate into votes?

Congress's last-mile sprint can impact the electioneering and possibly the outcome in the following ways. The party's aggressive campaign could wean away from the SP, a section of the anti-government votes, and it would have otherwise gone to the main opposition party, the SP. This division of votes hurts the SP and helps the BJP.

Or, as in 2007 and 2012, the Congress ends up amplifying the anti-establishment chorus but may again get elbowed out to a supplementary role with electoral benefits accruing to the party, which the electorate sees as best placed to challenge the ruling BJP. If this is how the electorate perceives the polity, then the SP stands to benefit.

Congress does not have either the committed cadre, organisation, or vote in UP to ensure that the ideologically inclined voters will vote in favour of the party irrespective of the possible outcome. If it is not seen as a serious challenger to the BJP, the voters searching for an alternative would instead go with someone in the reckoning.

(The writer is a journalist)