Behenji Needed More than Behen

This is the season for opinion polls with hyper-ventilating TV anchors throwing a volley of numbers at dazed viewers with an authority that at times belies the spotty track record of many pollsters. And yet, in the absence of other more credible measurement tools for examining voter behaviour, T-20 style television forecasts are what we must turn to as a rough guide to what lies ahead in this big election year.

Atleast this time most of the polls so far are broadly pointing in the same direction with six major trends emerging out of these poll findings. Firstly, a hung parliament as of now seems the most likely verdict. Secondly, the BJP is unlikely to come anywhere close to repeating its remarkable 282 seat majority of 2014, but is still India’s party number one by some distance. Thirdly, the Congress has gained some traction in the last year but is, much like the Australian batsmen in the recent test series, still struggling to cross the century mark. Fourthly, the BJP and Congress between them are hovering around the 300 seat mark, leaving a large space open for the non Cong, non BJP parties to play a crucial role in post poll combinations. Fifthly, Narendra Modi is still clearly neta number one, albeit the gap between him and a Rahul Gandhi has reduced as the anti incumbency space widens.

Sixthly, the 2019 election maybe fought across 543 seats, but it is the 80 seats of UP which really hold the key to unlocking the door to power in Delhi. That is because this is the only state where the BJP appears set to lose big time: the India Today Mood of the Nation poll, for example, suggests that if elections are held today, the BJP may end up with just 18 seats, a loss of as many as 55 seats from its spectacular 2014 performance. The biggest gainer seems to be the SP-BSP alliance which the survey claims could win 58 seats with the Congress winning just four. Even more dramatically, the survey indicates that if the Congress joins the Bua-bhatija combine, then the BJP could be reduced to just five seats. In other words, while the chemistry may still be with Mr Modi as the most popular leader in the country, in the UP context, the sheer arithmetic of a wide alliance makes it a mountain to climb for the BJP.

Enter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the Congress general secretary in charge of eastern UP, her arrival into formal politics greeted with a 'band, baaja, baarat' like euphoria by party cheerleaders as if her very presence will transform the grand old party's fortunes. Rahul Gandhi, now with an undoubted spring in his step, has added to the buzz by claiming that his sister's appointment in the crucial battleground state is proof that the Congress is playing the elections 'on the front foot'.

And yet, the hype needs to be separated from the stark reality of Uttar Pradesh’s political cauldron where the Congress has been a marginal presence for three decades now. Yes, the charismatic Priyanka will attract the camera lens with unfailing regularity but can she really shift votes? More importantly, even if she does, whose votes is she actually helping take away to the Congress? In 2014, a CSDS post poll survey showed that the BJP won 72 per cent of the upper caste vote across UP while the SP and BSP between them won 75 per cent of the Muslim vote. In eastern UP, where upper castes and Muslims are in substantial numbers, any surge in Congress votes – the party won barely six per cent of the vote here in the previous Lok Sabha election -- could come at the expense of both the other major formations, essentially adding a new dynamic to the poll equations.

Indeed, the political messaging from Priyanka’s appointment is clear: the Congress believes that after scoring its hat trick of wins in the December assembly elections, it is back in the game. Truth is, no two elections are the same. The assembly elections were fought as direct BJP versus Congress fights in those Hindi heartland states where there was strong local anti-incumbency and no viable third alternative. In UP, there is a clear and potent option in the Mayawati-Akhilesh combine, one that has the caste arithmetic and the organisational strength to take on the BJP. The Congress has neither,
banking instead on a sentimental goodwill for past glories through the prism of sepia-tinted nostalgia.

Stylistic comparisons between an Indira Gandhi and Priyanka may make for riveting television imagery but cannot compensate for a weakened Congress organization and a shifting political demographic that maybe still fascinated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty but wont necessarily vote for it in the stark battle between the forces of Mandir and Mandal. Priyanka's entry will certainly enthuse the Congress workers and ensure a higher percentage of votes for the party, but it runs the high risk of dividing the anti BJP vote. Already, the signals from Mayawati suggest that the mercurial leader isn't going to take kindly to competition on her home turf.

Which raises the critical question: is the 2019 election for the opposition, especially the Congress, about Congress maximisation or BJP minimisation? In its quest to bat aggressively on the front foot is the Congress risking the possibility of actually playing into the BJP's hands? To take the Australian cricket tour analogy again, Cheteshwar Pujara was the most successful Indian batsman because he knew which ball to play and which to leave. UP perhaps was the bouncer that the Congress needed to duck under instead of seeking to compete with potential post poll allies.

Which is why the Congress needs to take a big call soon. Is the battle for 2019 about a serious attempt to make Rahul Gandhi the prime minister or is it about stitching as many alliances as possible to try and defeat Narendra Modi even if it means compromising on prime ministerial ambitions? Think about another opinion poll takeaway: a Congress-AAP alliance in Delhi could mean a virtual sweep for the unlikely partners; a three cornered fight almost guarantees a BJP sweep. In effect, 2019 could boil down to Modi's chemistry versus gatbandhan arithmetic: The game is on!

Post script: Allow me to borrow a classic one liner from a colleague during our opinion poll programme. Asked what impact Priyanka's entry would have, the seasoned analyst, tongue firmly in cheek remarked, ‘it is one thing to have your 'behen' (sister) on your side, but what Rahul Gandhi really needs is 'behenji' (Mayawati) with him!'

(the writer is senior journalist and author. Mail: rajdeepsardesai52@gmail.com)

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