Sonia Gandhi may not remember how many times she has insisted on the urgent need to improve the Congress' prospects in Uttar Pradesh since March 1998 when she became Congress president. Uttar Pradesh elects 80 members to the 543-strong Lok Sabha.
She will get a chance to repeat it one more time in Hyderabad where the party's plenary session begins on Saturday, January 21.
After each election, the Congress condition in UP is worse than before. It is not that the Congress leadership is unaware of the party's shortcomings, but one finds a lack of determination and serious approach.
Today the Congress does not have Narain Dutt Tiwari or Veer Bahadur Singh in its ranks. N D Tiwari is chief minister of neighbouring Uttranchal, and Veer Bahadur Singh has passed into the ages. Present Congress leaders in UP like Salman Khurshid, Pramod Tiwari and Sanjay Singh are no match for Kalyan Singh or Rajnath Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party or Chief Minister Mulayam Singh of the Samajwadi Party. Khurshid, Pramod Tiwari and Sanjay Singh lack their acceptance, experience or energy levels.
A lack of pan-UP leadership is the Congress' major problem in the state. Of course, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have stature and a strong base, but both mother and son, for some curious reason, refuse to leave their fiefdoms of Amethi and Rai Bareli.
Go to any village in UP and you will hear identical opinion that unless Sonia and her children Rahul and Priyanka Vadra move into the nooks and corners of UP the Congress party cannot improve its electoral and political prospects.
Some wise men also say that before the Gandhis launch such a road show Sonia should get rid of some 50 deadwood politicians from various positions in the state Congress structure, who are exploiting the party and eroding its vote base.
But no one thinks Sonia has the audacity to do that.
Congress leaders in New Delhi are also victims of another misunderstanding.
They erroneously think that when the upper castes return to the Congress fold, other caste equations will fall into place. An impression has been created that after the impressive rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party the Dalits will never return to the Congress in big numbers but the Dalits and Muslims will follow if the upper castes are back with the Congress.
As a result Congress leaders waste time pleasing the Rajputs and Brahmins. It will help the Congress if they read the history of elections in UP. Brahmins have never been loyal to any party. Highly successful Brahmin sammelans (conventions) organised by the Bahujan Samaj Party are an example of this. The Brahmins have always gone where power is located -- from the Congress to the BJP to the BSP they have switched loyalties.
In UP the Congress will have to accept that its votes will come from the Dalits to be followed by Muslims, Brahmins and Rajputs in that order. Dalits comprise 18 to 20 per cent of the state's population.
When Sonia Gandhi recently reconsitituted the Congress Working Committee it is a shame she could not find one Dalit Congress leader in UP to appoint to an important position. In desperation, she made an unknown entity like Satyaben a special invitee.
Who are the CWC members from UP?
Mohsina Kidwai and Janardan Dwivedi are in the CWC while Devendranath Dwivedi, Harikesh Bahadur, Begum Noor Bano and Ram Naresh Yadav are invitees. Yadav belongs to the other backward castes. The Congress could not find a single Dalit leader worthy of becoming a party secretary in New Delhi, but it has people from 'creamy layers' like Bhola Pande, Rajiv Shukla and Vivek Bansal.
P V Narasimha Rao'ss government had about a dozen ministers from UP. Today there are just two UP leaders in the Manmohan Singh government -- a Cabinet minister and a minister of state. One belongs to the Baniya caste, the other is a Dalit.
How do you expect the Dalits of UP to trust the Congress with their future and votes?
Sonia Gandhi should emulate Indira Gandhi in her strategy when the Congress used to get 33 per cent of the votes in UP, which consisted 20 per cent of Dalit votes.
In 1989 the Congress got 31.8% of the vote share, while the BSP got 9.9 per cent. Today the ratio has been nearly reversed.
The decline is so spectacular that the Congress is struggling to retain its 10 per cent vote share in UP while the BSP aims to get 25 per cent of vote share in the next assembly election.
Sonia Gandhi's chessboard in UP will have to take care of another factor.
In UP, strangely, the Samajwadi Party and BJP have been complimentary to each other. When the BJP is strengthened in the state, the Samajwadi Party is consolidated at the same time. When the BJP loses votes that does not help the Samajwadi Party either. This was proved in the recent local elections and in by-elections.
The issue of reservations for the backward castes and the issue of Hindutva are providing diminishing returns in UP. As a result, the Samajwadi Party is not in a position to instill the fear in Muslims that if they don't support the SP the BJP will come to power. That gives the Congress space. It is a huge opportunity for the Congress to reach out to the Muslims again. But what do you tell Salman Khurshid, the state Congress chief, who does not visit riot-hit areas in the state, giving the lame excuse that he is under house arrest in the state capital, Lucknow?
If Khurshid is unsure of his own security how can the Muslims look up to him for their security? Can't Congress leaders in Lucknow confront the ruling Samajwadi Party with people's politics?
The problem today lies with the Congress leadership in New Delhi and Lucknow who believe it is not necessary to fight political battle on the streets of India. Many leaders behave as if the 24/7 television news channels were invented to serve only them and when the public is fed up with all the other parties they will return to the Congress fold. Without cadres like what the BJP and Left parties have, and without a one-man show like many regional parties, Congress workers expect that things will improve when the party returns to power in Lucknow.
The Congress has power in Delhi, but Congress ministers are just not accessible to party workers. Sonia Gandhi herself has complained that ministers do not meet even party office-bearers.
And, in the process, the Congress sometimes gives a letter to the governor supporting the Samajwadi Party. Sometimes Congress leaders deny the existence of such support to the Samajwadi Party. In earlier times, Congressmen sometimes demanded the dismissal of the Bahujan Samaj Party government; sometimes they held talks with BSP leader Mayawati. And, ultimately, they blame caste-based politics and communalism for their decline.
Rahul Gandhi is campaigning in south India with an eye on UP. He wants to emulate the Non Governmental Organisation culture of South India in UP, without really knowing UP. His dream may come true, but not in the next 15 years.
The hard fact of the day is that son and mother need to learn more about the political puzzle called UP.