Priyanka Gandhi in a file photo

Priyanka throws down the gauntlet: 40% tickets for women in UP elections

Weeks after she stole a march over other, more dominant, Opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh to launch an aggressive broadside against the ruling BJP over the mowing down of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra played her second gambit to boost her party’s electoral revival plans in the poll-bound state.

Tasked with the seemingly impossible mission of ending her party’s three-decade-long exile from power in Uttar Pradesh, Vadra announced, on Tuesday, that her party will reserve 40 per cent of its tickets for women in the upcoming assembly polls in the state.

The ‘pratigya’ (pledge) to field nearly 160 women candidates is the first of a series of promises that Vadra will make to the people of UP over the next few months leading up to the elections due for the 403-member state assembly in February–March 2022. Vadra’s diatribe against the BJP – both, at the Centre and in UP – over the Lakhimpur tragedy and her subsequent Kisan Nyay rally in Varanasi, was meant to address the twin concerns of the plight of farmers and the general lawlessness in the state.

The promise of 40 per cent reservation is aimed at endearing her party to a formidable vote bank that has not just been a victim of growing crimes against women, but also of patriarchal oppression and socio-economic discrimination.

In an impassioned explanation of why her party’s ‘pehli pratigya’ (first pledge) was to the women of the state, Vadra rattled out instances of her interactions with women from different parts of the state and dedicated the ‘historic decision’ to each one of them.

“When I came to UP for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll campaign, I had met some girls from Allahabad University who told me that the varsity and hostel had different rules for boys and girls. This is a decision for them. This is a decision for the woman who, during my Ganga Yatra, hailed my boat back to the riverbank to tell me that her village doesn’t have a school…This is a decision for Paro of Prayagraj who wants to come into politics. This is for Vaishnavi in Chandauli who wants to become an Air Force pilot like her martyred brother. This is a decision for the girl in Unnao who was burnt and killed, whose sister-in-law is fighting for justice even today. This decision is for the mother (of the girl who was gang-raped by upper caste men and then succumbed to her injuries) in Hathras who hugged me and told me that she is not getting justice. This decision is for Ramesh Kashyap’s (a local journalist killed in Lakhimpur on October 3) daughter who wants to become a doctor…This is for every woman of UP who wants change, equality and justice,” Vadra said.

Congress insiders say that Vadra is expected to make at least six more promises to the people of UP ahead of the Assembly polls. “The promise for 40 per cent reservation is a pre-election pledge. The others will focus on different sections of the society and what the Congress plans to do for them if voted to power. There will be something for everyone – farmers, Dalits and backward caste communities, the unemployed youth. Priyanka’s message is clear – we don’t want to just change the government but also the style of governance,” UP Congress chief Ajay Kumar ‘Lallu’ told The Federal.

For the Congress, the upcoming polls in UP are perhaps more important than any of the previous Assembly polls that the party has contested in the state since it began ceding ground to the BJP and regional, caste-based parties like Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s BSP in the post Mandal-Kamandal era that began in 1989. Vadra was handpicked by her brother, Rahul Gandhi, for the task of reviving the Congress in UP – a job he spectacularly failed in five years ago when his alliance with the Samajwadi Party came a cropper and the Grand Old Party could win just half a dozen of UP’s 403 assembly seats.

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Yet, while Vadra’s recent combative stance has given hopes to her party colleagues of a definite revival in the offing, there are also fears that the party may end up unwittingly helping the BJP retain power, even if the Congress’ vote share and seat tally improve substantially.

“There is no denying that we lost a lot of time due to various reasons. There are definite signs now of the people getting frustrated with the BJP, SP and BSP and looking at Congress, under Priyanka, with some hope. However, we have to also understand that we had won just seven seats in 2017 and our vote share was just over six per cent. Even if we make a huge improvement, we may not go beyond 15 percent vote share or 50-75 seats. Since we are not fighting in an alliance, there is a fair chance that we will end up cutting the Opposition’s votes on many seats and this may help the BJP retain power,” says a Congress leader, who is part of an internal panel of the party that is responsible for election strategy and planning.

The leader said the party would contest all 403 seats though and focus on those seats where it can hope to win without damaging the SP and the RLD, the two regional parties that are likely to contest the elections in an alliance and are currently being pegged as the best alternative for defeating the BJP.

“At the moment, many believe that the only credible alternative to Adityanath is the expected alliance between the SP, Jayant Chaudhary’s RLD and some smaller caste-based parties. Mayawati’s BSP is out of the picture and it is unlikely that she will hold on to her committed 18-19 per cent vote bank this time round,” the leader adds.

He explains further, “The challenge for us is to identify areas where we may have a better chance of defeating the BJP than the candidates put up by the SP or RLD… since the BSP is losing ground, we can focus on Dalits and also the Brahmins because this is a community that had been divided between the BSP and the BJP and is currently upset with both… if we are able to consolidate the Dalit and Brahmin vote while also regaining the trust of the Muslims, then we may see a surge in our tally without helping the BJP… besides caste considerations, we are also looking at amorphous blocs of voters – the migrants, unemployed youth, women, etc.”

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A senior UP Congress leader said the party is busy finalizing a schedule of press conferences, rallies and public meetings to be addressed by Vadra.

“We have already announced that she will be the face of our campaign. Vadra hasn’t yet decided on whether or not she will contest the upcoming UP polls. There is still time, I have not thought about it yet but once I decide, you will know,” she told reporters in Lucknow, on Tuesday, when asked if she too would be among the 40 per cent women candidates of her party.

Congress leaders in the state, say sources, have been urging her to contest the polls – preferably from a seat in eastern UP, a bastion of the BJP and chief minister Adityanath.

“If she agrees, it may be a game-changer for us. The feedback we have received in our surveys is that the people want her to contest and favour her over leaders of any other party to be the next CM, but it is a decision only she can take; we can only request. If she contests, it will be a strong statement of her intent to change UP,” a second UP Congress leader told The Federal.

Vadra knows that she has fewer than four months left to get her party completely battle-ready and that to ensure that her efforts don’t end up helping her biggest adversary – Adityanath’s BJP – she needs to also move carefully.

Can she succeed where her elder brother and mother failed? That’s the big question.

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