UP: With People-Centric Promises and Mega Rallies, Congress Shows It Is Neither Down Nor Out

While huge rallies and large public gatherings may not guarantee a poll win, they play a critical role in driving public opinion for a party with nothing to lose.

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Gorakhpur: After her Varanasi rally on October 10, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress party general secretary in charge of poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, held another mega rally in Gorakhpur on October 31. The rally bemused political observers, members of opposition parties and even Congress workers as the roars of approval from the sizable crowd conveyed the impression that three decades since its last term as the ruling party in UP, the Congress seems to be emerging as a noticeable contender in the forthcoming assembly polls.

This Congress pratigya (pledge) rally in UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s bastion on October 31, the 146th birth anniversary of the country’s first home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and 37th death anniversary of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, shocked everyone, including those who were involved in its organisation. An eyewitness who attended the rally commented that he had not expected people to turn up in such large numbers, while another remarked that the space was too small for the crowd.

In her address, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra proclaimed, “Those who claim that the Congress is weak as an organisation in UP should behold today’s gathering. It is the gathering and the strength of the Congress. For two years, lakhs of workers have toiled night and day to make it possible.”

The reformation

Huge rallies and large public gatherings may not guarantee a poll win, but they do play a critical role in establishing the aura of each political party and driving public opinion. After its exit from the state 30 years ago, the Congress held only a few major public meetings during political campaigns and that too, only in strongholds of party stalwarts. But the two mega rallies the party has held this year seem to have changed the political atmosphere.

In UP, the Congress has remained a party of big-shots for a long time. At the local level, the organisation inducted only those loyal to these leaders rather than to the party. Though this has long been an open secret, no attempts were made to fix the problem. Instead, state presidents were regularly shuffled with little impact. The party continued to shrink in the state to such an extent that its seat share fell to less than a tenth of the assembly and it was pushed to the margin.

After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, attempts were made to rejuvenate the party. District committees were reconstituted with a significant focus on grassroots workers as well as an increased representation of Dalits, members of backward classes, minorities, youth and women.

Soon, this change went a step further to the block and the nyaya panchayat level. Once the organisation was re-formed, workers were given ideological training and a strategy to agitate on public issues was devised. After every horrific incident of crime in the state, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra made sure to visit the victim and extend support to their kin. From Unnao to Hathras, Agra to Lakhimpur, her activism reignited hope in a party whose role as the opposition had been called into question.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with the Hathras victim’s family. Photo: Special arrangement

Despite all these efforts, no one expects the Congress to achieve any laudable electoral feat in UP. This is primarily because the party has yet to find a viable social base in the state. While the Congress may improve its tally in the politically crucial UP, the party leadership is, in fact, eyeing the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, not waiting for a miracle in 2022. 

Also read: ‘Will Contest UP Polls From Wherever Adityanath Is Contesting’: Bhim Army Chief

Learning from mistakes

The Congress’s decision to hand 40% of its electoral tickets to women candidates, release its manifesto in the form of pledges long before the elections and hold two enormous rallies in the constituencies of the prime minister and the chief minister have changed the narrative in UP. 

With the rally in Gorakhpur, the Congress proved that it was just as capable of holding large public meetings in the state as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Now the party plans to hold another rally in the Purvanchal region and a major one in Lucknow. With these rallies, the Congress wants to make a point – that it is gaining traction among the masses.

By promising to field 40% women candidates – as reiterated by several leaders in the Gorakhpur rally – the Congress is trying to bring women to the centre of the political rhetoric in UP. A heavy presence of women in the rally further boosted the party’s morale. With announcements like providing smartphones and electric scooters to girls, along with free bus travel and three free LPG cylinders a year to women, the Congress general secretary has inched a step closer to wooing women voters.

Jobs to 20 lakh young people, loan waivers to farmers, fixing the minimum support price of sugarcane at Rs 400 per quintal and wheat and paddy at Rs 2,500 per quintal each, regularisation of all contract workers, an honorarium of Rs 10,000 to anganwadi and ASHA workers are some of the electoral promises that the Congress has made. They deal with issues that are close to the hearts of the masses. Talking of these issues in the rallies is likely to boost the party’s popularity, Congress leaders believe.

Unlike in previous elections, the Congress has released its poll manifesto way ahead of the assembly elections next year. For the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party had announced its NYAY or ‘justice’ scheme to provide minimum income guarantee for 25 crore people just days before the polls and thus, had no time to promote it. Taking a cue from its past mistakes, the Congress’s decision to woo the voters four or five months before any polls has given it an edge in the contest. It poses a tough challenge to the BJP as well as the SP and the BSP.

While the latter two are likely to make similar announcements, the Congress’s manifesto has put the BJP in a quandary. If the party tries to outdo the Congress and make bigger promises to the people, its incumbent rule in the state will be put in the dock. 

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra flags off a ‘Pratigya Yatra’ in Barabanki, October 23, 2021. Photo: PTI.

Everything to win

Meanwhile, the Congress is also working to balance the social equation in its favour by reaching out to different castes. In the Gorakhpur rally, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra extended her hand to the Nishad and Brahmin communities, promising that if the Congress is voted to power, fisheries will be given the status of agriculture and the rights of the people of the fishing community will be restored in sand mining and fisheries. 

The Congress general secretary also promised to set up a university in Gorakhpur named after Guru Machendranath in an attempt to appease the Nishad voters. 

Gorakhpur is the centre of Nishad politics and it was here that the Nishad Party was floated as a panacea to the ills of the fishing community. The party is now in alliance with the BJP. 

Also read: As SP, RLD Inch Closer, UP Politics Gets a Chance to Rise Above Divisions of Caste, Religion

Also, to woo Kurmi voters, life-sized cut-outs of former Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupendra Singh Baghel were installed with the caption, ‘popular leader of the Kurmi community’. In addition, a cut-out of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was placed between those of Sardar Patel and Indira Gandhi. 

In UP, the Congress has nothing to lose and therefore, is willing to take huge risks. Whether these experiments will help the party cement its position in the state or cause it to fail one more time remains to be seen.