She will pull the crowds, but can Priyanka Gandhi get votes?

Priyanka Gandhi

At Ahmed Nadeem’s pan shop in Tanda, 191 km from Lucknow, the early morning talk has just veered towards the upcoming general elections, as it invariably does these days. Soon, people commenced talking of Priyanka Gandhi and her entry into politics as general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh — again, as it invariably does nowadays.

Wali Ahmed, a local resident, is convinced that her entry will make no difference to the Congress at this stage. But he is suddenly cut off by his friend Rajendra Kumar, who says, “She has at least managed to get people to talk about Congress. The party… will improve its score.”

Ahmed’s view is rooted in the dismal show by the party in the region over the past few elections. Ambedkar Nagar, which became a constituency in 2009 (before that it was Akbarpur), is a dalit-dominated Lok Sabha seat from where BSP supremo Mayawati has won thrice as MP. The Congress last won this seat in 1984.

But Rajendra Kumar’s optimism is shared by quite a few. “Priyanka can put an end to dalali (the menace of middlemen) in the party. Senior leaders were involved in deciding who would get tickets. They did not permit the second line of leadership to develop,” says Ramesh Mishra, an Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee member from Iltifatganj in Ambedkar Nagar.

Party workers say she confirms them strongly of her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi. Then there is the older generation, a committed Congress support base. At Tulsiganj Chauraha near Akbarpur, 20km southwest of Tanda, 70-year-old Mata Prasad Tiwari says, “Priyanka is a true heir to her grandmother.”

Go further east, towards Azamgarh, and the optimism is somewhat muted. “Under Priyanka’s leadership, the Congress’s vote share might increase, but it won’t be enough,” says music teacher Ravindra Mishra. Others say the ‘Priyanka magic’ will not make a dent to the SP-BSP alliance’s prospects there.

But some look at the party’s long-term prospects. Mohammed Umair, a senior research fellow at Shibli Academy, a college in Azamgarh, says, “It is true that the old base of Congress has been lost, but the roots are still there. And people can see that the party has performed well in other states lately.”

One of the constituencies that will be in aim nationally is Gorakhpur, the citadel of chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Congress held this seat from the first general election in 1952 to 1967, when the Gorakhnath Math made its presence felt for the first time in the electoral arena. Mahant Digvijaynath had contested as an independent candidate and won. Three years later, the baton had been passed to Mahant Avedyanath. In 1971, Congress reclaimed the seat, keeping it till 1989, when Avedyanath won on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket.

Today, Gorakhpur’s Congress unit does not even have a permanent office. Workers meet at the home of district chief Rakesh Yadav, who said there was a party office in the town for the past 50 years but following some property dispute they had to abandon the place. “We are now looking for a new office.”

Traders at the Gorakhnath Mandir premises, both Hindu and Muslim, consider Priyanka’s entry as nothing more than a show to create an illusion of change. Graduate student Aditya, who runs his father’s 30-year-old sweet shop at the temple complex, says, “There will be no improvement in the Congress’s electoral fortunes. Nothing that Priyanka or anybody else does can save the party.”

In the prime minister’s own constituency of Varanasi, most voters feel the decision to bring in Priyanka was good but had come too late, particularly after the SP-BSP alliance was announced.

Pramod Majhi, a leader of the boatmen community at ShivalaGhat, says, “Despite the delay, Congress has taken the correct decision. It will help revive the party. Now we want to see her in action like her grandmother Indira Gandhi.”

But rural voters are less optimistic. At Milkichak village, Riteshwari Narain says, “Had Congress taken this decision before the formation of the SP-BSP alliance, the scene could have been different. One should not expect any miracle from Priyanka. She will need years just to fix the party organization.”


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