What it lacks in organisation, the Congress is hoping to make up through hype in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls next month. The party's focus will be a vigorous media campaign centred round coverage of party general secretary Rahul Gandhi's speeches as he travels through the state, highlighting the corruption of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government and the recent announcement that 4.5 per cent of the 27.5 per cent quota for OBCs would be reserved for the minorities.
The media campaign is many-layered. So, officially, Congress spokespersons are claiming the party will return with an absolute majority – over 200 seats – even though it won just 22 Assembly seats in 2007, and eight per cent of the vote. They cite three reasons for their optimism: one, that in the general elections in 2009, the party won 22 Lok Sabha seats with about 18 per cent of the vote; two, that the electorate wants change, having voted in all its three rivals, the BSP, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the last 20-odd years; and three, the positive response to Mr. Gandhi's campaign.
Unofficially, Congress leaders, citing a pre-election survey which suggests the Congress will get 115 seats, ahead of all its rivals, are emphasising the party will be in the driver's seat as far as government formation is concerned, once the results come in. But privately, the Congress' central ministers are not quite so sanguine: “We will get enough in U.P.,” says a Union Minister said, adding, “to play a role in government formation.” Another minister rephrases it: “Let us say that the next government in U.P. will not be formed without the Congress.” Decoded, that means the party is hoping the SP will emerge as the single largest party and that, with it support, the next government will be formed.
Party sources say that unless the Congress itself believes – and projects – that it is in the game, no one will take it seriously. So, party functionaries have now begun to talk of how its “social engineering”, though they are loath to use the expression, will ensure that the non-Yadav backward castes, especially the Kurmis, will form the core that will attract the party's “natural” constituency among the Brahmins and the Muslims back.
So, on Sunday, while releasing the fifth list of 62 candidates from U.P., chairman of the party's media campaign committee for the state, Raj Babbar, put out the following statement: “The list reflects the inclusive character of the Congress as 38 of these candidates are from the backward sections, Scheduled Castes and minorities who form a majority of voters in the State. The Most Backward Castes continue to be important focus areas for the party as the list includes candidates from communities like Baghels, Mauryas, Nishads, Khadagwanshis and Sainis who continue to be on the fringes of the State's polity.”
But talk to Congressmen who are here in the capital from the distant districts of U.P. and the picture is not quite as rosy: there is unhappiness firstly with the fact that many of the prominent leaders in decision-making positions for the U.P. elections are relatively recent entrants to the party: they include Union Minister Beni Prasad Verma (a Kurmi), chairperson of the Scheduled Caste Commission P.L. Punia (a Dalit) and chairman of the screening committee for U.P. Mohan Prakash, who came from the Janata Dal. Ideologically, Congressmen complain, these people are not part of the party's mainstream but the fact that many of them are very articulate, they say, has meant that they have been able to impress the Congress' central leadership. The second complaint is that many of those who have been given ticket are those who have left other political parties because they didn't get a nomination there. “Where does that leave people like us?” says a district president from the eastern part of the State.
What party insiders also point out is that the results of the Lok Sabha polls of 2009 cannot be extrapolated: a majority of the 22 who won Lok Sabha seats on the Congress ticket were individually strong candidates; it was a general election, and the Congress was pitted against the BJP at the Centre, not the BSP or SP; and finally, even in 2009, the BSP was 10 per cent ahead of the Congress, while the SP about five per cent ahead. The difference was that while the Congress vote was concentrated in a smaller area, thereby yielding richer electoral dividends, the votes of the BSP and SP were spread evenly across the State.
How fair these complaints are only time will tell. But what is clear is that unhappiness among Congressmen who never left the party for greener pastures in the last two decades could create the sort of dissonance that only a wave in its favour could obscure.