The shadow-boxing between Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra over arranging transport for the State’s migrant workers made for some political drama in the midst of a pandemic and a cyclone. The sound and fury may have meant nothing to the migrants who are desperate to return home, but the squabble has meanings for the politics in the State, and perhaps the country. Here’s how.
There is an ongoing remaking of Mr. Adityanath, who is being reincarnated as an able, tough administrator, a reformer to be precise. Going by the change in tone of the national media coverage of him, it is happening at a fast pace. And this is being done not at the expense of his Hindutva credentials but by simultaneously reinforcing it. The Uttar Pradesh administration’s ruthless suppression of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act , closely followed by its tough enforcement of the lockdown have been personally owned by the Chief Minister. Uttar Pradesh has also been more sensitive towards walking migrant workers than many other States. Through this all, he furthered his image as a Hindutva torchbearer — fanning the anti-Tablighi campaign, for instance. He was also quick to respond to the clamour for reforms, by dismantling protections for the labour, which earned him kudos from unlikely quarters. Uttar Pradesh is such a State that even marginal improvements in public services, such as health and education, would be immediately visible, and Mr. Adityanath is apparently planning to do that now. His saffron robes and no known attachment to fashion or luxury adds to his nationalist credentials. He wears locally manufactured footwear and uses swadeshi slogans regularly. A head-on confrontation with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty does a lot of good for a rising star in the Hindutva camp.
Meanwhile, two former Chief Ministers, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, have been relegated to the margins of the State politics. “Both of them have been disappointing in their complete failure to make any meaningful intervention,” said Ramji Yadav, a social activist in Varanasi. “One cannot even begin to understand how these two formers CMs have nothing to say or do.” This works well for both Mr. Adityanath and Ms. Vadra. The lesser the clout of caste-based politics opens, the wider the possibility of wider mobilisations that both the Congress and the BJP rely on.
Ms. Vadra’s role and ambition in politics remains an open question even now. In 2012, she grazed Uttar Pradesh politics in a support role for her brother Rahul Gandhi, who ran a spirited campaign. People responded to Mr. Gandhi but his potential supporters were caught in a prisoner’s dilemma — caste groups that wanted to vote for the Congress would not vote for it since they did not know which other caste would be voting for it. However, one opinion that emerged quite strongly among Congress sympathisers was that Ms. Vadra should be fielded as the party’s face in the State. As party general secretary since 2019, Ms. Vadra has been closely involved in State politics. “She played politics over the migrant transport issue. Congress could have used these buses in Rajasthan or Maharashtra or even Gujarat. While people might see through this trick, the fact also remains that she has confronted Yogi head on and outsmarted the SP and the BSP,” said Rajesh Singh, a Samjawadi Party activist in Gorakhpur.
The BJP’s parliamentary victory comes from a handful of northern and western States and Uttar Pradesh is the most critical of them. If the Congress were to give a fight to the BJP at the national level, it would have to confront the saffron party in Uttar Pradesh. And if it has to confront the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, it has to first overtake the BSP and the SP. Ms. Vadra’s confrontation with Yogi opens up new possibilities for both.