Will Priyanka contest against Modi in Varanasi?
Will Rahul also contest from Karnataka?
Rasheed Kidwai — Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party’s biographer — reveals what is churning in the Congress.
These are interesting times in the Congress.
Fighting for its survival, the top Congress leadership is toying with the idea of some out-of-the-box electoral strategy.
Aware of Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi’s popularity and BJP President Amit Anilchandra Shah’s well-oiled machinery, Congress managers plan to introduce an element of surprise in an attempt to shock their opponents.
There are various proposals facing serious consideration, such as fielding Rahul Gandhi from a second seat (other than Amethi) from Karnataka.
Former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and state Congress chief Dinesh Gundu Rao have already invited Rahul to contest from the state and suggested Koppal/Bidar/Belagavi/Bengaluru North Lok Sabha seats.
Both Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi had contested from Karnataka in 1978 and 1999 respectively. Sonia had famously defeated Sushma Swaraj from Bellary while Indira Gandhi had humbled Veerendra Patil at Chikmagalur in 1978.
However, Rahul’s Karnataka game plan has a flipside, of rival Smriti Irani running a campaign against the Congress president for seeking a safe seat from south India. Therefore, Congress managers are keeping a close tab on Irani’s own search for a seat other than Amethi.
There has been some thinking out loud over fielding Irani from Darjeeling, which is considered a safe seat due to the BJP-Gorkhaland Mukti Morcha tie-up. The rationale behind this move is to somehow protect the Union minister from suffering her third electoral defeat after Chandni Chowk (Delhi) and Amethi.
Another suggestion doing the rounds is to field Priyanka Gandhi at the last moment from eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Priyanka has so far not committed herself to fighting the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but there is no dearth of party leaders who want her to contest from Varanasi against Modi.
Protagonists of this school of thought feel this strategy has a ‘winner take all’ proposition and ability to pin down Modi in Varanasi. Even in defeat, Priyanka will achieve some objective of keeping Modi under check goes the rationale.
If Priyanka opts for such a risky and adventurous course, she will be taking a leaf out of her late father’s stratagem.
In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi had taken over as Congress president and prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and called a general election. He fielded actor Amitabh Bachchan against Hemvati Nandan Bahugana, the former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and a politician among politicians, from Allahabad. Madhavrao Scindia vanquished Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Gwalior.
Veteran Era Sezhiyan lost to actress and debutante politician Vyjayanthimala Bali in Tamil Nadu despite humourist Cho Ramaswamy appealing to ‘vote Sezhiyan to the Lok Sabha and Vyjayanthimala to the dance sabha’. Actor Sunil Dutt humbled Ram Jethmalani from Bombay North-West.
Bahuguna was initially dismissive of Bachchan’s presence in the electoral arena, describing him as a greenhorn, a ‘bhand (buffoon)’ and ‘lambu‘. Amitabh, on his part, focussed on Indira Gandhi’s assassination and his friendship with Rajiv: ‘Jab maine Indiraji ke shareer ko inhi dono haathon mein uthaya (when I carried Indira Gandhi’s body in my hands).’
During his election speeches, according to author Kumkum Chadha, Amitabh largely spoke of positive politics and whipping up sentiments by recounting how Rajiv had lost his mother and the nation a prime minister.
Bahuguna, on the other hand, kept ridiculing Amitabh. Kumkum quotes Bahuguna asking Allahabad voters, ‘Tell me, if you do not like jalebis from one halwai, would you go to another? Or instead go to a darzi (tailor)?’
Bahuguna’s concerted attempts to drive home the point that politics should be best left to politicians and not film stars failed to cut any ice with the masses.
There has also been a lot of talk about the Congress’s alliance story going haywire. However, a closer scrutiny tells a different tale.
The grand old party has done well to work out seat tie-ups in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Bihar where it hopes to make substantial gains.
Its Uttar Pradesh and Delhi alliances confront complications due to resistance from within and some monkey tricks being played by one or the other potential ally.
It needs to be emphasised and remembered that working out alliances for the Congress is tricky.
For the first time in the Congress’s contemporary history, three members of the Gandhi family — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — are slugging it out in the open.
If the Nehru-Gandhi trio fails to get a bare minimum three figure tally (100 seats and above), it will be a telling commentary on their ability to fetch votes or convert them into seats, and put a question mark over their multi-string attachment with the organisation and vice-versa.
Five years out of power, the Congress has a huge resource crunch. A lot has been said about Goa where the party once again failed to form an alternative government in spite of its numerical strength.
The party had little or nothing to offer as allurement other than ministerial berths.
On the other hand, the BJP moved swiftly, matching and over-scoring. The Congress’s past reliance on Raj Bhavan, intelligence agencies, money, muscle power and other realpolitik tactics have been perfected by the new masters of the game.
It is a stark reality that has to be understood.
Author-journalist Rasheed Kidwai is a visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and resident commentator with CNN-Network 18.