Debating India

UTTAR PRADESH

Congress pipedream

Tuesday 15 August 2006

The Congress has sounded the bugle in Uttar Pradesh - and about time too, considering the party is currently at the bottom of the pile in a contest to be waged essentially between heavyweights Mulayam Singh and Mayawati. In Kanpur with son Rahul, Sonia Gandhi was all aggression and tough talk. The Mulayam Singh Government, she proclaimed, had overstayed its welcome, it was time the Congress took its place, and the cadre must prepare for a "do or die" battle. So much confidence on the basis of so little takes one’s breath away. The Congress holds nine of U.P.’s 80 Lok Sabha seats. In the Vidhan Sabha, it has 16 of 403 seats - 186 seats short of the halfway mark, which is a measure of the gap between illusion and reality. Just how the party plans to bridge this gap when it has failed to find an ally remains a mystery. The Congress’ plight in U.P. adds to the irony. The party has bestirred itself with just months to go for the Assembly election, whereas the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have long donned battle robes. Chasing a `Dalit plus Brahmin’ dream, Ms. Mayawati has been hard at work, spreading the BSP’s independent message far and wide. For its part, the incumbent SP is in hyperactive mode - packages for farmers, youth, and teachers, a rush of appointments to the police, non-stop announcements of special economic zones and so forth.

The Sonia-Rahul trip to Kanpur is the family’s first foray into a territory outside the safe belt of Rae Bareli and Amethi. But there is still no word on party strategy, or for that matter who is to lead it into election. Will Rahul Gandhi take charge as is being assumed in party circles? A while ago, Mr. Gandhi said he would do the needful if that was what the "high command" wanted. With the Rae Bareli by-election showcasing his leadership qualities, a formal announcement seemed imminent. Yet the adrenaline-soaked moment was to pass with the cadre unable to get the green signal from the top. Today Congresspersons are confronted with a strange situation where the son is willing but the mother is coy. The Congress chief’s strong sense of propriety aside, there is genuine concern in party echelons that Mr. Gandhi could be wasted fighting a lost State election whereas he could be their trump card for the next Lok Sabha election. Besides affecting the morale of party workers, the dilly-dallying has meant painful uncertainty for the current Congress leadership in the State. The party’s calculations for the next stage of political development require it to do much better than this. Consider the contrast between Ms. Gandhi’s warrior-like posturing and the party’s pathetic strength on the ground. Even its electoral machinery has rusted from neglect, and there is no mass base it can claim as its own - at a time when winning is, among other things, about getting the caste arithmetic right.

See online : The Hindu

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