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Cong's Mr Nice Guy to the rescue in UP?

By Aditi Phadnis
September 17, 2012 16:50 IST
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The Congress may finish last in UP despite the non-controversial image of its new chief, notes Aditi Phadnis.

The phrase was first used in 1948 by a legendary manager of an American baseball team, Leo Durocher: "Nice guys finish last," he said in an interview, contradicting the generally held view that if "nice" men got together to work as a team, it was more likely to win than a set of irascible, egoistical, ambitious individuals, each trying to undermine one another.

If the Congress has finished last in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections of 2012, winning 28 seats (up six since 2007) with 12 per cent of the vote (up three percentage points since 2007), it is certainly not because it's a bunch of nice guys. Bewildered party managers who oversaw the election from Delhi found Union Minister Salman Khurshid not on talking terms with then state chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi (at one election meeting, Joshi simply ignored him on the dias, omitting to name him among the dignitaries. She later told colleagues she "forgot").

Union Minister Beni Prasad Verma, who was seen as a great white hope of the Congress, can't stand P L Punia, MP from Barabanki. The reason? He has been MLA from the region several times and Barabanki is his birthplace but it was Punia who was given the seat and has been elected MP from the constituency.

In fact, relations are so bad that during the assembly election campaign, at Rahul Gandhi's rally in Barabanki, there was a public scuffle between supporters of the two leaders.

In Kanpur, Sriprakash Jayaswal can't get on even with municipal-level leaders (as a result of which the Congress lost the recent mayoral elections -- it couldn't even win one) let alone take the party with him. In Bahraich, in the course of the Assembly election campaign, the chief of the district Congress unit, Jitendra Singh, and the candidate Chandrashekhar Singh "Azad" wrestled each other to the ground minutes before Rahul Gandhi was to arrive for a public meeting. Singh alleged that Azad, an "outsider", was given the ticket ignoring the claim of party loyalists (Singh has since been thrown out of the Congress).

And so it goes on. When a committee headed by A K Antony went into the Congress debacle in UP, it recommended Joshi be replaced. She resigned. And last month, MP from Faizabad, Nirmal Khatri was appointed Pradesh Congress Committee chief instead.

Khatri is known as Mr Nice Guy. This is probably why he agreed to take on a job in which he has been made redundant even before he's started -- the Congress is going to appoint EIGHT zonal chiefs who will be responsible for the electoral performance of their party in their zone.

If as PCC chief, he's not going to be the man tasked with ticket distribution (the zonal chiefs will have that job) and he's not going to be in charge of running the campaign (Rahul Gandhi is supposed to do that), then what's he there for? It is anybody's guess.

But then it is too much to expect him to turn the Congress around in the state. Khatri is an MP from Faizabad that falls in the broad region known as Awadh where the Congress's performance in the Assembly elections hasn't exactly been stellar. Of 403 Assembly seats, Awadh accounts for 73.

Of these, it was the Samajwadi Party (SP) that got 55 in the last election. The SP did particularly well in Faizabad, winning all four Assembly seats in the district. Awadh gave the SP its largest Assembly haul from among all regions in UP. And it is the MP from Faizabad in Awadh, who has become the Congress PCC chief!

The kindest thing one can say is that Khatri won't create any fresh problems for the party. Since he is from a caste that is numerically insignificant in the state, he is expected to be even-handed in forging social coalitions. He has a clean image although he's not particularly well known in UP.

And he's managed to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party  from winning Faizabad that has a symbolic significance for the Congress -- because of Ayodhya, which is part of Faizabad district.

Local newspapers are writing that nominating Khatri is part of a Congress conspiracy against itself -- enabling an SP sweep of UP in the upcoming general elections in return for two seats that must not, cannot, be defeated: Amethi and Rae Bareli represented by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. They say the Congress wants to stay on the right side of the SP as insurance for the future. The Akhilesh Yadav government is working with great alacrity on the projects sought by these two leaders: including a Lucknow Rae Bareli road and uninterrupted power in the constituencies.

This could be a fanciful notion -- because the SP has to service its own MLAs  as well, after all (it won 12 out of 15 seats in that area).  But Khatri, known as a man who can't say boo to a goose, might be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Congress in UP -- despite nice guys, the party might finish last.

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Aditi Phadnis
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