5 reasons why the Congress is in a shambles in Uttar Pradesh
The Congress has begun preparations for the 2017 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh rather early. The urgency, perhaps, is an acknowledgment of the enormity of the task on hand in a state where it hasn't tasted power for 26 years.
The party is organising a one-day Chintan Shivir on 21 August in Mathura, where Vice President Rahul Gandhi will meet workers and leaders to chart out the roadmap for its revival in the state.
Party spokesperson Rajeev Tyagi says the objective is to figure out how to get the people of UP to rise above the "spitefulness of caste and religion and get addicted to development".
But will this strategy alone revive the Congress? Tyagi says his party has become quite strong organisationally over the past year as a result of holding several events in every block, such as demonstrations against the NDA government's amendments to the land acquisition law.
Observers though are skeptical of these plans. The Congress has not only failed to take power since 1989, its presence in the assembly has fallen drastically, from 94 in that landmark year to 28 in the last election in 2012.
In last year's Lok Sabha election, the party lost all but two of the 21 seats it had won in 2009. Even these seats were won by the top two leaders, Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, providing further proof of the Congress' shrinking political space in UP.
This dismal state of affairs is mainly due to the following reasons.
Senior journalist Govind Pant Raju says the biggest challenge the party faces in UP is a loss of identity at the grassroots level.
There are just no committed workers, he says, and even the last remaining citadels, Rae Bareli and Amethi, are standing only with the help of paid workers. Raju points out that Sonia and Rahul do not go anywhere else in the state apart from their constituencies.
[twittable]Chintan Shivir's agenda: how to get people to rise above the spitefulness of caste and religion[/twittable]
The state unit is crying out for an organisational makeover, Raju adds, explaining that UP Pradesh Congress Committee President Nirmal Khatri is neither a mass leader nor in the best of health to take up challenges. As for the rest of the leadership, it's riven with in-fighting.
Former BBC correspondent Ram Dutt Tripathi too feels that organisational and leadership weakness is the party's biggest challenge.
He says many people suspect that the party brass is deliberately not allowing a strong, mass leader to emerge lest they challenge the Gandhi family.
The Gandhis, he points out, drive from the airport straight to Rae Bareli and Amethi and back even as the party's social disconnect deepens, especially with disadvantaged groups like Dalits and Muslims.
Prof Badri Narayan of G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, points out that the Congress lacks effective leaders not just among Dalits but OBCs as well.
If that wasn't enough, the party has also lost its considerable support among the Brahmins. Narayan puts much of the blame for this on the leadership, including the general secretary in charge Madhusudan Mistry, who, he says, is dull and unable to make the party workers like him.
The choice of Mathura as the venue of the Chintan Shivir is noteworthy, says Prof Kaushal Kishore Mishra, who heads the Political Science department at Banaras Hindu University.
Mishra predicts the party will hold events in Varanasi and, subsequently, in Ayodhya as it seems to have realised that a major reason for its drubbing in the Lok Sabha polls was the impression of indulging in excessive minority appeasement.
The Congress, he says, has understood that the old secularism revolving around the Sachar Committee report, reservation for minorities etc. won't help anymore and, therefore, it must try to consolidate the Hindu vote.
Mishra adds that apart from the leadership crisis and the depletion of cadre, Congressmen are worried that it's getting tougher to continue with dynastic politics, though they only say this in hushed voices.
[twittable]'There aren't any committed workers, even Rae Bareli and Amethi are protected only by paid workers'[/twittable]
Senior journalist Atul Chandra says the party not only must develop a strong and dynamic state leadership, it needs to stop bringing in leaders who give out the impression that the Congress is subservient to the Samajwadi Party.
It is because of these leaders and the dearth of committed workers, he adds, that the party seems to have taken a muted stand on issue like the burning of a journalist in Shahjahanpur.
Another problem is factionalism. Chandra identifies at least two major factions led by Pramod Tiwari, Rajya Sabha MP and former Congress Legislature Party leader, and Sanjay Sinh, also Rajya Sabha MP and scion of the erstwhile royal family of Amethi. And there are several smaller groups as well.
Since the Congress lost power 26 years ago, UP's voters practically have had to chose between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in both the assembly and parliamentary polls. When the BJP seemed like an attractive option, as in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the voters gave their heart to it.
Still, despite all its problems, all is not lost for the Congress. The battle for 2017 is open.
The SP government is plagued with controversies, the BSP is still not visible on the ground and the BJP has reason only to be hopeful, not sure of repeating its 2014 miracle.
This leaves ample scope for the Congress to revive itself in India's most populous state. But for that to happen, says Govind Pant Raju, the party needs to realise that a revival in UP could lead to its resurgence on the national electoral scene.