Kanpur/Unnao: As one reaches halfway through the Lucknow-Kanpur Road, rows of small potato heaps arrest one's attention. It's the Dahi Chowki market of Unnao, an outlet for locally grown vegetables. However, it turns into an impromptu TV studio-like debate forum, when sellers find a reporter in their midst. Just as it happens in studios, 'panelists' here also are sharply divided in their allegiances.
So, in Dahi Chowki, it's the BJP vs the Samajwadi Party. And what about the Congress which sent Anu Tandon to the Lok Sabha from Unnao in 2009 before the Modi wave swept everything away? Is Priyanka Gandhi a 'game-changer'?
Tomato grower Sunder Lal is not impressed by the presence of Priyanka Gandhi at the helm of Congress affairs in UP. “What will she do? She is Indira Gandhi’s granddaughter, not Indira Gandhi. We have seen the 10-year rule of Manmohan Singh. He did nothing. Here no one -- neither Priyanka Vadra nor Rahul Gandhi -- will be able cast a spell,” he says in a definitive tone.
The fanfare with which the Gandhi scion was launched in Lucknow last month finds little traction here. While Sunder Lal says he would vote for a strong nation, his fellow trader Rajendra Yadav vouches for the development work carried out by Akhilesh Yadav during the SP rule in the state.
In Shuklaganj, about 20 km away, Raju Mishra, a trader, seconds Sunder Lal. "Whatever presence the Congress has here is because of its candidate Annu Tandon, who has maintained her links with the constituency in the past five years," says Mishra who owns a showroom of readymade garments. He claims nothing will change in the Congress. “Here Priyanka Gandhi will have no impact in the current election,” claims Mishra.
A first-time voter, Anukriti Singh seems to be smitten by Priyanka’s personality but doubts her effectiveness this time. “Few people are familiar with her here. Like Rahul Gandhi, she too is likely to say that the PM is a thief. She will not have any impact,” says Anukriti, a second-year student pursuing BA in a local college.
If the Congress has pinned its hopes on the Priyanka factor to lift its fortunes in UP, no impact is visible yet. Similar trends can be seen in neighbouring Kanpur, which has a sizeable number of Congress voters and elected the party candidate in 2004 and 2009. Sri Prakash Jaiswal, a former minister in the Manmohan Singh government, had finished runner-up during the sweeping Modi wave in 2014.
In the era of social media, when WhatsApp and Facebook shape public opinion, it is difficult to find a neutral person who can talk without showing his political leanings. Kanpur's Atul Seth, the vice-president of the Provincial Industrial Association, UP, is one who speaks quite objectively. Despite being critical of the Congress and its dynastic politics, he has genuine concern for the Grand Old Party.
He accuses Congressmen of lacking guts to stand against a family which is no more relevant to run the party. “Congress is headed for doom under the present leadership. This dynastic streak has to stop if the party has to be revived. Priyanka is a better politician than her brother but how far she will be able to assert herself under his leadership is debatable,” says Seth, ruing the fact that the Congress is imposing Gandhi scions on the nation despite having other deserving leaders.
Although few doubt her potential as a future leader, if she takes a full-fledged plunge and doesn't limit herself to the family bastion, there are doubts galore about Priyanka working any magic in these elections.
Even a traditional Congress supporter like Saud Ahmad, a leather exporter, feels that Priyanka’s appointment is too late. “She has not been there on the ground even after being appointed on January 23. Congress could have capitalise on the euphoria created subsequent to her appointment and launch. But it is too late and that impact has vanished in the post-Pulwama airstrike narrative now,” adds Ahmad.
However, Amarjeet Singh ‘Manu’, manager of the famous Gurdwarabhai Bannu Sahib in Kanpur, feels the people's pulse favours the Congress after Priyanka Gandhi was given charge of the party in UP. “At least she will speak the truth unlike PM Modi who is nothing but a jumlebaaj,” says Manu, believing that Priyanka’s appointment will win Muslim support back for the Congress in the elections.
Anoop Kumar Gupta, an advocate and member of the Kanpur bar association, sounds hopeful that Priyanka Gandhi will be able to move the Congress in a positive direction but certainly not now. “In this election, people will vote on the basis of the candidate. For Priyanka to be effective, the Congress will have to change the president and hand the baton over to her,” claims Gupta.
Dr Vivek Dwivedi, principal, Bramhanand Degree College, affiliated to Kanpur University, feels that Priyanka Gandhi’s impact may give a boost of 1-2 per cent to the vote share of the Congress in UP but nothing more. “If they think that by pitching Priyanka Gandhi in the fray now, they can compete with Modi, they will be proved wrong,” says the academic.
Most also point out that she has been missing in action for a whole month after the Lucknow roadshow.
Vishal Agarwal, a prominent jeweller of the city, feels the Congress as an organisation is too weak. “They don’t have dedicated cadre in booths. The first task Priyanka Gandhi has in hand is to put the house in order. She needs to re-organise the party and re-orient the party worker, which is not possible now with elections knocking at the door,” he says.