The Congress is jubilant over the restoration of its government in Arunachal Pradesh and quite naturally so. Like in the case of Uttarakhand, the BJP’s bid to impose Article 356 after some Congressmen turned rebels has been struck down by the Supreme Court. This should, one can only hope, deter the BJP from further deployment of a tool that has long been discredited. But when the celebrations stop, the Congress will have to turn its attention to the bigger problems it faces. The immediate one is the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the party is looking for ways to remain in the game. In the face of local stalwarts like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party and an aggressive BJP, the Congress is in danger of becoming an also-ran. It has got off to a faster start than the others by naming its own chief ministerial candidate — a departure from its normal practice — though it remains to be seen if Sheila Dikshit, for all her reputation as an excellent administrator in Delhi, will enthuse UP’s voters.
To bolster the team, the Congress has also decided that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will campaign all across the state, unlike earlier occasions when she remained confined to the two constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli. There she had proved an effective draw, her charm and empathy connecting with the masses and drawing praise even from pundits who saw traces of her grandmother Indira Gandhi in her. For Congressmen, she is the brahmastra which will flatten the Opposition. But will it? There’s no guarantee that Priyanka will have the same impact this time, and specially with first-time voters. And while the Gandhi name has traction in Rae Bareli and Amethi, would it have the same impact in other parts of the state? Not necessarily. Indeed, there is a danger that she will be wasted and by drawing her into public life with a low probability of success, her efficacy will be forever finished. Today there is a mystery about her; tomorrow she will be just another campaigner, except for her surname.
Roping in Priyanka will have other repercussions, none of them particularly beneficial to the party. Once in, she can’t be just a campaigner; she will have to be involved in the larger decision-making, and thus will get a role in the party. If she is made yet another vice-president, Rahul Gandhi will have to be elevated as president, presuming that Sonia Gandhi assumes some sort of emeritus mantle. This is fraught with complications, as Congress members won’t know who to flock towards and inevitably three power centres will emerge. The Gandhis between them may not have issues but their camp followers will. Undercutting, second-guessing and intrigue, more than seen now, will be the order of the day.
And how will this solve any of the fundamental problems that the party faces? It is losing its connect with the people. Priyanka won’t be able to change that overnight. The bigger concern is the party’s structural weaknesses — the lack of inner-party democracy, the almost total disappearance of state-level leaders who have their pulse on the people of their domain, the robust intra-party communications that allows messages to flow up and down. If anything, Priyanka’s elevation will exacerbate those problems since party elections for top posts will become a farce.
Though there may have been a clamour from grassroots workers in parts of Uttar Pradesh to bring in Priyanka, the most vociferous advocates are those who have rarely won an election in their lives and now hold prominent positions at the top. They know her advent will once and for all end the farce of inner-party democracy and make their position even stronger. The Gandhi family is not unaware of this. They have been resisting bringing her into the party and in the public eye for a long time. They realise that with the controversies surrounding her husband Robert Vadra, she will become a target of criticism and calumny. The Gandhi-bashing of the BJP, that is now flagging and becoming tedious and clichéd, will get a new lease of life. They have taken a call to let her campaign all over the state, but they know that if the Priyanka card proves to be a damp squib, it could be humiliating.
Meanwhile, the brains trust of the party would do well to not just think about how to revive it but to get their hands dirty and go out into the field. Many of today’s Congressmen and women have forgotten its history, but this has always been a party that worked at the lowest rung. There wasn’t, and perhaps still isn’t, a single village without a Congress member and a single district without a committee. That infrastructure could not have fully vanished. If the party wants to get back into contention, it has to look beyond finding the magic cure for its ailments and start rebuilding the organisation, piece by piece. Priyanka is not the answer to the Congress’ problems.