It could be the worst job in the country now: reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
And Nirmal Khatri has been chosen as the man to do what even Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi could not do with his ambitiously announced Mission 2012.
Six months after Mission 2012 ended in a debacle, the Congress has plummeted lower, not winning even one of the 14 Mayoral positions to which elections were held recently.
In contrast, the BJP won 12.
For the embattled Congress, 2014 is not far away. Enter loyalist Nirmal Khatri, the new chief of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC).
Khatri was a high-profile member of Sanjay Gandhi’s firebrand Youth Congress which was instrumental in the revival of the Congress after Indira Gandhi was ousted from power in 1977.
Sanjay Gandhi led the party from the front with supporters like Khatri in Uttar Pradesh and succeeded in bringing the party back to power in 1980 , which was a daunting task at the time.
The Congress high command had to fall back on Khatri after having tried more than a few senior leaders in Uttar Pradesh, and its ministers at the Centre evincing no interest in wearing the Uttar Pradesh crown of thorns.
Over the last decade, the Congress has tried Salman Khurshid, Arun Kumar Singh Munna, Sriprakash Jaiswal, and Rita Bahuguna Joshi, but none could make any impact.
Despite representing dominant castes and communities, these leaders could do little to improve the party’s performance.
Khatri, MP from Faizabad, has the advantage of a clean reputation; he is known not to indulge in factional fights and caste politics.
“Khatri is everybody’s man,” says Surendra Rajput, who has worked with former UPCC chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi.
Choosing a Khatri, a caste that may not be even one per cent of the state’s population, is a whole new Congress experiment in Uttar Pradesh.
The UPCC chief has traditionally been from a dominant caste; this criteria has been adopted by all political parties.
This could be Khatri’s unique advantage; there would be fair chances of all caste and communities coming under his umbrella.
Khatri isn’t too well known in Lucknow; he will have to try hard to be noticed.
Such facelessness seems to have affected the Congress structure in Uttar Pradesh. Pradip Mathur, another relative unknown, was made Legislature Party leader, and he is still struggling to establish himself.
What remains to be seen is how much power is relinquished to Khatri by the high command, now planning to divide Uttar Pradesh in six zones with their own chiefs with whom Khatri will interact.
This plan could end up limiting Khatri to interacting with zonal chiefs only, and not grassroot workers.
The post of UPCC chief had fallen vacant after Rita Bahuguna Joshi resigned in March, accepting responsibility for the Congress wipeout in the Assembly elections.
The search for Khatri was not easy.
The Congress leadership saw senior leaders like Jagdambika Pal, Arun Kumar Singh Munna as spent cartridges while ministers like Sriprakash Jaiswal, Salman Khurshid, and Jitin Prasada declined interest whenever their names were considered.
In the last one decade or so, most PCC chiefs have been more figurehead than organisational commander.
Union minister Beni Prasad Verma is believed to have shown interest but his name was rejected by the party leadership over his failure in 2012 Assembly elections, lack of support from Congress leaders of the state, and his legendary outspokenness which often causes embarrassment to the party.
The other Congress stratagem that has been rolled out in Uttar Pradesh is its growing closeness with the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP), whose supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav is being assiduously wooed.
Yadav, who may have prime ministerial ambitions, knows he cannot achieve this without support of the Congress, and has reciprocated in the same spirit .
The SP had recently sent the party observers to parliamentary constituencies to prepare for the 2014 polls, but it kept Rae Bareli and Amethi out of this plan, sending out a clear message that it would probably not field candidates against the Sonia and Rahul in their till recent pocket boroughs.
The Congress leadership has proposed an AIIMS in Rae Bareli, and the Akhilesh Yadav government obliged it.
The Congress desired a Central university in Rae Bareli, the Uttar Pradesh government is ready for this too.
Congress president Sonia Gandui has personally requested Mulayam for uninterrupted power supply in her constituency.
Sonia desired widening of the Lucknow–Rae Bareli road, and the Akhilesh Yadav government has started work at breakneck speed.
For critics, this leaning on the SP appears like a survival, not victory, plan.
It is also being said that the Congress wants to win only Rae Bareli and Amethi for Sonia and Rahul.
Khatri has his work cut out. The clock is ticking.