The Congress party bets on its national general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for its victory in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly elections, to be held in the spring of 2022. Priyanka herself is playing the gamble of populist politics of 'announcements' to cross this electoral Styx. In the last month and a half, she has tried to grab the attention of the voter with a flurry of populist announcements. Starting with her declared pledge of reserving 40 per cent seats for women in ticket distribution for UP elections, that comes to around 161 out of 403 seats in the state. This was followed by announcement of complete waiver of outstanding farm loans of the farmers, if the congress is voted to power in the state. Later, she even announced to give freebies like smartphones and scooties to girls, and to provide free treatment up to Rs 10 lakh to the citizens of the state.
Similar populist announcements in regards to education, employment, business, are expected from her in the near future. However, the natural reaction of the general voters and most election analysts to these announcements is that of cynicism, 'If the sky falls, we shall catch larks'; since there is no probability of Congress coming to power, nor will there be any chance of fulfilling these misleading promises. It is not that Priyanka herself or her party is not aware of this fact. So, what’s the reason behind this gamble? In fact, as an attempt to revive congress base (being in dire straits) in UP, they have no other option but to play such a gamble. But like gambling, the danger of this bet is that the Congress party may completely lose the plot and reduce to shambles in UP.
In early 2022, assembly elections will be held in five states – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa. If the Congress were to be serious about the needs of women, farmers and poor then it would have done a similar declaration in the states like Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa or Manipur where they are in serious contest in the 2022 elections, not alone in Uttar Pradesh. Don't the women, farmers and poor there need it? Infact, in Punjab, the Congress is in power and in Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa it is the principal Opposition party. Since the electoral arithmetic favors Congress in other states hence it turns a blind eye to the needs of the people there. While, the plight of Congress in UP is well known, the party has been contesting for fourth place for the last two to three decades, that's why the gambling. Further, the move can be a well-planned strategy to weaken the BJP by luring the upper caste voters which were traditionally with congress before the rise of BJP.
In the last assembly elections of UP, Congress could hardly manage 7 seats and 5 percent votes and that too with the support of Samajwadi Party. This time around the Samajwadi Party has dumped congress, leaving them shaken and disdained. Also, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only Sonia Gandhi could win the election. Even the then Congress President Rahul Gandhi had lost the election from Amethi, the traditional seat of the Congress family by a huge margin. Despite such disappointing election results, congressmen did not bother to re-establish grassroot organization or galvanize public support in the last 4-5 years. On top of that, the sad memories of the forgery of the list of one thousand buses given by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to the state government for the return of migrant laborers of UP from Delhi and other states during the first lockdown are still fresh in public mind. Congress UP chief Ajay Kumar Lallu was in jail for many months over the bus row. Neither Priyanka Gandhi nor any other senior Congress leader come all out in support of party state president then. Furthermore, plagued by the party's inaction, insensitivity and indecisiveness, senior leaders like Jitin Prasada have shunned the Congress and joined the ruling BJP. Due to the gloomy atmosphere of Congress, many small and big leaders of Congress are shifting towards different political parties. They are all apprehensive about their political future with Congress. Congress has been shrinking since 1989 and its present condition in UP is in dismay, neither it has a leader, nor the policy, or organization, or workers. Under Lallu's leadership, Congress is in the fourth place after parties like BJP, SP, BSP. Smaller parties like Rashtriya Lok Dal, Peace Party and AIMIM are gearing to overtake it in the forthcoming UP elections. In the current situation, what are the options left with Priyanka Gandhi other than luring the voters by making false promises?
What is the real reason behind the cradle of freebies, competitive populism offered by Priyanka Gandhi? In fact, the politics of populist announcements and promising generous freebies which started from South India has taken a pan India approach wherein, incumbent governments are increasingly heading down the same road prior to contesting polls. The tradition of giving free sari, TV, fridge and electricity and water in exchange for votes has greatly damaged democracy. Who can forget the mess-scam committed by Congress in UPA-I under the guise of loan waiver of Rs.70 thousand crores to farmers! This must be the inspiration of Priyanka’s announcement as well to win the loyalty and allegiance of the voter.
The wager that Priyanka has played to woo women, giving them 40 percent party tickets, is neither going to empower women in general, nor is the Congress party going to reap benefits out of it. All the more, it is going to be a mammoth task to juggle 161 women candidates who can contest elections for the Congress party. A party which is 'neither in three nor in thirteen', why would any woman ruin her political future by contesting elections on its ticket! This announcement is nothing more than a political gimmick. Ironically, out of the 15 people present on the stage from which Priyanka Gandhi made this announcement, there were only three women including herself. If the Congress party was serious about women empowerment, why didn't they made efforts to pass the Women's Reservation Bill during the 10 years of the UPA regime? Or why not increase the participation of women in the composition of CWC and other organizational set up of the Congress? Had that been the case, today the party would not be short of strong candidates to contest on 161 seats!
Caste began to play an important role after the implementation of Mandal commission report. Both UP and Bihar have served as the laboratories of caste-based politics since the early 1990s. However, the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019 and the last assembly election of UP marks the beginning of profound political transformation in India wherein the magic of caste-based politics faded comprehensively. People voted for development and change. It will be interesting to see whether the voters of UP vote for development and good governance in the upcoming legislative elections or return to age old casteist politics. In case of voting for development and good governance, BJP will certainly be the first choice of Hindu voters. The choice remains the same even in case of caste-based voting, wherein the upper castes like Brahmin, Thakur, Vaishya and Bhumihar will stick their necks out for BJP. Many election analysts are propagating the idea of brahmins' displeasure with the ruling BJP, to take advantage of this so-called dissatisfaction and resentment, and to woo the Brahmin voters both SP and BSP are holding Brahmin or Prabuddha Sammelans. Slogans of Jai Shri Ram and Jai Parashuram are being raised aloud. Despite all this, the loyalty of the majority of Brahmin voters will continue to remain towards the BJP. While, most Yadavs and Muslims will go with the Samajwadi Party, Jatavs will join forces with BSP, Jats on the other hand will join forces with RLD. Castes like Rajbhar, Saini, Nishad, Kurmi also have their preferred parties and affiliations. In the present scenario, no caste seems to be associating with the Congress on the ground. Nor does congress have a convincing and credible model of development and good governance. Priyanka needs to understand that Congress practically is pulverized on Uttar Pradesh’s political rug and it needs far-reaching policy and a long struggle to come into mainstream political foray. Does Priyanka have that much patience, time and willpower? Merely being active in the media and social media for a couple of months is nothing more than political gambit with the intention of winning elections in a politically conscious state like UP. But one often forgets that the public can no longer be wooed or deceived by false promises.
When asked about whether she’ll be contesting the upcoming UP elections, she ducks the question. Priyanka very well knows the fact that the BJP is contesting these elections under the leadership of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, SP under Akhilesh Yadav and BSP under Mayawati. Undoubtedly, she is apprehensive about the fate of the Congress in the upcoming elections. What election will a leaderless Congress contest? Just blabbering will not serve the purpose. She herself has to bite the bullet by contesting the elections.
Priyanka's 'double-mindedness' about contesting or not contesting makes her promises and claims doubtful. This weakens the overall electoral strategy of congress. She should either take a quick decision and make a clear announcement to contest the elections herself or try to do a face saver for the Congress by alliancing with parties like BSP or SP. Else, it should not be surprising to see Congress which is credibility crisis stricken reduced to zero due to Priyanka's 'ambivalance' and political gambling.
(The author is Dean, Students' Welfare, Central University of Jammu.)