Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at an election campaign in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, on Feb 3, 2012. (Photographer: Atul Yadav/PTI)

Hidden Subtext In Priyanka Gandhi’s Entry: A Purvanchal State

BloombergQuintOpinion

Is Congress betting on a Telangana act in east Uttar Pradesh?

On the face of it, Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into active politics as the Indian National Congress’ general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh is in itself a headline maker because of the history associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family that has led the Indian National Congress. Quickfix analysts have pointed to the obvious: the fact that the biggest vote-catching titans of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, are both elected from the region: Modi as the Member of Parliament from Varanasi and Adityanath as a long-time former MP from Gorakhpur.

However, it is important to look beyond the obvious to understand the significance of why Priyanka Gandhi has been given charge of east UP, and why that region may be the lowest-hanging fruit for the Congress in what is otherwise difficult terrain. The party is trying desperately to make a comeback in the state that is India’s most populous and is home to Rae Bareli, Amethi, and Phulpur—which have been pocket boroughs for the political family—all located in central UP.

Pitting Priyanka’s appeal and charisma against Yogi’s rhetoric or Modi’s holy constituency may make prime-time headlines in television news channels, but what really matters eventually is a political party’s ability to win or influence voters and seats. Given the huge challenge that Congress faces in the coming Lok Sabha elections, there are enough factors at play that might help Priyanka Gandhi swing deals and/or win public sympathy in east UP, because it is the most backward part of the state with simmering discontent waiting to be channelled.

Both the Yadav-oriented Samajwadi Party and the Dalit-centred Bahujan Samaj Party are stronger in central and western UP than the east.
Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav announce the BSP-SP alliance, in Lucknow, on Jan 12, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav announce the BSP-SP alliance, in Lucknow, on Jan 12, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Can PM Narendra Modi Trump The SP-BSP Alliance In UP?

Outside The Mahagathbandhan’s Influence

Mayawati’s core vote has been around Bijnor in west UP and the Etawah belt in central UP has historically been a key base for the Yadav family. Dalits have antagonistic relations with Jats in west UP and with Yadavs in central UP, typically as landless labourers amidst landed farmers. Thanks to the Rashtriya Lok Dal led by Ajit Singh, Jats have had a strong influence in west UP.

As east UP is relatively less influenced by BSP, SP, and RLD, giving the Congress a higher chance of a bounce-back, BJP’s 2014 surge notwithstanding.

It is important to look at caste equations beyond Jats, Yadavs, and Dalits and put it all in the dynamics of development politics in which various regions demand their share of the political pie.

Central UP has relatively developed zones such as Kanpur and Allahabad while West UP has lush-green farm belts, a robust sugar industry and a modern digital-era hub like Noida. East UP is the ill-treated Cinderella in this not-so-fairy tale. It is the 21st Century, and Priyanka Gandhi may well be the Princess Charming to twist the tale in a new age where the east feels ignored.

Congress’ Past Performance And Prospects In UP

Notably, before 2014, when it won no seat in UP barring the pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi, Congress had a reasonable performance in eastern UP. In 2009, it won nine of the roughly 33 seats in the region called Purvanchal. An anti-incumbency factor in these parts looks against the BJP is more likely if Congress buttresses its family charisma with some caste-based chutzpah. The strong seats include Pratapgarh, Sultanpur, Faizabad, Bahraich, Shrawasti, Gonda, Domariyaganj, Maharajganj, and Kushi Nagar. The belt also has a strong Muslim population that might bring minority votes to the Congress.

Hidden Subtext In Priyanka Gandhi’s Entry: A Purvanchal State

A booster arrived for Priyanka just hours after her being named the general secretary for east UP by her brother and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. An India Today-Karvy mood poll suggested tough times for the National Democratic Alliance, with its estimated vote share dipping to 36 percent from 43.3 percent including the share from the BJP’s ally Apna Dal, whose base is in the Kurmi caste. The poll predicts four of the state’s 80 seats for the Congress if it stays out of the emerging SP-BSP alliance (58) and 18 for the BJP and its allies. Chances are that some deft moves in the east will give the Gandhis leverage in other parts of the state.

