The arrival of Priyanka Gandhi onto India’s political landscape, with her appointment as the Congress incharge of eastern Uttar Pradesh for the ongoing Lok Sabha campaign, created waves in Delhi and in the mainstream media. On the ground, however, the support for Priyanka was visible predominantly among the Brahmins of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Brahmins are estimated to form between ten to twelve percent of the state’s population, and have a stronger presence in the eastern region. Priyanka was widely expected to contest against Narendra Modi from the Varanasi constituency, where Brahmins constitute the second-highest demographic, but the Congress fielded its member Ajay Rai instead. Nonetheless, Priyanka’s entry to the political arena seeks to play a crucial role—bringing the Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh, who used to be a Congress voter base before they drifted towards the Bharatiya Janata Party, back into the party’s fold.
The Brahmins of eastern Uttar Pradesh are important constituents for political parties. Traditionally Congress supporters, the state’s Brahmins have rallied behind different parties in the recent past—in addition to the BJP, they also contributed in large numbers to the Bahujan Samaj Party’s victory in the 2007 assembly elections. Meanwhile, the BJP’s decision to appoint Adityanath, who hails from the Thakur caste, as the chief minister of the state in 2017, has led to a rift between the BJP’s Thakur and Brahmin voter base. Additionally, the Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance’s focus on Other Backward Class, Muslim and Dalit communities has created an opportunity for the Congress to regain their key Brahmin constituent, and Priyanka’s entry in Uttar Pradesh appears to have been effective in this regard.
In March this year, I visited seven districts in eastern Uttar Pradesh—Ballia, Ghazipur, Varanasi, Bhadohi, Salempur, Deoria and Mau—which form part of seven different constituencies and have a sizeable Brahmin population. Across these districts, there was a growing Brahmin support for Priyanka. In fact, the prevailing sentiment seemed to indicate that Priyanka’s Uttar Pradesh campaign had been successful in regaining the Brahmin support for the Congress party, and away from the BJP. According to Amrit Pandey, a social activist and political commentator based in Varanasi, there used to be “a fear in the community” about speaking out against the BJP. “Now the people are vocal in opposing the ruling party in centre and state both. It showed that people were waiting for someone from Congress who could show a path of revival and Priyanka has done that.”
During its heyday in Indian politics, the Congress had forged a coalition of support from the Dalits, the Muslims and the Brahmins. Till the early 1990s, Uttar Pradesh’s Brahmin community was considered an almost undisputed vote bank of the Congress. This changed in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, and the emergence of aggressive Hinduism by the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. With the emergence of the BJP at a national level, the Brahmin community began gravitating towards the party. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first prime minister of the BJP, was a Brahmin and played an important role in consolidating the Brahmin community towards his party and away from the Congress.