'The failure of the Congress to win the hearts of even the Muslim victims of Muzaffarnagar riots exposes what's wrong with Rahul Gandhi's leadership. His statement that Pakistan's ISI was targeting the victims may have cost the party their trust.'
'Rather, those who advise Gandhi are so brazen politically that they ask the UPA government to give reservations to the Jat community, perceived to be the aggressor by the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh.'
Rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt investigates why the Congress is imploding in Uttar Pradesh.
Around noon on Monday, Narendra Modi's speech in Etah was being screened, live, in a senior government officer's room in Lucknow.
Three journalists, including myself, and the officer were glued to the television screen.
I was the only non-Lucknow-ite present.
The way people in Uttar Pradesh view Modi and the Gujarat model is completely different from all that I hear on English television channels and what I read in New Delhi newspapers.
The gap between the two perceptions of Modi is the story of Election 2014.
An hour later, when I was chatting with Professor Arvind Mohan of Lucknow University, he addressed Modi as a "statesman" when compared to the current crop of political leaders.
People in Lucknow, Professor Mohan said, find Modi on one side and the other leaders "far, far behind." The professor is not a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party and does not give the BJP more than 35 to 40 out of UP's 80 Lok Sabha seats. "The election in UP," he says, "is, essentially, fought on caste and community parameters."
Professor Mohan and other political observers claim what is most shocking is the coming "collapse of the Congress in UP."
In the 2009 election, the Samajwadi Party won 23 seats, the Congress 21, the Bahujan Samaj Party 20. The BJP won just 10 Lok Sabha seats while Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal won five seats.
This time, as soon as you touch down in Lucknow, complete your round of quizzing drivers, hotel boys, local celebrities and political leaders and move off the road in villages and towns, you know the last election's results will go topsy-turvy this time.
The UP election has turned out to be Modi versus all. This is my third visit to UP in four weeks, but I have not located anyone who says the Congress will get seats in the double digits.
Most pundits count up to five or six, that includes Amethi and Rae Bareli, and then they say, "Congress toh kahin maidan main nahin (The Congress is nowhere in the arena)."
From 21 seats in 2009 to be downgraded to a hopeless perception in the eyes of voters is due to many reasons.
"The Congress," says Professor Mohan, "made a huge error in its strategy. It is shocking to see the Congress propagating Modi as India's prime minister. Their campaign here and elsewhere is running only on presenting arguments against Modi."
"The Congress is focusing on Modi and Modi is concentrating on floating voters. If you compare the past records of all Lok Sabha elections I find some eight to 15 percent of voters are undecided -- whom we call floating voters. These voters are not wedded to any caste and go by the marketing of political leaders or the current mood in the country," he adds.
While UP still votes on caste lines, Professor Mohan believes Modi has captured the floating voters through many ways including the social media where he moved in first to communicate with the young voters of UP.
Professor Sunil Pande, head of the statistics department at Lucknow University, says, "Our students have become very competitive. Even Dalit and OBC (Other Backward Classes) students are securing admissions in the general category."
Modi, Professor Pande feels, is popular among young people on the campus.
"Modi has taken the lead in the social media. The Congress took time to get into cyberspace. The problem with the Congress is that to project Rahul Gandhi after the election, they didn't project Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and kept the space open. While a submissive Dr Singh and his honest image worked in 2009, this time the space that was abandoned by keeping Singh out has been captured by Modi. Now, the Congress is attacking Modi and nothing makes Modi happier," he says.
Shalabh Mani Tripathi, a senior journalist, says, "If compared to the Congress, the BJP candidates are no better. In Basti constituency, Harish Dwivedi, who stood third in the assembly election, has been given the ticket for the Lok Sabha, and he is in the race to win because Modi is creating a wave."
Professor Mohan says it is shocking to see that Modi, who is in an Opposition party, setting the election agenda. "I fail to understand how the Congress can talk about anti-incumbency of a state (Gujarat) in a Lok Sabha election. Gujarat's issues can't become the plank in a Lok Sabha election. When J Jayalalithaa issues an advertisement comparing Tamil Nadu and Gujarat's figures, it is the biggest victory for Modi. The Congress and its leaders should have talked about their government and governance, effectively."
Some three years ago, the supporters of UP-based Union ministers like Jitin Prasada and R P N Singh were confident that if Modi was declared as the BJP's PM candidate, Congress leaders would have a "walkover" because the Hindu-Muslim polarisation would help them.
But now the entire party is struggling to stay afloat. The polarisation due to Modi's presence is not helping, and people do talk about the 2G scam and other UPA failures.
The argument that Modi would help the Congress win secular hearts has melted in no time as all non-BJP parties are finding that, "without a Hindu vote, the Muslim vote that comes to them due to communal polarisation is irrelevant," says Professor Mohan.
"On one hand, the Congress didn't declare a leader for the PM's post and then started saying Modi is a 'Hitler', a 'communal monster' etc... but in all references they kept Modi at the centre and not their own man. On the issue of governance, growth and development they could not counter Modi so they attacked his personality. People see thorough it."
"We don't see Modi focusing on Hindu votes," Professor Mohan says repeatedly. "Modi is selling vikas (development)."
In fact, like the Congress, the state BJP also doesn't have a strong local leader after Kalyan Singh. Like the Congress, the state BJP machinery is weak and full of envious leaders. There is factionalism and a casteist agenda which stunts the growth of both parties.
Still, after 2009, the Congress failed to capitalise on its success while Modi successfully established his communication link to the last polling booth.
"One man (Modi) is bringing in a change without his party's dedicated cadre," says Professor Mohan. "Just on the strength of attracting floating votes, the BJP is ahead of the others. Modi has not touched the 'structured castes' of UP society, but has gone for the kill in garnering the floating votes. UP's many voters think that, so far, the political parties saw UP as a 'vote bank', but Modi views it differently. They think UP's best bet is Modi."
Modi hype and marketing have helped him, but, more than that, it is the "aspiration" that Modi will change UP and bring in vikas that has helped him in a big way. Amit Shah, Modi's point man in UP, has said often that, "The image that Modi is a firm leader has given us the edge."
"People read criticism of the Gujarat model, but then they see the relative picture by looking around their existence," says Professor Mohan.
The failure of the Congress to win the hearts of even the Muslim victims of Muzaffarnagar riots exposes what's wrong with Rahul Gandhi's leadership. His statement that Pakistan's ISI was targeting the victims may have cost the party their trust. Rather, those who advise Gandhi are so brazen politically that they ask the UPA government to give reservations to the Jat community, perceived to be the aggressor by the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh.
Sharat Pradhan, Rediff.com's senior contributor, believes Modi has a clear edge over his rivals for two reasons. "Modi has no competitor. The sole contender in the form of Rahul Gandhi is just no match at all. Besides, Modi has been able to score by systematically shunning even a passing reference to controversial Hindutva issues."
"And by keeping off Hindutva, he has been able to win over that huge chunk of youth voters, who are neither impressed nor influenced by it. On the contrary, his rivals have been left non-plussed by this strategy," Sharat says.
The United Progressive Alliance's anti-incumbency, its politics of arrogance, lack of political understanding of post-riots polarisation, a crisis of credibility of the Gandhi family's leadership, and lack of enthusiasm in party cadres together may hand out a historic defeat to the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
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