Without much media glare, the grand old Congress party is undergoing a massive transformation in India's most politically crucial state- Uttar Pradesh. The overhaul which started in the party after the debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is now seen taking roots within the state as the party approaches the next assembly election. However, the agent behind the silent evolving process is none other than party’s General Secretary in charge Priyanka Gandhi.
Priyanka Gandhi is referred to as “didi” by the Congress workers. She also resembles the look and style of two former Prime Ministers. When it comes to her looks, she has been often noticed for carrying the resemblance of her grandmother- former PM Indira Gandhi and when it comes to the style of political and organisational functioning, she is driven by her late father Rajiv Gandhi. With her style of functioning, she has opened the doors for the “Aam Congressi” from Uttar Pradesh, like her father.
Following the defeat of party in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the poor performance in state, Priyanka had already met around five thousand party leaders and workers from across the state. Apart from meeting candidates and senior leaders, she had met at least ten members from each of the district committee. It was first step to assess the onground reality of the organisation and the crisis within the party.
Priyanka is working tirelessly to lay a strong foundation that can once again catapult her party to the political center stage of UP politics as the state goes for assembly polls in 2022.
PUTTING THE HOUSE IN ORDER
The State Congress committee (PCC) used to be a mammoth body, extending beyond 500 members, with 120 General Secretaries, 100 Vice presidents and 175 secretaries. The districts and city Committees also used to be huge bodies without actual grounded ‘Netas’ or ‘Karyakartas’.
Organisational pruning and fixing accountability became the first key agenda for Priyanka Gandhi. A senior party functionary working closely with Priyanka Gandhi recalls how during the months following the general election last year, the organisational hollowness was exposed on the ground. Even as Priyanka tried to set the ball on fire, leading from the front in cases including murder of Dalit tribals in Sonbhadra, the party leaders failed to capitalise on the momentum.
Priyanka’s first step was to overhaul and enthuse new vigour in the district and city committees. She went ahead seeking names of those willing to head party committees. From each district, 10 aspirants were selected for a meeting with Priyanka. She narrowed down to three most capable candidates. The three names thus shortlisted were further deliberated upon with a core team comprising of state president Ajay Kumar Lallu, among others to make the final pick. Till November last year, the party had appointed 55 new DCC presidents by this exercise and on the way generally bringing in new and young faces to the front line.
The ground work gradually extended upward towards the state body, the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC). When the new state committee was announced, it was an overhaul of old faces with new faces. Old leaders were stripped of the titles. The new state committee comprises of just 61 members which earlier was more than 500. With five Vice presidents and ten General Secretaries, it’s a new PCC which has totally shunned the old guard.
Anil Yadav, party’s newly appointed state organisation secretary is one of the examples to reflect the change. In his thirties, Yadav is a former student leader at Allahabad University who joined the party in 2017. Newly entrusted with the responsibility to expand the organisation, Yadav says “The vision of our leader is clear. We need a robust, responsive organisation which has a deep mass connect. In coming few months we are committed to reach all the 60 thousand plus village panchayats and have booth level committees”.
“The party is already in process of reaching out to grassroots. After many years the party now has organisational committees in all 800 plus blocks of the state”, Anil adds. The leaders now enthused with responsibility are far more accountable and they are regularly monitored by a parallel system handled by trusted members of Priyanka’s team.
The impact of the transformation and fixing accountability could be judged from the fact that party over past few months have become the most visible face of the opposition on the streets. While state president Ajay Lallu had been taken in police custody around 30 times, several other leaders have also been arrested and jailed. From issue of migrant labourers to law and order or unemployment, party had been able to build several successful protests and campaigns.
BEYOND ORGANISATION- THE MASS CONNECT
The strategy of Priyanka Gandhi and her team could be apprehended from her “Mass connect” program. The party making its way inroads could be assessed from the fact that for the first time in history, the party has build a base of more than 70 lakh mobile numbers and continues to add more to its data. The aim is to add at least 70 percent of around 13 crore mobile users in the state.
Mohit Pandey the former president of JNU students union and now the head of UP Congress’s social media wing says, “We work on twin model of interior and external communication. While the interior model focuses on connect with party leaders and workers, the exterior model focuses on communicating with the masses. So from video messages of Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi to their tweets and social media posts all is shared to people via more than 23 thousand WhatsApp groups and broadcast lists”
But the task of collecting data and stream lining has not been an easy exercise. The contact with the common people had been made through relentless political exercise and time to time intervention on issues related to various sections of the society.
For example, around 14 lakh mobile numbers were collected during the last year’s Kisan Jan Jagran Abhiyan, 12 lakh of them came when party launched a state wide signature campaign in the back drop of Unnao rape case, demanding action against the then BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh singer.
The icing on the cake came during the Coronavirus pandemic crisis. Priyanka Gandhi’s relentless personal intervention on issue of migrant labourers and ensuring that party took to large scale food and humanitarian help to people in distress saw another massive outreach of the party, where it were able to add around 28 lakh more new contacts to its list.
PRIYANKA’S PERSONAL CONNECT
Now as party gradually seem to move ahead, undoing the wrongs of the past and looking for more scientific and electoral driven in its approach, Priyanka Gandhi doesn’t look in a mood to sit back and relax. From her rented accommodation in New Delhi, where she shifted after vacating her Lodhi road bungalow two months ago, she is engaged daily in a series of zoom meetings with different sections of the society. From unemployed youths to farmers to women and migrant labourers, every stakeholder have been part of these virtual interactions.
In this month itself, she had 9 virtual meetings with unemployed youths and students preparing for different exams. She also has a series of other meetings with party officer bearers and leaders of the frontal organisations. Last Thursday, she held a long meeting with PCC office bearers.
The purpose of this outreach, both internal and external is clear. It is to identify the new possibilities and cultivate new base. Experiences from the people’s connect gives ideas to move ahead in organisational meetings.
Pradeep Narwal, the young Dalit leader handpicked by Priyanka to be the AICC convener of SC ST wing of the party in UP says, “Under Priyanka ji’s guidance task ahead for us is crystal clear. We are focusing on all sections of society, listening to their grievances and developing a new leadership from among them. We intervene on their issues which in turn gives us a new strong hold. The new approach has helped us reach out to the Dalits who feel cheated by parties like the BSP.”
Dalits alone are not only the target area for the Congress, it has also been working strongly on minority issues. From raising a strong voice against cases of atrocities against minorities, in the backdrop of anti-CAA agitation to taking up the case of Dr Kafeel Khan, Priyanka led the campaign herself from the front. Former law minister and prominent leader Salman Khurshid has been appointed as chairman of the Manifesto committee for the UP elections.
Same had also been the strategy on the Brahman front with leaders like Jitin Prasad and Rajesh Mishra who tried to intervene on the perceived anti-Brahmin sentiment under the Yogi Aditynath government.
THE ROAD AHEAD
If things go according to the plan, Priyanka Gandhi will be shifting her base to Lucknow after Diwali. A senior member of the team says, it was to be done before but it got delayed because of the coronavirus. However, before she goes to UP and takes the command for the electoral battle of 2022, her idea is to put the house in order.
Probably, the Gandhi scion understands well that “Elections can’t be won only on the personal charisma. You need to have a strong organisational base to capital on it”. For the moment Priyanka has ensured that old party takes the right turn and stand on its legs. However, the question arises would it be able to give the desired pace and become Achilles heels for mightier BJP, SP and BSP.