Fifty one seats across seven states are polling today (May 6) in the fifth phase of the Lok Sabha Elections 2019. The largest state in the country, Uttar Pradesh will see fourteen seats go to the polls, including the two Gandhi bastions of Amethi and Rae Barelli. The Mahagathbandhan (SP+BSP) has not fielded a candidate in these two constituencies from which Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi are standing for re-election. Mayawati has in a volte-face ceased her criticism of the Congress and urged her supporters to vote for the Congress candidates in these two seats. This special allowance is beyond the courtesy offered in the past, and is indicative of an underlying anxiety, especially when it comes to Amethi.
Union Minister Smriti Irani is yet again challenging Rahul Gandhi on his home turf and has run an aggressive and gruelling campaign. She has much to be optimistic about, ground reports point to her increasing popularity in the constituency and Rahul Gandhi opting for a second seat – a safe one from Wayanad has lent credence to her claim that the Congress President is unsure about a win in Amethi. The signs since 2014’s wave election have been less than optimistic for the Congress in Amethi, who failed to win any seat in the panchayat election or even a single assembly seat from the five in the constituency in 2017.
New Congress General Secretary for Eastern UP Priyanka Vadra has focussed almost entirely on Amethi for the last few weeks, playing surrogate and taking on Smriti Irani in a verbal duel – a big leap from her “Smriti Who?” comment in 2014. Rahul Gandhi’s 2014 Amethi win was noted to be of the lowest margin registered by a Gandhi in their family bastion.
For long now the conversation since the Mahagathbandhan took shape on January 19th 2019, excluding the Congress has had political pundits speaking of the formidable arithmetic of the coalition. A neat vote transfer will ensure the BJP loses a significant number of seats. However this analysis is deeply problematic since it discounts the individual voter. Elections of 2014 and 2017 have forcefully displayed that voters in UP are looking beyond caste when they vote, hence the unimaginable happenstance that sworn enemies and caste parties the BSP and SP have come together. Furthermore, even though some journalists have stated that the cadre of the two seem to be working well together, the chemistry in question has been left hanging in the wind.
Take Faizabad constituency for example, the home constituency of Ayodhya, which BJP won the last time. This time around the Mahagathbandhan has fielded a candidate from the SP, who was once accused though subsequently cleared of the charge of the murder of a pregnant Dalit student. There is residual anger amongst the ‘Pasis’ against this candidate and they have stated that they will not vote for the Mahagathbandhan candidate. This is just one example of internal caste politics at the constituency level. Furthermore, reports have stated that young Yadavs are more inclined towards Prime Minister Modi than the SP. These multiple factors suggest that the easy transfer of the parcel of caste votes as opined by political pundits in New Delhi cannot be taken for granted. Infact, the Prime Minister has likened this proposed neat exchange to transferring money in banks that doesn’t take into account individual voter agency.
This past week also saw Priyanka Vadra draw the ire of the Mahagathbandhan for a politically naïve statement that seemed to give away the game plan of the broader coalition, wherein the Congress claimed to be fielding weak candidates against the Mahagathbandhan to harm the BJP. The BJP in return dubbed the Congress in UP a vote cutter party with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley going as far as to refer to them as “fringe”. There was no succour from Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati either who maintained that the grand old party which has been out of power in the largest state for three decades is “irrelevant”. This calls into question the impact Mrs Vadra will have in the UP elections. After the ‘will she wont she” fight from Varanasi suspense, encouraged by the party and the siblings, her decision to not challenge PM Modi was seen as an admission of defeat and the lack of a spirit to take on a good fight. The Congress did state that she had other responsibilities to concentrate on, but her unilateral focus on Amethi, has discounted that claim as well. To be fair to Mrs Vadra, she is playing with the cards already dealt to her – brought into politics a mere three months before the election and after the formation of the Mahagathbandhan, revitalising and reorganising the moribund party structure in UP is a monumental challenge.
The Congress by most assessments has its eyes on a 2022 revival of the party in the state. Anything it picks up in this electoral cycle including Amethi will be a bonus.
In 2019, UP remains a battle between the Mahagathbandhan and the BJP and the two major players know this. Congress will have to sit this one out, but refrain from comments that display just how out of the game they are.
- Advaita Kala, Author and Political Analyst