IT’S NEVER A GOOD IDEA TO prejudge an electoral contest. But to the naked eye, there appear only two players in the game: the ruling BJP, and a newly energised Samajwadi Party. Most smaller pieces on the chessboard cohere around these two—a bipolarity that apparently leaves no great room even for Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. Where does that leave the Congress, out of the reckoning in Uttar Pradesh for over three decades? Well, Priyanka Gandhi, helming the Grand Old Party’s desperate search for relevance, has chosen to try and extract virtue out of adversity by sowing a new crop in this tired, old soil.
At a time when everyone is talking caste, she’s seeking to get the debate to pivot on another axis altogether: gender. A full 40 per cent of the party’s candidates in UP will be women. Quite a bold figure—by comparison, even the demand for one-third seats made in the ill-fated Women’s Reservation Bill seems modest. An attempt to feminise Indian politics on such a scale is a strikingly novel manoeuvre. The AICC general secretary in charge of UP, still only learning to swim in the deep, can’t be faulted for her math. Women make up over 46 per cent of the population in UP. Can they be persuaded to vote as women? Over and above conflicting loyalties such as religion, caste and ideology?
This season’s harvest may doubtless be slim, but Priyanka has sallied forth on the conviction that these are good questions to ask for the future (see interview). The logic is impeccable. Parties have often tapped into this demographic—but only via tactically designed handout politics, “pro-women” policies like prohibition, or plain tokenism. No one has much talked the language of direct empowerment.
That’s the catchword in Priyanka’s lexicon. To be sure, there’s room for it. Quite a few of India’s women politicians inherit politics—Priyanka herself, for one. Many of those not born into it are married into it. And then there are celebrity faces in all parties. By contrast, the 50 women in the Congress’s first list of 125 candidates include a rape victim’s mother, an activist who was jailed for some three weeks during the antiCAA agitation, an ASHA worker who led an agitation for a raise in honorarium for her vastly underpaid sorority, and a district-level leader who was sexually assaulted during local elections. Remember the names, one might say for effect: Asha Singh from Unnao, Lucknow’s Sadaf Jafar, Poonam Pandey from Shahjahanpur and Ritu Singh from Lakhimpur Kheri, in that order. Real women, daughters of the earth who have held up half the sky in a violent society. They join others like news anchor Nida Ahmad, Meerut-born actress Archana Gautam and the party’s own flock: Pankhuri Pathak, vice-chairperson (social media) and Mahila Congress leaders Mamata Chaudhary, Shamina Shafique and Shehla Arhari.
The Congress has also released a separate manifesto for women, promising 40 per cent reservation for women in government jobs, besides freebies for girl students, a tactic everyone from Bihar CM Nitish Kumar onwards has employed with success. Just upgrade from a free cycle to a free scooty, and a mobile phone, itself a marker of freedom for young women in rural India.
That’s a lot of virtue-signalling, but what purchase will it have in cynical, hard-bitten UP? “We have only one MP and seven MLAs here. We can only gain, there’s nothing to lose,” says a senior Congress leader. “Our vote share in 2017 was only 6.25 per cent. Now we have created a parallel narrative around ‘aadhi aabadi’—half the population. If we succeed even partially in attracting them, we would have established ourselves in almost every assembly constituency, something we have not done in years.” Says a key member of Priyanka’s team, “We have divided UP’s 403 seats into three categories—‘A’ is where we have sitting MLAs or which we won either in 2012 or 2007; ‘B’ is all the seats where we were runners-up in 2017 and 2012; and in ‘C’, we put the rest of the seats where we can give tickets to freshers/ beginners. We are not cancelling tickets for any deserving male candidate just to accommodate women.”
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