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Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra must have brought many smiles in the opposition camp on Saturday when she clarified that she wasn’t the chief ministerial face of her party in Uttar Pradesh. Asked about it the previous day, she had seemingly projected herself, saying, “Do you see anybody else’s face…? You can see my face everywhere.” She clarified the next day that she had said that “in irritation” because of persistent questions about it.

One can empathise with her. Questions about the chief ministerial face of a party that secured only 6 to 7 per cent of votes in the last three parliamentary and assembly elections can be really irritating. The Congress has been reduced to three MLAs in UP — down from seven in 2017. Most of its former legislators have deserted it. In her heart of hearts, she must know the Congress’ poll prospects in UP.

That probably explains why she is not so gung-ho about her experiment in UP — a women-centric poll campaign. She has managed to create a buzz. First, it’s her promises to women—40 per cent reservation in government jobs, 25 per cent of police posts, 50 per cent Public Distribution System (PDS) shops, phones, scooters, you name it. Then it’s the Congress candidates — a rape victim’s mother, an ex-Miss Bikini India winner and a TV anchor, among others. It’s easy to diss Priyanka’s ‘ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ poll slogan. And it’s better still for her political adversaries to ridicule her promises to UP women. After all, it’s easy to promise the moon because the Congress must come to power to fulfil it. Why not promise the same in Uttarakhand, Punjab, or Goa?

The fact, however, is that it’s a first in a long time. Women’s rights and empowerment are seldom the exclusive focus of a party’s poll campaign. As it is, every party offers something or the other to woo women voters. Every politician speaks about their empowerment in election speeches. But only a few politicians or parties go to polls with women’s issues at the centre of their poll campaign. That’s what makes Priyanka Vadra’s poll pitch in UP interesting.

Also read: Be it Congress, BJP, AAP—women’s question in India is a partisan issue. And that’s not so bad

BJP’s male-dominated power hierarchy

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not be bothered about Priyanka Vadra’s women-centric poll campaign in UP. The Congress is virtually extinct in UP with no organisational machinery at the grassroots to carry her message beyond media headlines. It may, however, start bothering the BJP if Priyanka Vadra carries her ‘Ladki hoon, Ladh Sakti Hoon’ campaign beyond UP 2022.  Lokniti-CSDS surveys over the years show that the BJP has a “gender disadvantage” despite the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s welfare schemes have helped it to make big inroads into women voters’ constituency.

The fact is that the Modi factor might have swung women voters for the BJP, but the party has done precious little to make it a party of their choice. Women are grossly underrepresented in the BJP’s organisational (power) hierarchy, no matter how much PM Modi showcases women-centric government schemes like Ujjawala and ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’. Among the dozen BJP presidents in the past 41 years, there hasn’t been a single woman leader.

In the 30-member Union Cabinet, there are only two women — Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani. There is not a single woman among a dozen BJP chief ministers. Among seven deputy CMs, there is just one woman — Renu Devi in Bihar. The seven-member, all-powerful Parliamentary Board, the apex decision-making body of the party, is an exclusively male domain. Among 36 chiefs of states and Union territories, there is just one female — Sharda Devi of Manipur. The BJP may not be bothered about the under-representation of women in its organisational, decision-making hierarchy as long as PM Modi remains the star attraction.

Lokniti-CSDS surveys show that the BJP has a gender gap when it comes to voting patterns, despite the PM making a huge difference.

Imagine what’ll happen to the BJP when Modi decides to hang up his boots.

Chest-thumping, self-proclaimed nationalists and Hindutva’s male bastion have been the party’s bedrock. It depends on Modi (or his schemes) to secure female votes. Post-Modi, the game is wide open when it comes to women voters. That’s where Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s women-centric experiment in politics can be a game-changer.

Also read: BJP accuses Priyanka Gandhi of indulging in ‘selective politics’

Priyanka’s game-changing plan

India has come a long way when it comes to women’s stakes in democracy. In the run-up to the 1952 elections, the first Chief Election Commissioner of India, Sukumar Sen, was ‘outraged’ about the practice of women registering themselves in the electoral rolls as ‘A’s mother’ or ‘B’s wife’. He directed officials to put women’s names “in place of mere description of such voters.” Nonetheless, some 2.8 million women voters (out of 176 million Indians) had to be struck off the list. “The resulting furore over their omission was considered by Sen to be a ‘good thing’, for it would help the prejudice vanish before the next elections,” historian Ramachandra Guha noted in India After Gandhi.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, as Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said in a webinar, after seven decades and 17 Lok Sabha elections since India’s Independence, women voter participation at 67.18 per cent outmatched male participation at 67.01 per cent.

It’s at this milestone that Priyanka Vadra is trying to start a new phase in her party’s attempts for revival. Dissing out another Gandhi idea is convenient. Talking about women’s empowerment is old wine in a new bottle. Yet, Priyanka’s women-centric poll campaign seems to be a good counterweight to BJP’s poll campaigns built around muscular nationalism and aggressive Hindutva. Rahul Gandhi and his party colleagues have shown an utter lack of political imagination as they try to emerge as a bigger Hindu than a Modi or a Yogi Adityanath. Their attempts to snatch the nationalism plank from the BJP have been rather ill-conceived and naive. As the BJP keeps shifting the goalposts, Congress leaders have been left huffing and puffing.

It’s in this backdrop that Priyanka Vadra has come up with her women-centred poll plank. It’s not a new discovery in politics but the way she has packaged it certainly makes it appealing. Huge attendance at the Congress’ women’s marathons in UP is a testimony to this.

As it is, the Congress no longer has the allegiance of any social group with its traditional support base among Dalits, upper castes, and tribals gone. The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are split among the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and regional outfits. Minority communities are no longer pinning their hopes onto the Congress. The Congress can only hinge its hopes on these groups’ disillusionment with their current political patrons. In a nutshell, it has no vote bank today, except for nowhere-to-go voters. Can Priyanka’s ‘women gambit’ be a new beginning for the Congress? Only time will tell.

DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)