UP Polls: Political Test for Rahul Gandhi!

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI/LUCKNOW: With less than a month left for Uttar Pradesh (UP) to face assembly elections, political speculations are gaining ground. Against the background of media hype gained by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on his campaigning-strategy to win over the UP voters, the key questions are focusing on prospects of his success. Will he succeed in securing victory for Congress in UP or at least secure victory in substantial number of seats so that formation of the next government in the state is not possible without support of his party? Though Congress won only 22 seats in the 403-member assembly, during last polls (2007), possibility of Rahul emerging as the “kingmaker” in these elections, has hit headlines.

Considering that UP sends 80 members to Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) and next parliamentary elections are scheduled within less than two years, Rahul is apparently campaigning hard here to enhance his political credibility. If Rahul succeeds, Congress expects this to help increase party’s seat in next Lok Sabha from UP. The success will also bring Rahul closer to taking over as the country’s Prime Minister in a Congress-led government. 

Not surprisingly, Rahul has been engaged in reaching out to UP voters by engaging in various kinds of political moves. These include eating at residence of Dalits (lower caste Hindus), moving around in different areas on foot as well as motor-cycle, expressing his support for the state’s Muslims, targeting Mayawati-led state government on various charges, including corruption, and similar other manners during his campaign. Each of these moves suggests that Rahul is apparently leaving no stone unturned to attract the UP voter to the Congress party. Rahul has been engaged in these moves for quite some time. But this is one part of the state’s political situation. 

The key rivals of Congress in UP are Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) headed by state Chief Minister Mayawati, Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2007, BSP emerged as the main winner by bagging 206 seats. This was a major victory for BSP, which had not been able to win even 100 seats in 2003. Against the 152 seats SP won in 2003, it secured only 97 in 2007. The BJP slipped down from 83 (2003) to 51 (2007), the Congress from 25 (2003) to 22 (2007) and RLD (Rashtriya Lok Dal) from 15 (2003) to 10 (2007). The sole gainer in 2007 against the 2003 results was BSP, while all other major parties’ performance dipped considerably.

Against this backdrop, can the Congress banking on Rahul’s “magic wand” emerge as the key winner in the 2012 elections? Definitely, Rahul has succeeded immensely in ensuring key support from his party and gaining considerable media coverage. The other parties have not been so successful, where media coverage is concerned. Can media coverage ensure victory for the Congress in UP? Politically, this has seldom been the rule where Indian politics is concerned. There has always been a significant gap in media coverage gained by parties in the race and the votes won by them. Not surprisingly, awareness of this reality has led to questions such as whether the Congress is banking on “media-hype” about Rahul?

This demands a little deliberation on political moves of Rahul and his party, Congress. At the time, this piece was being written, Rahul had not completed campaigning in even a fourth of assembly constituencies of UP. Notwithstanding, however people and media friendly, Rahul may have appeared in the constituencies he has covered, these do not ensure a favorable response for the Congress throughout UP. Secondly, the Congress has taken a lot of time in finalizing its list of candidates for UP polls. Most candidates aren’t left even with a month to campaign as best as they need to. There is a view that perhaps Congress has deliberately indulged in this strategy. If Congress fares well, Rahul can easily take the credit for his being in “command” in UP. If Congress fails, the blame may be given to the weakness of the candidates. 

The political chances of Rahul in UP also need to be weighed against that of rival parties in the electoral race. There is no doubt that in the recent years both BJP and SP have faced considerable decline in UP. Where BJP is concerned, ever since former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has retired from active politics, the party’s political fate has suffered miserably. There are bleak chances of it facing any major upswing in the present polls.

The SP has suffered because of internal conflict. The other leading members have not been very pleased about the party turning into a family domain. Their grievance is supported by party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav having chosen to entrust the responsibility of UP elections to his son, Akhilesh.

The fate of around 100 seats in UP assembly is expected to be decided by the state’s Muslim-vote. Prospects of their favoring either the BJP or the SP are fairly dim. Where Mayawati is concerned, Muslims are fairly conscientious of the fact that during her rule they have not faced any major communal conflict or violence. Besides, Mayawati has a strong control over her party in UP. The last point cannot be said about other parties in the race, including Congress. The BJP and SP are faced by intra-party differences. While Rahul is the star-campaigner for Congress, the party also has leaders like Digvijay Singh, Salman Khurshid and Rita Bahugana Joshi playing thei respective cards to help the party win in UP. 

Rahul’s strategy at winning over Dalit vote is weakened by the fact that the party has not projected any Dalit as its chief ministerial candidate. In contrast, the Dalits are confident that return of BSP will ensure that Mayawati will assume the office of state chief minister again. Besides, Mayawati would have been on an extremely weak political ground had her party been pushed out of power because of large-scale defection leading to a no-confidence vote against her government, followed by mid-term polls. This has not been the case. In other words, Mayawati still commands considerable political strength in the state. It is to be watched whether Rahul succeeds in creating a dent in it in favor of Congress. Equally significant is the degree to which Rahul succeeds in attracting votes from the weakened BJP and SP to the Congress. Rahul’s success in UP thus is likely to be measured by the degree to which he succeeds in decreasing political importance of Mayawati and other rival politicians!


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