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Crucial for Congress

Published : Feb 10, 2012 00:00 IST

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CONGRESS SUPPORTERS LEAVING the venue after an election rally at Moga, Punjab, on January 19.-AKHILESH KUMAR

CONGRESS SUPPORTERS LEAVING the venue after an election rally at Moga, Punjab, on January 19.-AKHILESH KUMAR

The Congress links its, and Rahul Gandhi's, political future to the electoral outcome in Uttar Pradesh.

THE consensus in the political class is that the campaign for the elections in the five States of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur is moving ahead in fits and starts. However, the concerns of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the context of the campaign are seemingly growing at a steady pace. Central to these concerns is the unique double anti-incumbency factor that is seemingly influencing the political trends in all the States. The two different kinds of anti-incumbency becoming important factors on the election scene at the same time are the one against the respective State governments on the one side and another against the Central government on the other. According to analysts in the Congress, this situation has thrown up concerns that have both short- and medium-term implications for the party and the coalition ruling at the Centre. The short-term implications are related to the party asserting its supremacy in the UPA. The medium-term implications concern the continuation or even resurgence of caste-based identity politics, which throws a direct challenge to the assimilative politics and ideology sought to be advanced by the Congress leadership.

While all the poll-bound States have displayed this new political tendency of double anti-incumbency in varying degrees, sections of the UPA are of the view that the trend has the maximum damage potential in the two crucial States of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The party has to come up with a creditable performance in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand for the UPA government at the Centre to complete its term with a modicum of efficient governance, a senior Uttar Pradesh leader told Frontline. More specifically, he added, the Congress had to get clear victories in Punjab and Uttarakhand and also become part of a post-poll ruling coalition in Uttar Pradesh if the objective of uninterrupted governance until 2014 was to be achieved. Only then would we able to assert over warring UPA partners such as the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK], he pointed out.

But the current political signals do not conform to these projections. Under normal circumstances, the Uttarakhand Congress should have had victory on a platter, given the State's track record of alternating between the two major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. But, the signals emerging from the hill State, which has an incumbent BJP government, do not point towards a walkover for the Congress. Until about three months ago, the BJP government in the State was perceived to be on a downslide, with charges of corruption and misadministration flying thick and fast. Consequently, there was also the perception that the State was all set for a change of government. But the emergence of the double incumbency factor has taken that confidence out of the Congress campaign. More so because the central theme of the Congress campaign against the BJP government was corruption. But in the context of the double anti-incumbency, the main charge against the Congress too is corruption, essentially on the basis of the allegations against the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government.

On its part, the State BJP was also perceived to have taken some corrective measures. These included the removal of Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank as Chief Minister and the reappointment of B.C. Khanduri to the top executive position. After returning as Chief Minister, Khanduri has been carefully cultivating the image of a clean politician. In the process, he passed a Lokayukta Bill, evoking praise from Anna Hazare and his team, which had carried out a sustained campaign against the corruption in the UPA government. As the individual image of Khanduri is brightening, the Congress has been found wanting in projecting a chief ministerial candidate, principally on account of internal dissensions. It is the cumulative impact of all this that has accentuated the concerns of the Congress in the State.

Punjab, however, provides some consolation to the party, essentially on account of a strong State Congress leadership. The Congress' assessment on Punjab is that the State party was facing an Uttarakhand-like situation in the early days of the campaign but has been able to recuperate well under the leadership of former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. There was a time when the State Congress leadership wanted to enter into some kind of a truce with Team Anna over its anti-Congress, anti-corruption campaign. But a firm no from the central leadership forced the State Congress to backtrack. By all indications, that has turned out well for the Punjab Congress as the party is considered to be moving along nicely on the political and organisational fronts.

Identity politics

But that is small consolation, point out several UPA leaders. The most important battle is in Uttar Pradesh, which will decide a number of issues in national politics. To start with, the election results will become a direct gauge of the political command and influence of the Congress' heir-apparent, Rahul Gandhi, who has been campaigning extensively in the State for close to a year. There is little doubt that the party will improve upon its performance in 2007, when it got 21 seats and a vote share of 8 per cent. But a mere improvement in vote share will do no good for the party or its future leader. It has to improve significantly, so that it will propel the Congress to a position of being able to share power after the elections. In fact, this itself is a climbdown from what the party had projected after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the Congress managed to win 21 seats with a vote share of 18.3 per cent. At that time, the projections were that the party was leading in 95 of the 403 Assembly segments.

One year after this victory, the Congress commissioned a survey, which came up with the assertion that caste-based identity politics was being pushed to the background in Uttar Pradesh by the growing influence of the Congress. The survey also predicted that the Congress would win over 170 seats if Assembly elections were held at that time. Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi made repeated political forays into the State, armed with the survey results.

However, as the campaign gains ground, Congress functionaries at various levels of the organisation are questioning the survey results and the projections made on their basis. Their contention is that the party leadership, including Rahul Gandhi, has not been able to take the kind of initiatives that can get rid of caste-based identity politics and help assert the political supremacy of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. It is becoming increasingly clear that the main contest in the State is between two caste-identity based political parties the Mayawati-led ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.). In this context, the best that Congress functionaries at various levels hope for is a share of power with either the BSP or the S.P., preferably the latter. They expect that the alliance that has been stitched up with Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) will give the Congress sufficient numbers to have a say in the formation of the next government.

If we are able to sew up a post-election alliance with the S.P., that will indeed minimise the threat perception caused by the repeated outbursts of the Trinamool Congress and its leader Mamata Banerjee, especially because the S.P. has 22 Lok Sabha members as opposed to the Trinamool's 19. But that would also mean giving a longer lease of life to the other backward classes-oriented caste-identity politics in Uttar Pradesh. As things stand now, we do not have much of a choice. But we are still hoping for a dramatic turnaround in both the problem States before the polling dates, a national Congress leader playing an important role in Uttar Pradesh politics said.

Even as this hope for a dramatic turnaround remains in the party, large sections of the Congress aver that not much of a choice could well be the phrase of the hour after the election results come out on March 6.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 10, 2012.)

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