UP Elections: Can a rejuvenated Congress hand BJP just the edge it needs?

The BJP, for now, doesn’t seem to mind the Congress revival in the state where the latter has been losing ground, suffering poll debacles one after another. The reason lies in the electoral history of the state. 

Political experts believe the Congress’ proactive approach in Lakhimpur Kheri case will yield substantial electoral gains in the upcoming assembly polls in the state.

If there is one lesson that politics teaches us, it is that optics matter a lot in determining electoral outcomes. And when it comes to an election as crucial as that of Uttar Pradesh, no party would want to be left behind. So, when the Lakhimpur Kheri incident fell into the opposition’s lap, no party wanted to be left behind in being seen as having pushed the BJP on the backfoot, which it already was in any case. The involvement of a Union minister’s son in an incident where a speeding vehicle mows down four protesting farmers is outright indefensible. No amount of spin can save face for the Yogi Adityanath government, something which has been proven in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s deafening silence on the matter.

An incident of such nature would have ideally seen Opposition parties piling up to decimate the poll prospects of the BJP in a state that can make or break Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fortune. But if you look back at it, and ask who has been the most visible face in this entire episode, the only answer that comes to mind is that of Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Could parties like the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and other outfits with mass organisational base, be caught napping? And the bigger question then – Who is actually calling the shots?

The Lakhimpur Kheri episode has been one that can have major political ramifications – as any incident of this nature should have. The incident has given the right ammunition to bring it out from its slumber and make its presence felt on the ground. The Congress, on its part, has checked all boxes. Priyanka Gandhi led from the front as she hugged families of the deceased farmers along with Rahul Gandhi, swept the floor during her 48-hour detention in Sitapur, and openly challenged the Yogi Adityanath government. Optics matter!

But what political ramifications can one expect as the elections approach? Political experts believe the Congress’ proactive approach in the case will yield substantial electoral gains in the upcoming assembly polls in the state. If the Congress manages to capitalise on the issue, who suffers in the poll battle, which now seems to be turning into a rectangular contest with the Congress entering as the fourth player?

The BJP, for now, doesn’t seem to mind the Congress revival in the state where the latter has been losing ground, suffering poll debacles one after another. The reason lies in the electoral history of the state.

Congress: Playing spoilsport for the Opposition?

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress was the third player in the contest with the BJP and the SP-BSP-RLD alliance being the other two. The alliance managed to bag only 15 out of the 8o seats in Uttar Pradesh while the Congress even lost the Amethi seat of Rahul Gandhi.

However, what needs to be noticed is that the Congress costed the alliance a win in at least 10 Lok Sabha seats where the victory margin of the BJP was less than the votes polled by the candidates of the Grand Old Party.

Explained: Why UP polls may eventually turn into a bipolar BJP-Samajwadi Party contest

In the 2017 UP assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi played a big gamble, joining hands with the Samajwadi Party in his bid to improve the Congress’ 2012 performance of 28 seats. However, the alliance decision turned out a disaster with the Grand Old Party’s seat-share coming down to seven. The BJP-led NDA bagged 312 out of the 403 seats, thereby registering a thumping victory.

Both the major opposition parties in the state – the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – have announced to go it alone in the polls, expressing their unwillingness to join hands with the Congress, and rather focusing on roping in caste-based regional players. If the elections turn into a quadrilateral contest, the previous poll data suggests it will damage the prospects of SP and BSP, more than that of the BJP.

Why a Congress revival a headache for the SP and BSP

“The BJP would want that the Congress gains electoral mileage out of the Lakhimpur Kheri incident,” Sangit Ragi, Head of Department of Political Science at Delhi University, tells FinancialExpress.com, adding that if the Congress does manage to capitalise on the Lakhimpur incident and make electoral gains, it will help the BJP. If not, the poll outcome may see a major shift.

“With the Congress making gains from the incident, the elections will turn into a four-sided contest which will always suit the BJP. The BJP will benefit when people will be confused whom to vote,” Ragi says.

A counterview suggests that a united opposition is imperative to take on the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. “If the Congress has to improve its performance, it will have to join hands with the Samajwadi Party or Bahujan Samaj Party. On its own, it will be difficult for the Congress to improve its tally,” Dr Uttara Sahasrabuddhe, Professor, Department of Politics at University of Mumbai, tells the FinancialExpress.com.

How BJP, SP and BSP see Congress in the contest

While the BJP and Samajwadi Party are certain the presence of the Congress will have no bearing on the poll outcome, the BSP acknowledges the fact that entry of the Grand Old Party will have an impact on its performance. Bahujan Samaj Party national spokesperson Sudhindra Bhadoria admits that the entry of Congress as a substantial player will resilt in some losses to the BSP, but it will cost the Samajwadi Party more heavily.

“BSP will also certainly suffer some loss. But we are not going to have any major impact. In fact, the Samajwadi Party will suffer the most from this. Akhilesh’s ‘shine’ of a young political has waned,” Bhadoria told FinancialExpress.com.

Samajwadi Party MP Naved Siddiqui, however, believes that even an enhanced presence of the Congress will not help the BJP, since “people of the state are upset beyond limits with the current government”, because of the incidents in Lakhimpur, Gorakhpur, Hathras and Unnao. “The people are waiting for the elections and the BJP will be wiped out with a click of the button,” Siddqui added.

Why a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ in UP remains elusive: Akhilesh-Mayawati cold war and the tangled caste politics

However, the BJP doesn’t even see the Congress as a fourth player in the contest. Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, Rajendra Agrawal, BJP MP from Meerut, claimed that the Grand Old Party will only repeat its 2017 performance and won’t be able to touch the double-digit mark.

“The Congress doesn’t exist at all. I don’t think they will be able to even achieve the double-digit mark in the upcoming elections. So, a party which has no existence doesn’t affect us in any way,” Agrawal said.

Why Lakhimpur is a reason to worry for the BJP?

Agrawal acknowledged that the violence in Lakhimpur Kheri, which claimed eight lives including four farmers, was unfortunate and “cannot be defended”. He, however, said that the “hype that the Opposition wants to create out of this will not happen, and within 15 days the issue will subside.”

On the contrary, Ragi says that the incident might inflict serious damages to the BJP’s poll prospects. “Somehow, the BJP has spoiled many things with infightings. The farmers’ protest would not have gone to this extent had Amit Shah made an appeal to the farmers.”

The death of farmers in any state has eventually turned into a deciding factor when its comes to elections. It has been responsible for the defeat of two governments in Madhya Pradesh – first for Digvijaya Singh-led Congress government in 2003, which fell as an aftermath of the killing of 18 protesting farmers in Multai in 1998 and the latest for Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government in 2018, which suffered the brunt of killing of five protesting farmers in Mandsaur in 2017.

Similarly, the Lakhimpur Kheri incident is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon, at least not till the assembly polls, which are less than five months away. Even if the Yogi Adityanath government takes more steps on top of the arrest of Union MoS Home Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra, the Opposition would do everything to keep the pot boiling. But a contest within the opposition ranks seeking to outdo one another may just prove to be what the BJP needs.

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