Congress tactical support boosts grand alliance prospects in eastern UP

(Kushal Jeena)

India’s grand old Congress party has put up its candidates in the eastern part of country’s largest populated state of Uttar Pradesh in a manner that tactically helps the grand alliance to improve its electoral prospects instead of party winning term Congress is thus playing crucial role of spoiler for the BJP.

A close look at the selection of Congress candidates in eastern Uttar Pradesh is indicative of tactical support to the Mahagathbandhan or grand alliance. Congress, which was claiming to alter the social equations in UP, is now tactically helping the SP-BSP combine win in constituencies where the party doesn’t have a chance of winning. Congress has declared candidates for 64 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP.

“There is nothing new in that. We had focused on 22 odd seats and had planned to leave others for the grand alliance. So, while SP and BSP leaders are now attacking Congress in their election rallies, the targets of Congress’ campaign continue to be BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” said a senior Congress leader.

Congress general secretary in charge of eastern UP Priyanka Gandhi is campaigning in the seats where the party has high probability of winning. Over all, going by its list, Congress candidates will help the grand alliance in over 26 seats. The party released a list of nine candidates from the state, and five names in the list would directly help the SP-BSP alliance.

Take the case of Ghazipur. Former Azamgarh MP Ramakant Yadav, who left BJP to join Congress recently, wanted to contest from Ghazipur considering the population of Yadav voters. But the party leadership told him that he should look for another seat. There were two reasons. One the party didn’t want to create any trouble for BSP candidate Afzal Ansari, who is banking on Muslim, Dalit and Yadav votes. Also, Congress feared that a Yadav candidate in Ghazipur could trigger anger among Muslims across eastern UP. Afzal Ansari is elder brother of don-turned politician Mukhtar Ansari.

Congress’ candidate from Ghazipur is Ajit Kushwaha who is expected to help Ansari win, because Kushwahas form a good chunk of voters in Ghazipur and they generally vote for BJP. Whatever votes Ajit gets will damage the BJP only. Congress has fielded Shiv Saran Kushwaha from Jhansi and Shiv Kanya Kushwaha from Chandauli. While Shiv Saran is the brother of former BSP leader Babu Singh Kushwaha, Shiv Kanya is his wife. Both the candidates are expected to take away a portion of Kushwaha voters to make it easier for the grand alliance. In Ambedkar Nagar, Congress has fielded Ummed Singh Nishad, husband of former bandit Phulan Devi. Nishads either vote for the BJP or to their caste in this region.

In Salempur, Jaunpur and Mathura, Congress has fielded Brahmin candidates who may not win the election but would help increase the party’s vote share among the upper castes, thus making it easier for the alliance candidate. Former MP Rajesh Mishra is contesting from Salempur, Devbrat Mishra from Jaunpur and Mahesh Pathak is being fielded in Mathura. In Ghaziabad, which went to polls in the first phase, Congress had fielded Dolly Sharma, a local Brahmin candidate, against BJP’s V K Singh. Congress has fielded a Brahmin from Gorakhpur. In a way Congress had put up candidates keeping in view the social backing of BJP particularly upper caste in order to engineer split in BJP vote.

There is also a move being initiated to field Priyanka Gandhi as a joint opposition candidate in Varanasi against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The core idea is to confine Modi to his constituency and reduce his margin of victory to quite an extent. The Gandhi scion had also on many occasions indicated that she was willing to challenge the Prime Minister who not yet filed nomination from any constituency other than Varanasi.

“Over 95 percent of those who called me for campaigning were Hindu brothers and leaders. Only 5 percent of them were Muslims. But in the past four yearsa, this 95 percent has dipped to 20 percent,” said Ghulam Nabi Azad, a senior Congress leader and former union minister.

As Priyanka Gandhi, undertakes rallies across the state including a visit to the Bade Hanuman temple in Prayagraj, several minority leaders within the party have now started echoing Azad’s sentiments. No prominent Muslim leaders have been seen accompanying Gandhi in her road-shows and rallies in the state. This is despite the presence of several prominent Muslim leaders in the Congress—including Salman Khurshid, former external affairs minister who was previously an officer on special duty for Indira Gandhi, Salim Sherwani, a five-time parliamentarian from Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun constituency and a close ally of Rajiv Gandhi, Nadeem Javed, chairman of the minority department and a Congress member of the legislative assembly from Jaunpur, and former parliamentarian Rashi Alvi. Raj Babbar, the president of the UP Congress Committee, is the only Member of Parliament from the state who is seen around the Gandhi family these days.

However, the Congress’s reluctance not to be seen as a Muslim party was only the secondary issue for the Muslim cadre and leaders within the party who spoke to me. They were more concerned about the party’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh independently. In January, while announcing their alliance, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party had left two seats—Rae Bareli and Amethi—for the Congress. In turn, Congress first announced that it would contest all of UP’s 80 seats alone. It later said it would contest 73 seats, and left seven seats for the SP-BSP alliance. The party felt that this would divide Muslim votes between the Congress party and the SP-BSP alliance. It believed that the Congress should have won the trust of Muslim voters by agreeing to fight on lesser seats with the alliance instead of leaving them in confusion.

“We are formulating the strategy for the road ahead based on regional issues. We are working on the process of strengthening the organisation, we analysed these issues for 12-13 hours today,” said Jyotiaraditya Scindia, party general secretary in charge of western UP.

While Rahul has been able to take on PM Modi, the Congress President was finding it difficult to garner support from regional allays, with both Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee fast becoming the rallying points of Opposition unity. With Priyanka on its side, the Congress would be hoping to attract more allies, riding on the expectation of doing much better in UP.

Seen as an articulate spokesperson, with mass appeal across gender and age, Priyanka, with a striking resemblance to her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, could tilt the balance in favour of the Congress party in the politically significant state of Uttar Pradesh.

With 80 Lok Sabha seats on offer, Uttar Pradesh will be the gateway to the centre in 2019, something not lost on any political party.

The ruling BJP, which won 71 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has already realised it will not be able to repeat the performance, especially in the face of the SP-BSP alliance.

With Priyanka in the fray, it could get trickier, not only for the BJP but also for the alliance.

Long been relegated to the margins in UP, the Congress has been missing a strong face in the state. With Priyanka, the party hopes to finally fill that gap. The BJP has been mostly dismissive about the impact of her entry, calling it the Congress party’s dynastic politics. But the biggest impact could be on the morale of the party cadres. On the back-foot, especially after being left out of the SP-BSP alliance, the workers are now enthused and this could bode well for the party.

Priyanka, who played a key role in the 2017 Congress alliance in UP with Akhilesh Yadav’s SP, could also play a significant role in reaching backroom understandings with both the SP and the BSP and also in post-poll talks. It would also leave Rahul Gandhi free to concentrate on the other states.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha Polls, the BJP and its ally, Apna Dal, polled 43.3 per cent votes winning 73 seats, the SP polled 22.4 per cent votes and won 5 seats, the BSP polled 19.8 per cent of the total vote, won 0 seats, the Congress polled 7.53 per cent votes and could only win the two Gandhi family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli.

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