Hidden Subtext In Priyanka Gandhi’s Entry: A Purvanchal State

Also read: Why Mayawati-Akhilesh Said No To Rahul, And Erred

Adopting The Purvanchal State Cause

Demands have been mounting for a separate Purvanchal state comprising the eastern districts as part of a growing call to divide UP into four new states – Awadh Pradesh, Bundelkhand, Paschim Pradesh, and Purvanchal.

Can Priyanka lead or address the demand for a separate Purvanchal the way the Congress joined the movement to carve out a Telangana from Andhra Pradesh?
 Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a road show in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, on May 4, 2014. (Photographer: Atul Yadav/PTI)
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a road show in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, on May 4, 2014. (Photographer: Atul Yadav/PTI)

Also read: Congress Out Of SP-BSP Alliance In UP, But There’s Little Reason For BJP To Cheer

Demonstrations for a separate Purvanchal caused violent disruptions in Varanasi last year, hitting Modi’s grand politics based on cultural roots and turning it into a development gambit. The proposed Purvanchal state has districts that include Allahabad (recently renamed Prayagraj) at its southwest and Maharajganj in the northeast and takes in its proposed fold Varanasi, Azamgarh, Baharaich and Faizabad, where Ayodhya is located. Allahabad is ordinarily better counted in the central part of the state, but it is ultimately all about who draws the line, when and how. Some parts of Bihar are also traditionally counted in the Bhojpuri-speaking Purvanchal areas.

The Congress was quite pro-active in batting for Telangana, where the Telangana Rashtra Samithi led by K Chandrashekar Rao gained power in 2014 despite the hard work put in at the national parliamentary level by the Congress-led UPA.

In fact, Congress bore the brunt of the downside risk of that move and was drew a blank in the other parts of the undivided Andhra Pradesh. In Purvanchal, Priyanka’s party has no such risk.

It has much less to lose in central and western UP. It could well be the first mover in a political vacuum that has formed in the east.

Scope For Hyper-Regional Alliances

But nothing comes on a platter. The Gandhi scion has her task cut out: deal-making with a slew of caste leaders or parties in the region. Think also of possible defections of BJP leaders and allies from the region.

East UP has its own homegrown leaders who are out of the grasp of an Akhilesh or Mayawati. Among Purvanchal’s supporters is UP Backward Classes Welfare Minister Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldeo Bharat Samaj Party, currently an NDA constiuent. Non-Yadav backward castes have their own groupings such as the Nishad Sena that has its roots among the traditional castes of boatmen or Kewats. The regional Nirbal Indian Soshit Hamara Aam Dal Party that groups about 16 lower castes and is seeking new job quotas for them is said to be influential across 20 Lok Sabha seats and 100 Vidhan Sabha seats. It has its a base among castes such as Mallahs, Kewats, Manjhis, and Kahars.

NISHAD Party’s leader Sanjay Kumar Nishad could potentially be to Congress’ UP strategy what Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti was in Gujarat, a lynchpin chieftain.

The NISHAD party, an ally of SP, was allegedly linked to violence in which a policeman was killed in Ghazipur after a rally by Prime Minister Modi, though its leader denies the charge. The Nishads are demanding that they should be reclassified among Scheduled Castes instead of Other Backward Classes.

Nishad Vikas Sangha supporters during their Maharally for reservation, on Nov. 4, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Nishad Vikas Sangha supporters during their Maharally for reservation, on Nov. 4, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Leverage For The Rest Of UP

By possibly drawing in sundry local leaders and groups into its fold as members or allies, Congress will have a strategic lever to negotiate with the high-profile SP and BSP on the electoral chessboard where seat adjustments will determine who gets what in the likely event of a stronger anti-BJP alliance or coalition. To that end, the SP-BSP announcement last week can be seen as only the first move on the chessboard. Priyanka Gandhi may well be a key mover and shaker in this game, with seasoned political dealmakers assisting her.

For the Congress, it is vital to do some grassroots acquisitions to fortify its eroded base in UP and that, in turn, could vitalise its national ambitions. East UP may just be the ticket for Congress in its comeback attempt in the state, and Priyanka its torch-bearer if she swings some deals.

Madhavan Narayanan a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and Business Standard.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.