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IT is possible to sense a clear disconnect in perception between journalists based in Delhi and Lucknow about the Congress. For ten years now, the journalists who travel from the national capital to Lucknow to cover the elections – parliament or assembly – have been committing the big blunder of grossly overestimating how Congress would perform in the polls. They end up superimposing its national status, influence and even its glorious past onto a diminished and deflated Uttar Pradesh Congress party. Lucknow based hacks, with their ear to the ground, do not commit such mistakes. They have little illusions about the party’s real organizational strength and its murderous factionalism that have reduced this once mighty party to a big zero. And contrary to what many might believe in Delhi, they are quite sure that the Congress revival in the state is unlikely happen soon, not the least given the way the party leadership has been bumbling its way around.

The man on the street in the dusty towns of UP also does not think that Congress is so hot now. In large parts of the state, the Congress has become so ordinary that it is no longer an attractive proposition for people who do not want to vote for a communal or a casteist party. Many say that ‘they cannot vote for a party that no longer exists.’

In a way their observation is quite true. It has been more than 17 years since I left my hometown, Lucknow, and every time I have gone back, especially during elections, I have seen traces of the Congress party slowly disappear from around us. Till the early ’90s, it was still possible to see the upper caste youth wearing tricolour bandannas around their heads, asking for votes for the party. In the last 12-13 years all those who could not visualize a life without Congress have switched over to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Some of them who do not like BJP’s communal politics have even shifted to the Samajwadi Party. During the elections – whether it is for parliament or otherwise – I have found the Congress managers in my area struggle to find even a polling agent.

In the backdrop of this understanding what difference can a Priyanka Gandhi – if she chooses to take the plunge into the choppy waters of UP politics – make to the party’s fortunes? Yes, she might get the crowds, but there is no guarantee that in the absence of a party structure, this will translate into votes.

Uttar Pradesh with its 80 parliamentary seats is critical for the Congress if it wants to return to power at the Centre, but a close look at the ground realities that stare the party in its face make it clear that it would need more than brave noises and a Gandhi face to repeat the magic of the past. The party has been denuded of its support at the grassroots level, and by the looks of it, it would take another generation or scores of splits in other regional parties to revive its fortunes. Some Congressmen believe that only a mass movement can get the masses back to the party.

After it lost power in the late ’80s, an entire generation has grown up that does not know what the Congress looks like in the state. They do not recall the glory of a Jawaharlal Nehru, an Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. And they do not seem any the worse for it. In its place the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have emerged that make more sense to the ordinary people through their aggressive caste or communal appeal. The Congress, on the contrary, looks tired and out of synch with the times.

Congressmen give an impression of being prisoners of their past. Its leaders, whoever have stuck around, are routinely derided for being corrupt and clueless. Even now they are the ones with the biggest houses in the villages or small towns. What exacerbates their misery is that they have no clue of how they should break the murderous stranglehold of caste over politics. It is not that they have not played the caste or communal card or do not want to play it in the future, but the fact is that there are others who do it better and without being too hypocritical about it.

Being out of power for so many years has created another problem: the Congress does not have enough goons and roughnecks to back it during elections. All the crooks have now gravitated to bigger parties. On the ground, caste and crime is a winning combo. Even the BJP is playing this game with considerable panache. Earlier, it had hoped to socially engineer the castes by trying to project a common enemy – the Muslims. But that only contributed to deepening the caste system. A good Hindu, they realized to their discomfort, was a better Rajput, Brahmin or an Ahir. And electorally speaking, a candidate could pack a big challenge to his competitors only if he had the right kind of caste alliance, money and muscle power. In such a social and political environment there seems no space for ideology, individual merit or plain goodness.

Individual Congressmen who swore by its old values of secularism are finally coming to terms with this difficult reality, though many of them cannot really comprehend whether they can get things right during their own lifetime.

There is a politician friend who has been contesting from an eastern Uttar Pradesh parliamentary constituency for many years. He is known to be a good man who keeps his distance from the tender mafia and roughnecks that rule this part of the state. Many years ago, he managed to become an M.P. on a Congress ticket when the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family was enough to make even make a lamp post triumph. Since then he has tried many times to come back to the parliament but without any luck.

On a few occasions that I have been to his parliamentary constituency to cover the elections, I have come back convinced that there is little space for a good man. Even in his constituency, the voters are quite forthcoming in giving him a certificate of goodness. ‘He is in the wrong party,’ they say. Only his party members are dismissive of him: ‘He is a misfit in these times. Who wants a stupid simpleton now.’ Even the party high command is quite ambivalent on the choice of its candidates: to have a simpleton or a moneyed goon. For quite a while now, the election committees have been tilting on ‘winnability’ which means giving a ticket to someone who has the money, muscle power and the right caste.

