(First appeared in The Pioneer on February 2, 2012)
Appearing on a television channel last Saturday, Congress spokesperson Abshishek Manu Singhvi dismissed with scarcely hidden contempt the findings of India Today’s latest ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey that showed the Congress in a dismal position across the country and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the favourite choice as Prime Minister, far ahead of Congress’s heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. Mr Singhvi may have a point when he says that opinion polls are not generally accurate reflections of the ground reality, but it cannot be denied that these are good enough indicators of which way the political wind is blowing. In Uttar Pradesh, the wind is blowing away from the Congress.
As the polling dates near for the seven-phase Assembly election in the State, the party appears to be drawn into further confusion on its course of action. Everything that it has done so far has either failed to work or boomeranged. A few days ago, inside reports of the Congress suggested that the party has all but given up on its ambitious hope of securing 100 seats, and is not sure even of winning 65 plus seats. This is sad news for a party that under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has been working for months now to re-establish its base in the State. That things have gone wrong for the Congress cannot be denied, but it is equally true that the party’s senior leadership is responsible for the state of affairs.
Perhaps the party’s greatest blunder in Uttar Pradesh has been its aggressive foray into minority politics. For a national party that flaunts its secular (though much worn out and dimmed) credentials and wants to make a comeback in the State, the worst possible strategy is to be associated with religious appeasement. Yet, this is what the party has done, effectively cutting itself away from the support of the large number of voters that saw the Congress as a pan-caste and pan-community party. The UPA Government led by it first notified reservations of 4.5 per cent for Muslims within the 27 per cent quota that already exists for the Other Backward Classes. Later, at an election meeting, Union Minister for Law and Justice Salman Khurshid promised nine per cent reservation for Muslims in Government jobs and educational institutions. When the announcement became controversial and the Election Commission demanded an explanation, the Congress first said the announcement was the ‘personal’ opinion of the Minister and later defended him before the poll panel. On his part, Mr Khurshid claimed that what he said at the election rally was merely a reiteration of what the Congress had promised in its election manifesto three years ago.
Perhaps the Congress believes that, while it has staked its ‘secular’ image to win over the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, it can conveniently switch back to secularism once the election is done with. But the party has failed to honour even that sham commitment to the Muslim voters. The ‘vision document’ that it released for the State recently and its manifesto do not even mention the nine per cent quota promise that Mr Khurshid had dangled before the minority community — and which the Congress had supported. The Muslims are naturally not amused by this ‘deceit’ and they are now even less likely than before to vote for the party that has developed cold feet after promising them the moon.
The Congress’s silence over the nine per cent sub-quota for Muslims also has to do with the realisation — rather late in the day with the election only a few days away — that it stands to lose the support of the bulk of non-Muslim voters if it continues with its shameless pandering of the minorities. Knowing well that the OBC pie has been more or less divided between the SP and the BJP — with the SP cornering the Yadav votes and the BJP eyeing others such as the Kurmis, the Kushwahas, the Lodhs, the Koeris, the Mauryas and the Kevats — the Congress is now desperately wooing the upper caste Brahmins that comprise some 13 per cent of the State’s population. Reports have it that the party is reaching out desperately to ‘Brahmin leaders’ in the State and may even ask Delhi’s Chief Minister, Ms Sheila Dikshit to campaign and strike a chord in the heart of the Brahmin voters in Uttar Pradesh. It helps that Ms Dikshit hails from that State.
The success of such moves is highly doubtful, though, because the upper caste votes are still largely concentrated among the SP, the BJP and, of late, the Bahujan Samaj Party. Moreover, the upper caste voters still view with suspicion the Congress’s groveling before the minorities in the State. If the party still manages to net in some of these upper caste votes, it will be on the strength of its individual candidates in some constituencies. But these may not be enough to counter the other stronger vote-banks that the rivals of the Congress have.
While the minority card has backfired, the Congress has to firefight another crisis in Uttar Pradesh: The perception that it has sought to rob the beneficiaries of the OBC quota by seeking reservation for the Muslims from within the 27 per cent pie that the OBCs now enjoy. While the SP has sought to play down the fear because it is seeking the support of both the OBCs and the Muslims, the BJP has gone to town hammering it into the non-Yadav OBCs that the Congress is planning to dip into their share and hand a good part of it over to the Muslims. There are indications that the strategy is working for the BJP and the party could end up cornering a significant share of the non-Yadav OBC votes. The BJP can turn up good figures if it can forge a non-Yadav OBC-Brahmin combination which is leak-proof.
The loss of steam in the Congress’s campaign and the visible drop in enthusiasm over its fate in Uttar Pradesh must be seen in the context of the leadership that Mr Gandhi has given the party. The aggressive though insincere outreach towards the Muslims must have been his idea — or at least he must have endorsed the plan. The sudden backing off and the decision of the party to exclude from its ‘vision document’ for the State the specific promises its leaders have been making to the minority community in the course of election meetings, too must have had Mr Gandhi’s blessings. The most charitable explanation for the mess is that his principal advisor on Uttar Pradesh, Mr Digvijay Singh, has lost the plot — though Mr Singh continues to bravely maintain against all odds that the fight in the State is between the SP and the Congress. But true leaders are those who take the blame for a loss and credit their team for a victory.
While it is admittedly too early to write the Congress’s obituary in Uttar Pradesh and foolish to anticipate all sorts of dire consequences for the party at the national level if it fails in the State, not even its most optimistic leaders will stick their necks out now and predict the sort of victory the party was projecting until a few months ago. It had then cheerfully talked of finishing at least second; now it may have to settle for either the third or the fourth position. Barring a miracle, of course.