Reviving the Congress in the country's most populous State will take some doing as the recent Assembly election debacle shows.
NOW THAT the Uttar Pradesh electorate has given a decisive verdict in the just-concluded Assembly elections, the Congress' party managers will have to introspect and identify what went wrong. Why did the party fail to win even the 25 seats it got in 2002, even after fielding, with much fanfare, Rahul Gandhi as star campaigner?
Ever since his dramatic plunge into electoral politics in 2004, Congress workers had patiently waited for Mr. Gandhi to take charge. It took him nearly three years to be drawn into the cauldron of caste equations that is Uttar Pradesh politics, which can confound the best of politicians.
And as Mr. Gandhi undertook an extensive campaign from Ghaziabad to Gorkahpur, Congress leaders and workers began to take heart. Despite making comments that kicked up a furore in the early phase of the campaign, Mr. Gandhi managed to breathe life into a moribund State unit. As Mr. Gandhi's caravan rolled through cities, town, villages, and the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh in the sweltering heat, Congress leaders of the State began believing the party would end up with anywhere between 35 and 40 seats.
They started entertaining the thought that a revived Congress would hold the key to the formation of the next government in the State. Those dreams ended on May 11.
To be fair to Mr. Gandhi, it was a complicated choice for him. No one had a prescription for reviving the party, which hardly had an organisation in U.P. Experiments over the last 18 years simply did not work and the Amethi MP faced the daunting task of getting the party structure back on its feet and battle ready. He had to manage the contradictions of caste-dominated politics as against his own philosophy of tapping the talent of youth to break the mould. Added to this was his lack of experience in handling electioneering. According to party sources, Mr. Gandhi and his election management team worked in splendid isolation, depending heavily on data fed into the ubiquitous laptop. They also unleashed a PR-exercise that triggered a media stampede generating news reports inconsistent with the ground reality.
In the early part when negotiations for seat-sharing began, several party leaders came away with the impression that Mr. Gandhi relied too much on the computer. It may be a good idea to call up on the computer screen all relevant data on caste combinations of each and every Assembly seat and juxtapose them with results of previous elections with a tap of the finger. However, the decisions have to be finally taken based on political instincts.
There were reports that Mr. Gandhi personally screened the CVs of candidates and interacted with them and clearly indicated that all energies should be focussed on 50 to 100 seats. It was a laudable concept: instead of dissipating energies by spraying the party's limited arsenal, the firepower was to be targeted with greater precision.
Ticket aspirants who interacted with Mr. Gandhi claimed that the bottom line was to increase the vote share and seek to achieve at least a minimum number of votes in constituencies categorised as A, B, and C. Resources too were made available to candidates commensurate with the category of their seat. One will have to wait for the detailed statistical data the Election Commission publishes for a final analysis.
One thing is clear. Mr. Gandhi got into action rather late in the day. The combination of his roadshow and campaign made little impact in the last round. It remains to be seen whether he keeps his promise to continue working in Uttar Pradesh in the post-poll phase. The 2009 general elections are just 24 months away.