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Missing VIPs in Uttar Pradesh poll campaign

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-03-2017 Anuja

New Delhi: Congress president Sonia Gandhi was conspicuous by her absence from the campaign for assembly elections in five states, especially in Uttar Pradesh, which she skipped for the first time since her election as party leader in 1998.

Seven months ago, she held a roadshow in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, in a symbolic launch of the Congress campaign in UP, India’s largest and most populous state.

The 70-year-old didn’t take part in the formal campaign that started in January after the announcement of the election schedule in Punjab, Goa, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

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Her son and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Samajwadi Party (SP) leader and Akhilesh Yadav spearheaded the UP campaign in an alliance they formed before the polls. The curtain came down on the elections on Wednesday with the seventh and final phase of polling in UP and the second in Manipur. Whether the Congress alliance with the SP went down well with the electorate will be known on Saturday, when counting takes place.

Senior Congress leaders think Sonia Gandhi’s absence from the campaign was partly due to her ill health; she was taken ill during the Varanasi roadshow and had to be hospitalized, they note. It may also be part of a strategy to transfer the party’s reins to Rahul Gandhi, 46, who spearheaded the party’s campaign in almost all the states that have gone to the polls in the last three years.

Significantly, Sonia Gandhi’s absence was noticed not just by the party’s candidates who were keen on her campaigning, particularly in key Gandhi family bastions like Amethi and Raebareli, but also by the party cadre in the state.

“For party workers, particularly in UP, Sonia Gandhi is synonymous with Congress. Her absence in the campaign is definitely being felt, specially in districts like Raebareli and Amethi,” a senior leader said, requesting anonymity

To be sure, Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter and released a video message targeted at voters in Amethi, her son’s constituency, and Raebareli, her own.

In an emotional appeal, she asked the UP voters to defeat the forces that had deprived them of the benefits of welfare schemes and “snatched away” everything from them.

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“She is the longest serving president of the party and the tallest leader who held the party together in the face of the worst adversities,” another Congress politician from the state. “Several party workers and candidates were keen on her campaigning in their respective areas,” another politician from the state said on condition that he not be named. Her absence on the campaign trail followed her sitting out two key events—the party’s Foundation Day on 28 December and the national convention against demonetization, both of which were presided over by Rahul Gandhi.

“While her rallies definitely can no longer counter the public meetings of Modi, her absence does demoralize the party cadre,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

“This is certainly a part of the handover of the top leadership from Sonia to Rahul. We keep hearing about this handover, which never gets over. The damage that this has caused the party is a lot because the situation continues to be in a flux internally,” he added.

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