The Congress is likely to project its vice-president Rahul Gandhi as the chief ministerial candidate in the UP Assembly elections scheduled early next year. Top sources in the party said Prashant Kishor, the Congress's master poll strategist, strongly feels that the only way the grand-old party can make itself relevant in the politically crucial state is by backing either Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as its face in the Assembly polls.
Rahul is of course the first in the suggestion list, followed by Priyanka. In case both disagree to do the job, former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit would be Kishor's third preference.
Congress is desperate now to play the Rahul card to stay afloat
But the message is clear. If the Congress aims of coming back to power at the Centre in 2019, then it has to show to the world that Rahul Gandhi can lead it to an election victory and no battle can be more crucial than the one in UP to drive home the point.
The Congress could bag just 28 seats in the 403-member strong UP Assembly in 2012, finishing last among the four major parties contesting the election. Kishor reportedly has told the party leadership that it is either 20 or 200 for the party in the northern state, adding that if none of the Gandhi family scions lead the party, its tally will remain in the poor 20s. A decisive step, on the other hand, could see it forming the government with 200-plus seats.
The Congress's tally has remained below 30 in an Assembly where the two regional parties bagged majority in 2007 (Bahujan Samaj Party) and 2012 (Samajwadi Party). Even in the Lok Sabha election of 2014, the Congress was reduced to such two seats in the state and the two winners were Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi, from Rae Bareli and Amethi, respectively. And the Congress won these two states after the SP didn't field candidates from them.
It will be a great boost for the party supporters in UP but that's about it
The Congress cadres in UP will find it hugely encouraging if Rahul or Priyanka agrees to be the party's face in the next election, which will be seen as a prelude to the next Lok Sabha election. A number of party leaders from the state even feel that the Congress will eclipse all its opponents if it really happens and even win the 2019 general polls hands down.
Kishor even told the Gandhi family that if Rahul Gandhi leads in UP, the party will break all caste and community barriers and the Muslims will vote for the leader. The Congress lost its minority vote-bank in UP to the regional parties like the SP and BSP and this weakened its position in the electorally crucial state over the years.
UP has too many players now; to stay relevant, the Congress needs Mayawati's help
But is the Congress really in a position to bounce back under Rahul Gandhi's leadership in UP? The state has now three other important parties that have a tasted leadership to project---Mayawati for the BSP; Akhilesh Yadav for the SP and Narendra Modi for the BJP. Though Modi is not connected to the state's politics directly, but the BJP will not spare the chance to fight yet another election with him as the face. The saffron party had won 70 of the 80 seats in the state in the 2014 general election and has not lost the hope to repeat something similar in 2017.
Congress needs Muslims, Dalits and upper-cases and the rainbow coalition can only come to its aid if Mayawati befriends it
An intense race is on between the BJP and BSP to get hold over the Dalit voters---who had deserted Mayawati to back Modi in the LS polls. The Muslim and Jat voters, too, seem to be orienting themselves towards the BSP due to a dissatisfaction with the SP's rule over the last five years.
In this race to win Lucknow, the Congress needs Mayawati more than Rahul. The grand-old party needs the regional parties more to stay afloat, be it Bihar or UP. The Congress can hope to come near to the throne in Lucknow only if its alliance with the BSP kicks off, enabling it to align itself with the rainbow coalition of the Dalits, Muslims and upper castes.
If Congress fails in UP in 2017 under Rahul, the mission 2019 will receive a blow
If Rahul Gandhi-led Congress loses badly in the 2017 polls, the Congress will have have lost almost all option by the time the next general election arrives.
For Rahul Gandhi, repeating something like in 2009 when the Congress had won 20 Lok Sabha seats in UP by consolidating the Muslim votes with the upper-caste Thakurs and Brahmins will not be easy, especially after the pounding it had received in the 2012 Assembly election and 2014 Lok Sabha election.