Priyanka Gandhi's UP experiment — placing politics where it belongs
The Congress leader has not just taken on the Yogi government; she has robustly brought social reform back into the political milieu
The long struggle for India’s freedom was not just a political battle to oust the British. Integral to the movement was the social reform agenda of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders.
Gandhiji said real swaraj (self-rule) could not be achieved just by replacing white rulers with Indian ones. He firmly believed that unless Indian society was willing to reform from within, it wouldn’t be able to govern itself. Along with organising civil disobedience protests, he tirelessly worked on a number of social issues — from building Hindu-Muslim unity and fighting the evil of untouchability to talking about emancipation of women.
He constantly engaged with Indian society through his talks, newspaper articles, letters, questioning norms, challenging the status-quo and ushering in reforms. There were other leaders, like Dr BR Ambedkar, Periyar EV Ramasamy, Abul Kalam Azad and Sarojini Naidu, who all worked on social issues close to their hearts.
No room for social reform
The political scene in India today is far from all this and is occupied by people who do not even want to pretend to be reformist or progressive. On the other hand, these career power-seekers are too eager to use the existing social weaknesses and fissures between different sections of people, exacerbating them and playing them to their electoral advantage. Social reform is the job of NGOs and civil society organisations, they will tell you.
In the poll-bound State of Uttar Pradesh, where the battleground can get fierce and bitter, the ruling party, BJP and the principal opposition, Samajwadi Party, are blaming each other for putting up candidates with criminal backgrounds. In what is predicted to be a bipolar contest, candidates are being decided on the basis of rigorous caste arithmetic, apart from the money and muscle power of the individuals. Party hopping of disgruntled caste-heavyweights dominated headlines for sometime.
It is this political landscape that Prinyanka Gandhi, General Secretary of the Congress and party in-charge of UP, entered in 2019. After flexing her muscles for sometime with the old-guard within the grand old party, she started engaging with people’s issues in the State and taking the Yogi Adityanath government head on for its failures.
The State government, which had gotten into the habit of silencing journalists and activists who spoke or wrote against it, by filing cases against them and arresting them, was taken aback by Priyanka’s direct action by getting onto the streets. The Yogi administration was rattled by her and there were three instances, when the standoff between the government’s heavily-deployed, armoured law enforcement and a completely unarmed woman, occupying the two sides of the protest-ground, captured the attention of the entire nation. The imagery was too powerful, reminding many Indians of Gandhiji’s salt-satyagraha and Indira Gandhi’s political battles.
Political presence of mind
During the first phase of lockdown in India, when the plight of the immigrant labourers walking thousands of kilometres back home shook the conscience of the nation, Priyanka sent a thousand buses to Noida and Ghaziabad to ferry them to their hometowns in UP. An embarrassed UP administration refused to let the buses ply on flimsy grounds and sent them back.
Her political presence of mind and ability to connect with people — be it when reaching out to the families of girls who faced sexual assault or with the kin of the protesting farmers who were run over by a convoy of vehicles — has been hailed by observers.
In 2017, the Congress fought the UP polls in alliance with the Samajwadi Party, facing a drubbing defeat. The Congress was pushed to a mere seven seats in the Assembly. The party has been out of power in the State for more than 30 years with a depleted presence at the block and village level.
Facing criticism for conceding too many seats to the Congress in the previous election, the SP decided not to get into an alliance with the party this time. Priyanka saw this as an opportunity and seized it with both hands to completely change the modus operandi of how her party would approach the polls. In a State where communal and caste agendas dominate the discourse, the Uttar Pradesh unit of the Congress decided to make women the centrestage of their campaign narrative.
Political parties are male bastions in India where women are nobody unless they are some political bigwig’s wife or daughter or sister. The role of women is restricted to being a part of crowds assembled for rallies and public meetings. They are roped in to welcome party leaders by performing aartis and are involved in canvassing votes during elections, especially to woo women voters who form more than 50% of the electorate in many places.
A bold, remarkable step
In an ecosystem where women are not considered tough enough for politics and their political aspirations are not taken very seriously, Priyanka, by a leap of faith, has decided to field women candidates in 40% of the seats for the 403-member UP Assembly.
This is bold and remarkable by any standards, especially in a country where even Parliament has less than 15% women. To steer the narrative of the election towards a non-divisive, developmental agenda, the party came up with separate manifestos focusing on women and youth.
“She has thrown the cat among the pigeons”, making the other parties pause and review their course of action, noted a poll observer. Congress’ poll slogan in UP is ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon’ (‘I am a woman, I can fight my battles’). Economic and political empowerment is the only way forward to help women redeem themselves from the patriarchal setup where their struggles are largely ignored and suppressed.
Priyanka silenced her critics who asked her where she is going to find so many women candidates by choosing women who have shown extraordinary courage against an oppressive State machinery.
Asha Singh, the mother of the rape victim in Unnao, anti-CAA activist Sadaf Jafar, and Poonam Pandey, who fought for the rights of Asha workers during the pandemic, are some of the candidates who have been given tickets by the Congress this time.
Reservation for women in jobs, higher wages for Asha workers, two-wheeler and mobile phones for women college students, a transparent government recruitment system, training for students appearing for various entrance exams, support for small businesses, and loan waiver for farmers are a few promises which are part of what she calls a ‘constructive political agenda’, as against the communal-caste agenda of other parties.
On winning and losing
“What are the winning chances of your candidates?” Priyanka is often asked. Her answers are always straightforward; without mincing words, she declared “They will either win or learn from their defeat, become stronger, and will prepare themselves for the next election. Our goal is long term, not just this election.”
When asked who is the CM face of her party in the polls, she gave a tongue-in-cheek reply, asking whose face they see everywhere. Though she stopped short of calling herself the Congress’ CM candidate, she has expressed her intention to fight the election.
From candidate selection, setting the narrative of the party, to running the campaign, she has shown that she is not going to take the trodden path. Irrespective of the results, Priyanka’s UP experiment has to be credited for placing politics where it belongs.
(The writer is general-secretary and spokesperson of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. She is a first-generation politician with dreams for India).
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the article are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal).