At a recent election rally, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi family that dominates the opposition Congress party, strode on stage and asked the crowd to repeat after her: “I’m a woman, I can fight.”
The slogan is at the heart of the party’s bid to revive its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state that goes to the polls early next year, by winning over women voters who have long been marginalised but are starting to find a voice.
The Uttar Pradesh result will offer a clue as to whether the Congress, which dominated Indian politics for decades, can mount a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next general election in 2024.
Modi came to power in 2014 on promises of economic growth and a strong, modern India, and secured a convincing re-election victory in 2019.
His rise has come as the 136-year-old Congress has been mired in decline, in part because of leadership turmoil.
Rahul Gandhi, Gandhi Vadra’s brother, was unable to fire up voters and quit as Congress chief in July 2019 after a general election mauling.
The party is now led by their mother, Sonia Gandhi, as interim president, compounding a perception held by some that it is old-fashioned and overly reliant on the Gandhis.
With its secular legacy, the Congress portrays itself as an inclusive national party and it will be hoping an appeal to women led by Gandhi Vadra, who only entered politics in 2019, will strike a chord as it presents an alternative to Modi’s hardline Hindu agenda.
A spate of violence against women has alarmed voters across India, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, which according to government data faces the highest number of gender crimes in the country, and Gandhi Vadra promised women change.
“I want to tell the women that I will fight for them, the Congress party will fight for them,” Gandhi Vadra said on Sunday to cheers in the Gorakhpur stronghold of the state’s chief minister, a Hindu monk and BJP stalwart, Yogi Adityanath.
In Uttar Pradesh, the well-organised BJP has been criticised for its handling of violence against women as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also facing protests by farmers opposed to Modi’s liberalisation of agriculture.
An unusually high proportion of women attended the Gorakhpur rally – about a quarter of the estimated 40,000 people – suggesting the Congress message may be getting through.
“People, especially women, have started looking at Congress with hope, that the party will stand with women and become their voice,” said Sunita Mishra, 40, a party worker at the rally.
Voters had welcomed a Congress pledge to field women in 40% of the state’s 403 assembly constituencies, said Mishra, helping her sign up 50 women as party cadre in the past few days.
The party has also promised electric scooters and smartphones to female students, free rides on government buses to all women, three free cooking-gas cylinders per family a year, and gender-based job reservations.
‘LISTENING TO SYCOPHANTS’
But the Congress in Uttar Pradesh is suffering from a series of internal problems – mirroring its woes at the national level – with disenchantment in the rank-and-file and resignations of senior members as Gandhi Vadra tries to stamp her authority, current and former party officials said in interviews.
“The state leadership is listening only to sycophants and the number of such people has increased in the party in the last two years,” said Rana Rahul Singh, a former Congress assembly candidate from Gorakhpur who recently quit the party.
“Grassroots workers in Congress are being neglected.”
Gandhi Vadra’s team did not respond to an interview request from Reuters but party spokeswoman Supriya Shrinate said reorganisation was underway.
“Changes are uneasy but changes are good,” Shrinate said. “In the longer run, these changes are going to work.”
A recent survey by polling agency CVoter projected that the BJP would easily win the state election with more than 240 of its 403 seats, with Congress likely finishing a distant fourth with just three to seven seats.
In the last state election in 2017, which Congress fought in a coalition, it won only seven of 114 seats it contested, while the BJP won 312.
The proportion of women voters across India has steadily increased and some states now have more women casting votes than men, said Praveen Rai of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies think-tank in New Delhi.
“Whether it converts into more seats or not is a little difficult to predict,” Rai said about Congress’s focus on women. “But I think this is the right strategy for the party to make a comeback and create some political space for itself.”
At the Gorakhpur rally, district Congress president Nirmala Paswan said she had hope in Gandhi Vadra.
“A lot of women are approaching us to join the party,” she said. “Change is coming and women are going to bring it.”