My friend has managed a ticket for many years only because the party has chosen to contest that seat and could not find a winnable candidate. Needless to say, he has lost every parliament election after his first foray to the Lok Sabha many years ago. What galls him further is that he has slipped from the first position to the fifth. The BJP, SP, BSP all occupy slots ahead of him. Like other Congress candidates who have been routinely losing in the elections, he barely manages four per cent votes.

In the last few elections that I have been to in this district, I have found the voters quite aware of the caste equations and how it can influence their lives. They understand how a caste-based political alliance at the top can work in their favour on the ground. ‘If we do not ensure the success of our candidate in the elections, then it could make life difficult for us. The castes that oppose us can control the police stations and every other government job,’ they claim. In other words, it is a desperate fight to control the turf where no quarter is asked nor given.

In this seemingly difficult environment, is there any scope for the Congress? Why is the party not able to climb out of the abyss after all these years? Is the ground reality in Uttar Pradesh different from the other 14 states where the party is in power? And the biggest question that gnaws the party men is: can Priyanka Gandhi’s charisma transform the party’s fortunes.

As any party leader would inform a journalist, the political situation in Uttar Pradesh is quite distinct from those states where there are just two parties. For instance in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress could get an advantage of the anti-incumbency vote. In other provinces too, the absence of a coherent third front could help the party. There is no such comfort for the Congress in UP. Here most of the top castes sustain their own political parties. For the upper castes there is the BJP, for the intermediate castes and Muslims there is the Samajwadi and for the oppressed, the BSP.

At another level, members of the intermediate castes who have come to riches due to the policies of economic liberalization in the last ten years, give an impression that parties like the SP and BSP would look after their interests better. Congress, in the reckoning of many, is too elitist, corrupt and soft to do anything for them.

Scratch Congressmen and they will slip into nostalgia about the good times they had in the past and how leaders like Indira Gandhi or Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna were sensitive to party programmes and how they impacted their vote bank of minorities. Bahuguna, they say, would not have allowed the opening of the locks of Babri Masjid in 1986 – a move that drove the minorities away from the party.

They will also recount the number of opportunities the party got in the past to resurrect itself and how the party high command, driven by its own selfish motives, squandered these opportunities. Many hold former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao responsible for the state the party is in: ‘He did not want UP to become powerful again lest it devalued the new found status of the South.’ The Congress has found enough reasons to languish in political penury. First, in the name of soft Hindutva they have shied away from wooing their minority support base. Later, they hitched themselves onto the Samajwadi bandwagon and alienated their upper caste following. Then it was the turn of cozying up to the BSP, which may have increased their numbers in the assembly, but did not really help them politically – dalit supporters of the Congress chose to join the real party of the oppressed. From being the natural party of governance, the Congress became a tattered extra wheel of a car.

The return of the Gandhi family at the helm did not help their cause. Sonia Gandhi’s aggressive campaigns failed to get the Congress either the votes or the seats. What compounded their problems was that Sonia did not bring in any new ideas to revive the party. ‘She has structured incompetence around herself,’ remark disgruntled Congressmen.

In the last few years whatever changes Sonia has instituted in the state unit have failed to enthuse workers. On the contrary, the UP Congress leadership has only helped the party that has been in power. Workers claim that some leaders are on the take and their actions, at times, are prompted by the demands that SP, BSP or BJP leadership places on them. The splits that Congress has witnessed in the last few years too have been facilitated by some senior leaders who, besides taking money, believe that the weaker the party the stronger they will be.

The latest round of changes in the UP unit has also raised a howl of protest among party men who expected the central leadership to be more proactive and realistic. They believe that the Congress cannot revive in Uttar Pradesh as long as it is kept captive to criminals and self-seekers. By replacing tweedledee with tweedledum as party presidents, the high command is only sending a message to its workers that it is not really serious about the state and at a later date can piggyback on either the Samajwadi Party leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, or even Mayawati – if she parts ways with the BJP. Even at the central level, the return of an ageing Nawal Kishore Sharma to look after UP affairs or a R.K. Dhawan is unlikely to enthuse those who want the Congress to be in the running again. Sonia, by getting the old order back, has shown that she has neither new ideas nor people to give shape to a rejuvenated Congress in the state.

In the reckoning of frustrated workers, the only way the party can do well is by articulating issues that touch people’s lives. The Congress needs to reposition itself as the party of the poor and downtrodden and lead a people’s movement on the issue of generating employment, de-industrialization of the state or the problem of cane growers – an extremely emotive issue. For many years now, Congressmen have not taken part in jail bharo andolans, nor confronted the state administration. In other words, they have gone really soft. The only time Congressmen are visible is when they are crossing over from one party to another. Can Priyanka Gandhi get the party’s juices flowing again?

Sanjay Kapoor

Editor, Mid Day, Delhi