Given how little the Congress stands to lose in the elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, the defection of its former State unit chief, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, to the Bharatiya Janata Party should not have caused a flutter. She had already been ignored by the party’s new team in leading the election campaign in the State. Even in her glory days, she had drawn her power from little more than her proximity to the Gandhi family. What she brings to the BJP, besides embarrassing the Congress, is therefore uncertain. In fact, the Congress will be watched less for the organisational loss her switch may cause and more for the manner in which it responds to her ‘betrayal’. In diverse ways, all four political parties in the fray are being compelled to clarify the organising principles that set them apart. For the Congress, as it picks up the gauntlet with little expectation of electoral success but an overriding ambition to use the stage to demonstrate its capacity to influence the electoral debate, Ms. Joshi’s flight poses the questions: What weight do Gandhi family loyalists carry in party affairs? What is the Congress willing to do to show that it can democratise itself and loosen the hold of the “high command”?
Family loyalty has taken on a particularly contentious turn in the ruling Samajwadi Party, with readings of the shift in the fortunes of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his many “uncles” changing by the week. The extent to which the SP patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav, can cohesively accommodate the jostling ambitions of his sons, brothers and others is uncertain, in the midst of rumours that Akhilesh Yadav may branch out and launch his own party. The BJP, for its part, appears to be unequal to the opportunity of deepening the development narrative that helped it sweep U.P. in the 2014 Lok Sabha election; it seems to be falling back on Hindutva polarisation to rally its cadres. In what is perceived as a political signal, Union Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma has announced a Ramayana museum near the disputed site in Ayodhya, while western U.P. continues to simmer with communal tension. The Bahujan Samaj Party may be abandoning the ‘grand social coalition’ that won it the control of the State Assembly in 2007 for a more focussed pitch to minorities and Dalits, a return to its founding agenda. The rethink is perhaps forced by its performance in 2014, when the party failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat despite polling nearly 20 per cent of the total vote in U.P. Clearly for all four parties, 2017 is a whole new battlefield.