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Priyanka Gandhi shifts focus to Punjab. Has Congress given up on UP?

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 28 November 2016, 21:16 IST

The Congress's election campaign in Uttar Pradesh has come to a grinding halt. For the time being, all attention has shifted to Punjab, where poll strategist Prashant Kishor and his team are working overtime to ensure the party's revival in the poll-bound state.

Even Priyanka Gandhi, who was expected to play an active role in the Congress's UP campaign, is actively working behind the scenes to ensure the party does well in Punjab. In fact, she is being credited for convincing cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu to join hands with the Congress.

Sidhu's wife Navjot Kaur and former hockey captain Pargat Singh formally joined the Congress on Monday, in the presence of state Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh and general secretary in-charge Asha Kumari.

However, there is still confusion over whether Sidhu has officially joined the Congress.

And amid all this, with Kishor's team aggressively reaching out to the media on a daily basis, the party is absolutely mum about the Uttar Pradesh campaign, which began with a bang but has now lost momentum.

Internal strife

The Congress was the first party to kick off its campaign in the state, with its national president Sonia Gandhi holding a massive rally in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi. Sonia's brief visit was followed by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi's 3,500-kilometre Kisan Yatra, which lasted 26 days and touched 48 districts and 141 Assembly seats.

Rahul's tour did create some buzz about the party, which has been out of power in the state for the last 27 years. But, the momentum was soon lost after multiple reports of differences between the Congress leadership and Kishor.

Apparently, many senior leaders in the party were miffed with Kishor's independent style of functioning, and the equation worsened after the star strategist held several meetings with the Samajwadi Party, trying to stitch together an alliance.

"He was unilaterally meeting SP leaders, despite us raising concerns. We have no dearth of senior leaders in the party, and Kishor is no one to discuss these trivial issues," said a Congress functionary.

Earlier, Catch had reported how the team had stopped all work after the Congress had delayed a payment to Kishor's firm IPAC.

A senior member of Kishor's team pointed out that they were engaged in "lots of quantitative and qualitative research" in UP, and not much was happening as far as the party's campaign on the ground was concerned.

"It could resume in the first week of December," he said, suggesting that there was still ambiguity over the campaign's progress.

Why Cong needs an alliance

While the Congress was the first to launch its campaign, it is now losing out to the BJP, the SP and the BSP, which have been aggressively campaigning across the state. Insiders pointed out how the party was keen to enter an alliance with the SP, which has repeatedly claimed it will go it alone in 2017. The Congress is playing the waiting game, hoping that the SP would change its stance before the polls.

The idea is to have a Bihar-like alliance, wherein Congress can piggyback on the SP to gain a foothold in the state, where its performance has been worsening with each election.

In 2012, the Congress, in one of its worst performances won only 28 seats out of 403, and could manage only two seats during the 2014 general elections - the Gandhis' bastions of Rae Bareli (Sonia) and Amethi (Rahul).

The Priyanka factor

Unlike UP, the Congress is upbeat about its prospects in Punjab, where the party, under the leadership of Amarinder, is charged up to take on the Akalis and the Aam Aadmi Party. In fact, the party's UP general secretary in-charge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, is also involved in Punjab's affairs, and he was one of the leaders who met Sidhu and convinced him to join the grand old party.

Then, there is Priyanka, who reportedly was the first to inform Captain about Sidhu's intent, and asked him to hold meetings with the former cricketer.

Sources claim Kishor facilitated the first meeting between Priyanka and Sidhu, and thereafter, the two, along with Azad, met for lunch at her New Delhi residence. The two met on four occasions and Priyanka also interacted regularly with Sidhu's wife.

The Congress desperately wooed Sidhu for his clean and secular image, and his star appeal, which could work in favour of the party in the state.

Priyanka has been attending core group meetings on Punjab, and even UP, and is also micromanaging the party's UP campaign.

Kishor has been pitching for an active role for her in the UP campaign, and the Congress leadership is wary of letting her have a go when the party is unlikely to make any significant inroads alone.

The Congress feels that Priyanka would be better suited to something like the 2019 general election campaign, and her elevation could create multiple power centres in the party, leading to endless talk of the competition between the two siblings.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 28 November 2016, 21:16 IST