Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's entrance into politics from Uttar Pradesh has turned the straight contest in the state between the BJP and the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav alliance into a three-cornered one. The question everyone is asking now is whether the entry of an invigorated Congress would play into the BJP's hand.
Snubbed by the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav combine -- which left the Congress out of the alliance in the state -- Rahul Gandhi had announced that the party will contest all 80 Lok Sabha seats. Days later, he appointed his sister the in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh and longtime aide Jyotiraditya Scindia in-charge of the west. The party, he said, will not "play on backfoot".
Mr Gandhi unscored the Congress foray was not a mark of enmity towards the two state biggies and signaled his openness for talks even now. But there were questions whether the Congress would eat into the SP-BSP votebank, which would help the BJP -- which won 71 seats in 2014 -- retain its grip.
Party sources in both Congress and the alliance were skeptical, pointing to a tacit understanding between the parties.
Alliance sources were emphatic that the Congress would not be able to break into the voter base of Mayawati -- which mostly comprises Dalits - or the Other Backward Classes and Muslim combination that supports Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party. "The terrain is difficult for the Congress," was how Samajwadi Party's Juhi Singh put it.
A Congress leader said it was more likely that the party would make inroads into the upper caste voter base of the BJP, which supported the Congress and later shifted towards the BJP. Sources said the party will field strong candidates in crucial seats that would capture the Brahmin-Thakur voter base.
The BJP's Siddharth Nath Singh brushed away the possibility. "Brahmin votes- I doubt that is the case. The upper castes are the intellectual class and they have seen PM Modi take decisive decisions. Also, the upper castes got 10 per cent quota, which they wanted," he said, pointing to the new quota law that would give reservation in jobs and education to economically weaker sections from the general category.
Juhi Singh, who is also the Samajwadi Party spokesperson, made it clear that within the mahagathbandhan, the Congress would be held responsible for any negative outcome. "It is an internal matter of the Congress how they want to fight the election but our only advice to them is that if you take responsibility, you have to be accountable too," she said.
In 2009, the Congress had won 21 seats in the state. The figure shrunk to just two- Sonia Gandhi's Raebareli and Rahul Gandhi's Amethi - in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the party's statewide voteshare dropped to an all-time low of 7.5 per cent.
In the 2017 assembly elections, the Congress, which fought in alliance with Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, won four of the 10 assembly seats under Amethi and Raebareli Lok Sabha constituencies. Akhilesh Yadav had indicated that the alliance with the Congress had hurt his chances.
This time, Mayawati, which announcing the tie-up with Akhilesh Yadav, explained the reason for dropping Congress was that the party lacked the ability even to transfer votes. Rahul Gandhi had hit back, saying the Congress had much to offer the people of Uttar Pradesh.