Sheila Dikshit and Priyanka Gandhi Are Going to Steer the Congress Campaign in Uttar Pradesh Elections

File picture of Sheila Dikshit, the Congress party's chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: PTI

File picture of Sheila Dikshit, the Congress party’s chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: PTI

The Congress party on Thursday announced Sheila Dikshit’s name as the party’s chief ministerial candidate, confirming days of speculation, becoming the first party to do so.

The decision to field the former Delhi chief minister also marks the re-birth of her political career after losing the assembly polls to Aam Aadmi Party in December 2013. She had a short stint as the governor of Kerala but resigned after months. Since then she has been out of the limelight and holds no political office.

She will be leading the party campaign in the largest state in India in terms of assembly constituencies, and in this will be assisted by the Priyanka Gandhi, who, Dikshit said, plans to canvass extensively all over UP. Gandhi, who has, in earlier elections limited most of her campaigning to Amethi and Rae Bareilly – parliamentary seats of her brother Rahul Gandhi and mother Sonia Gandhi – is likely to undertake important responsibilities in the next UP polls.

While the combination of experience and youthful energy in addition to the cache of the Gandhi family name looks strong, it will be interesting to watch two women lead the campaign in a state infamous for its feudal-patriarchal political ethic.

Dikshit’s name was proposed by Prashant Kishor, Congress’ chief political strategist. Kishor, who is basking in the glory of piloting the Mahagathbandhan’s stupendous victory in Bihar last year, wanted a Brahmin face as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. According to many reports, Priyanka Gandhi was his first choice. Political observers say that exactly around the time Gandhi’s name for the top post in UP did the rounds in Lutyens Delhi, the BJP-led union government raked up the land scam cases against Robert Vadra, a clear move to undercut the Congress’s plan.

However, as Gandhi herself remained non-committal, Dikshit was his second choice. Many factors worked in her favour. She is perceived to have a good administrative record in Delhi and could have some traction among urban middle class populations. She is also the daughter-in-law of the former home minister Uma Shankar Dikshit. Uma Shankar, who died in 1991 came from Unnao and, therefore, is a known face in eastern UP. He served as a minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet and remained an Indira loyalist throughout his political career. Kishor thought that Dikshit’s UP connection could bring some political capital for the Congress. Lastly, Dikshit being a Brahmin would consolidate Brahmin votes, which comprise 10 percent to 12 percent of the state’s population.

The upper caste-led coalition that Kishor has conceptualized will also be novel in the present context of UP politics as all the other parties will focus on OBC and Dalit groups.  Sources in the Congress told The Wire that this coalition will help them put up a good contest in at least 100 seats out of a total of 403 and the party plans to concentrate its resources only in those constituencies. If this political formula clicks, the Congress, which may still not be in a position to form the government, will definitely gain big time in comparison to the last assembly elections. This will be a great boost to the worn-out party.

In the 2012 assembly polls, the Congress had managed to win only 28 seats out of the 355 it had contested with a paltry vote share of 11.65 per cent. Its performance in the 2014 general elections was even worse with only Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi winning from their respective seats. Its vote share was a mere 7.53 per cent.

Dikshit’s nomination also marks a significant shift in the party’s poll strategy. After consecutive defeats in Assam and Kerala, where the regional leaderships took the call, the party has relied upon a fully central team to lead the state’s campaign. It has appointed Raj Babbar as the state Congress president. Babbar, has replaced state leader Nirmal Khatri, an experienced leader but without the backing of any big caste group. The other three — Ghulam Nabi Azad, the party’s in-charge in the state, Sheila Dikshit, Priyanka Gandhi — are all central appointees.

Speaking to The Wire, the Lucknow-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar said: “The party does not want to get into any controversy before the elections. It is aiming for a safe Muslim-Brahmin alliance. While doing so, it does not want to rub one or other state party’s faction the wrong way. Having a fully central team helps in energizing the party at one level, and also neutralizing the internal factions within the state.”

Sidelining the state unit and putting up a fresh image of the party is one of the ideas that Kishor advocated. Whether it helps or creates further problems for the party remains to be seen in days to come.

Congress’ shift towards a centralized campaign, many say, has been borrowed by the BJP, which has been relying on this model for a long time now and has achieved great success. “Modi set a successful precedent by combining an individual-centric campaign while addressing the aspirations of people. Congress is following the same principle,” said Panwar.

Any political gain because of this political formula will be welcomed by the Congress. As both the SP and BSP may suffer some reverses because of a substitute OBC-Dalit alliance that the BJP has been trying to build, Congress, if it uses its resources judiciously, can be a player in days to come.