In 2008 if you had said the Congress could revive in Uttar Pradesh you would have been laughed at. No party structure or caste base, you would have been told. In 2009, Rahul Gandhi earned perhaps the first laurel of his political career by proving critics wrong. He beat conventional wisdom by saying no to allying with the Samajwadi Party and the Congress won just 22 of 406 seats. Since then, Congress revival in UP has been taken for granted in many corners. Some pundits were predicting as many as 100 seats for the Congress this election. This speculation had a good basis: Rahul Gandhi always left crowds happy. And he flew on a helicopter addressing as many as 4 rallies a day. If you spoke to the people who attended his rallies, you’d be surprised by the amount of goodwill he created for himself. The rise in vote share despite the poor seat performance is proof for the rising appreciation of the Congress’ efforts to regain relevance in state politics. But then, what went wrong?
1) Lack of conviction. Firstly, no voter takes you seriously unless you take yourself seriously. Voters like to vote for the winner. Voters don’t want to waste their vote. And what was Rahul Gandhi’s pitch? Rahul Gandhi said – four times a day – that he’s in UP for the long haul even if the electorate doesn’t give him too many seats. He said he won’t ally with any party after the results. Both statements clearly reflected that Gandhi himself didn’t believe the Congress was ‘in the race’. I’m a long distance runner, he said, and the voters responded by saying ok, we’ll see you when you get there.
In short, there could be no Congress “hawa” because Rahul Gandhi deflated it himself. Rahul Gandhi is right that there was a Samajwadi Party wave that didn’t leave room for Congress. But there was an SP wave because voters asked themselves, which party looks like it is in a position to replace the BSP? The SP leadership staked that claim, and Rahul Gandhi foolishly said in his speeches, not this time.
2) Timing. The Congress had ample time to prepare for this election. The SP had been at it for two years now, just as the BSP had worked hard on the ground since 2005 to win in 2007. The Congress, however, started late in UP. They were late with ticket distribution, not giving their candidates the time to work on preparing a base in their constituencies. While late ticket distribution is not a problem with parties that have an existing caste base and cadre structure, like the SP and the BSP, it is not a luxury that the Congress can afford.
The Congress’ strategies around caste were impeccable – copying the Nitish Kumar formula of focussing on a number of micro-castes that feel left out from the big caste formations is spot on. However, the decisions came to close to the election for them to be taken seriously. These late decisions included sub-quota for OBC Muslims, loan waiver for saree weavers and giving a high number of tickets to OBCs and MBCs. It could be speculated that immediately after 2009, the Congress became complacent and thought the election was far away. Rahul Gandhi has admitted that his party’s organisation and “fundamentals” in UP are weak. The question is, he has been working at strengthening them since 2007. Why has he not been able to do it for five years now?
3) The poor performance of UPA at the centre. In his speeches Rahul Gandhi counted the achievements of his party at the centre, However, you could see he didn’t have too many to count. He spoke of NREGA and farm loan waiver and aam aadmi, but hey, why are you repeating the speech you made in the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign? That’s because he did not have much to say about what his party has achieved at the centre since 2009. He only mentioned Right to Food in passing, because he realised people know the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
To the lack of achievements, add corruption, inflation and Anna Hazare. While Anna Hazare was a marginal factor, with or without the Lokpal movement, the UPA government is pretty discredited. I met Congress workers who told me they could not speak to voters against the Mayawati government’s corruption because then voters would turn around and ask, what about the Manmohan Singh government’s corruption? Voters also lay the blame for inflation at the central government’s door, and rightly so. UPA-2’s endless disasters, in short, hurt the Congress’ credibility in the UP Assembly election despite Rahul Gandhi’s charismatic and well-received speeches.
4) Lack of lower caste leadership. So Rahul Gandhi, who always said he was not into caste politics, played the game of caste politics openly and without hesitation. It wasn’t just the ticket distribution to MBCs, OBCs and lower caste Muslims. In his speeches at places he also named communities whose guardian angel he wants to become. The Congress’ caste formula was said to be copying Nitish Kumar’s – get the non-Jatav Dalit who feels overwhelmed by Mayawati’s Jatavs, get the MBCs and the micro-castes, get the lower caste Muslim. However, Nitish Kumar worked on bringing such communities into his party’s fold over years and not just before an election. More importantly, Nitish Kumar created leadership of these communities and assimilated them in his party. Key amongst such leaders was the backward Muslims’ Ali Anwar. The Congress, for all its efforts at the low caste Muslim vote, had no Ali Anwar with whom it could give the impression that it is serious about giving representation to low caste Muslims. Instead, the Congress’ Muslim faces were all ashrafiya or upper caste, be it the recently-poached-from-SP Rasheed Alvi or the old can-win-no-election Salman Khursheed. The Congress did get Beni Prasad Verma, a spent force, to win some Kurmi votes, but again, too close to the election.
(First published in Rediff.com on 7 March 2012.)
From Kafila archives:
- March 2012: Some thoughts on the “hawa” in Indian elections
- March 2012: Why Mayawati’s Defeat is the BSP’s Victory
- February 2012: Seeing UP from Phulpur
- February 2012: मायावती जी के मुख्यमंत्रित्व काल का एक संक्षिप्त विवरण: राम कुमार
- February 2012: An Election in Sarvajan Samaj
- February 2012: The untold stories of a political process
- December 2010: History in Stone and Metal
- May 2009: UP’s Dalits remind Mayawati – Democracy is a Beautiful Thing
- May 2009: Rahul Gandhi and the Dalit votebank in Uttar Pradesh
- June 2007: The meaning of Mayawati for the Dalit movement: Chittibabu Padavala
- May 2007: Why Hindol Sengupta Needn’t Fear Mayawati