By Durdana Najam
If the road to Delhi goes through Utter Pradesh (UP), then launching Priyanka Gandhi as Congress General Secretary in-charge of East Utter Pradesh is probably the right decision to defeat the BJP in UP. The state became an enigma for the Congress, starting from 1977 when it could not win even one seat. A slight improvement was witnessed in the 1984 elections. Until 1984, excluding the 1977 elections, there was an upward trend for Congress candidates finishing first. In 1989 that share dropped to the second position. This downward spiral continued until Congress became irrelevant and either finished third or worse in the Lok Sabha elections.
The Congress has chosen to counter this negative pile of history and to repeat the party’s success in 2009 through an “ace” in form of Priyanka Gandhi. Apparently meeting or surpassing the 21 seat challenge of 2009 elections seems doable, however, given the absence of organizational cadre on the ground, and just two Lok Sabha seats in its armour, the going looks tough for the Congress.
The time of Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics is crucial. The influence of dynastic politics on the psyche of the South Asian voters, no matter how much they pose to be dismissive of the trend, must certainly be at the heart of this defining decision.
Eastern Uttar Pradesh includes the family seats of Amethi and Raebareli, as well as constituencies such as Phulpur from where Jawaharlal Nehru and his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had been contesting and winning elections. Since Congress had been losing on these seats since 1984, it is expected that with Priyanka triggering the nostalgic sentiments, Congress might reclaim these “once Nehru” territories.
The Indian National Congress finished on a sordid note in the 2014 elections, getting reduced to 44 seats out of the total 543 in the Lok Sabha. Of all the loses, a major blow was dealt to the party in the heartland of Nehru Dynasty; Utter Pradesh, the province with the largest share of seats in the Lok Sabha. The irrelevance coming in the Congress’s way was the consequence of leadership crisis that had swept the party since the departure of Rajiv Gandhi, after his murder during electoral campaign in 1991. For 19 years, Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow, kept the reigns of the party in her hands, but without narrowing down the leadership vacuum that had sucked the ideological mores of the party.
Being a party that had liberated India from the British rule, the voters gave the Congress ample time to fulfill its promises and eradicate corruption and nepotism from its cadres. Congress, consumed with Gandhi-Nehru dynasty syndrome, took the power game for granted. Eventually, the voters started looking for an alternative. Regional parties gained strength, while the real magnet turned out to be the right-wing Nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) that, post-2014 elections, changed the complexion of India’s secular face by creating communal fissures. In spite of all the foreign policy gimmicks that Narendra Modi pulled out, the BJP’s policies have cast a narrow view of a state that could not take a “larger than life” role needed to handle regional issues.
Struck with a myopia of looking at the region from a “terrorism lens”, without offering a solution that lies within, India today stands on the wrong side of history. Kashmir has become a cauldron, under the BJP, with the result that the Line of Control has constantly remained bone of contention between both the countries. The incessant antagonism against Pakistan, especially when the US has been continuously re-calibrating its ties with Islamabad, has affected India’s influence that it so fondly desires to assert in the regional affairs.
The foreign policy of India has also become hostile under the BJP rule to an extent that no effort has been made to revive neighborly relations. The cue to this derailment is the SAARC summit that India refused to attend because it was being held in Pakistan. The wounds of partition were reinvented. Even Bangladesh was promoted to demean Pakistan for the “crises” of 1971. It is upon theses tranches of foreign and domestic policy failures that the Congress wants to build its edifice, albeit under new leadership. India is in dire need to regain its secular and democratic demeanor if it vies to see a broader role in regional affairs.
The new leadership in Congress would be expected to bring India out of its current jingoist frame of mind, towards its neighbors, and make it a state that vies for regional peace and harmony. It was perhaps in the same context that Donald Trump, when announcing his decision to wrap up the war in Afghanistan, said that neighboring countries, and not the one sitting 6,000 kilometers away, should be solving the Afghan crisis.
Political pundits are looking at the forthcoming 2019 Indian elections, especially guessing how local and regional political parties will perform. This is because many parties were ostracized because of their religious leanings and castes in the last five years at the hands of nationalist-right-wing-upper class and pro-Hindu BJP. Besides damaging the fabric of secularism, the BJP era has also prompted and motivated the previously marginalized regional parties to assert more dynamically.
As they say, political decisions are all about timings; lest this wave of regional parties and BJP’s caste-based politics had pushed it to the periphery of politics, the Congress has rightly jumped into the fray with a new feather in its cap to save, what Rahul said, the “Congress ideology”.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. firstname.lastname@example.org