How Priyanka Gandhi is bringing UP's Brahmins back to the Congress

Priyanka Gandhi outside a Hanuman Temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, on 29 March, during a campaign road show. Priyanka’s arrival onto Uttar Pradesh’s politics appears to be bring the state’s Brahmins, who had drifted towards the BJP, back into the Congress’s fold. Atul Loke / Getty Images
30 April, 2019

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.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the upper castes of Uttar Pradesh predominantly voted in favour of the BJP, and the Congress witnessed its lowest ever performance in the state. But according to Sanjay Singh, a resident of Salempur who teaches in a private school, despite the wave of support for Modi ahead of the 2014 elections and the Congress’s lowest ever electoral performance in Uttar Pradesh, “there were families in villages—especially senior citizens whose support for the Congress has not deviated since Independence—who continued to vote for Congress.”

My reporting supported Singh’s assessment—that the Brahmin allegiance to the Congress had not been uprooted entirely. The community’s history of support for the party seemed to have created the perception among the Brahmins in the districts I visited that only the Congress would focus on the community. “Brahmins see the Congress, even today, as their natural party of power,” Keshav Pandey, a resident of Ballia’s Gangapur block, told me. Prabhat Pandey, a septuagenarian poet and writer living in Ballia, echoed the sentiment. “Those who have been traditionally associated with the Congress—out of emotion and family tradition—are now feeling happy with her presence,” Prabhat said. He added that Priyanka has given a “moral boost” to the Congress’s cadre and volunteers, who were not accorded any importance by the party leadership earlier. Now with Priyanka’s entry, he continued, “They have come out from their shell and joined hands with her in making efforts for revival of Congress.”

According to Amrit, Priyanka’s Ganga Yatra—a three-day campaign during which the Congress leader travelled on a boat from Prayagraj to Varanasi, visiting different villages on the riverbanks—had “proven a lot.” He explained, “All those who were neither supporting the BJP nor the Congress, and were unhappy, are now in a state to express their views.” Amrit added that the growing support for Priyanka among the Brahmins was also following the BJP’s overtures to the OBC communities during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP party had “witnessed a replacement from upper, forward castes to the upper OBC community,” he said.

Priyanka’s campaign has also received widespread media coverage in the region. After her appointment as the Congress’s general secretary and eastern Uttar Pradesh incharge, Priyanka has consistently been on the front page of several dailies in the state. These include newspapers that are widely considered to be favourable to the BJP—even on days that saw parallel campaigning by Narendra Modi in the state.

Suresh Pratap Singh, a veteran journalist from Varanasi, told me that Priyanka was gaining momentum on the ground. “People are not happy and there is no major issue in this election for the BJP to persuade the voters,” Singh said. “Things are already on compromising mode for them as the situation is not like 2014. So in that condition, launching Priyanka in a region dominated by forward castes—mainly Brahmins—would work and Congress would gain something.” Though Singh was unsure whether this “gain would finally be converted into vote,” he added that “surely, it would help in revival of Congress.”

Several residents in the districts I visited believed that Priyanka’s presence would have an effect not only where she or the Congress’s other Brahmin candidates were contesting, but for all of the party’s candidates. “People are saying that Brahmin voters generally cast vote for Brahmins,” Ramshankar Mishra, an 80-year-old resident of Bhadohi, said. “In 2014, there was an anti-Congress and pro-Modi wave. But now the situation is changing and the Brahmin vote of the BJP could shift towards Congress, subject to final ticket distribution by the parties.”

However, Sanjeev Shukla, a political commentator from the state’s Deoria district, believed that fielding Brahmin candidates would be essential for the party to convert the resurgence of upper-caste support into electoral results. “If the Congress gives Brahmin candidates then the chance for a good performance is sure because Priyanka has made the community feel the presence of Congress which was missing for last three decades,” Shukla said.

According to Rajeev Kumar, a dean at the Jananayak Chandrashekhar University in Ballia, the Congress could take advantage of the fact that the regional opposition parties, such as the SP and the BSP, were not targeting the Brahmin vote. “SP has been doing the politics of Yadav votes and BSP is doing it for the SC votes,” Kumar said. “Now in eastern UP, the effect of the alliance of SP and BSP is not there at ground due to multiple reasons, and one of the major reasons is that SP has neglected Brahmins. So there is a reaction in the community against both the parties.” Kumar added that given this context, “Priyanka has created a space and that could help Congress. This will work in gaining the lost ground in UP for Congress.”

Most of the constituencies in eastern UP go to polls in the last phase of the elections on 19 May, so there is still time for Priyanka to campaign through more districts in the region. Shreesh Pathak, the head of the political science department at Galgotias University, believed that Priyanka’s appointment in eastern Uttar Pradesh was part of a long-term plan. “Placing Priyanka just before Lok Sabha election 2019 in eastern UP, rather than western UP, which is close to Delhi and would have been comparatively easy to manage, shows an ambitious game-plan for Congress,” Pathak said. He added that Priyanka’s appointment was not made keeping only the Lok Sabha elections in mind. “Her speeches clearly establish that she is working here to build the long-term base for the party, which eventually helps it in all the upcoming elections. Losing UP in elections is losing Delhi in the long run.”