Lucknow: Newly-appointed AICC in-charge of Uttar Pradesh Ghulam Nabi Azad on Thursday said the 2017 Assembly elections in UP will be a fight between "secular and communal forces" and dismissed suggestions that Rahul Gandhi will be made leader of the state.
He also hoped that Priyanka Gandhi will campaign outside party bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli.
"It would be a fight of principles and a direct contest between secular and communal forces," said the former Union Minister.
Azad, who arrived here to a rousing reception by party workers, was talking to reporters after his day-long interactions with senior party leaders and office-bearers.
Regarding Rahul Gandhi, Azad said the Congress vice-president will be elevated "at the decided time" and hence, there was no question of making him the leader of UP.
To a query, Azad, who had yesterday favoured Priyanka campaigning outside Amethi and Rae Bareli, once again hoped that she would take time out for the other parts of the state.
He also said the party will declare the name of its chief ministerial candidate at the "right time" as there was "no dearth of faces" for the post.
"But, the selection will be on the basis of leadership qualities and capabilities and not on caste and communal lines," he said.
His remark came amid speculation that Congress was planning to project 78-year-old, three-time Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as its CM aspirant in UP.
Azad, for whom this is the fourth stint as in-charge of party affairs in UP, said this time around, he saw the state moving towards "communalism".
"Congress has always advocated secularism. It will fight whichever party comes before it to safeguard secularism," he said.
Azad, who has his task cut out, said his top priorities include strengthening the party at the ground level and hoped that Congress will get a new lease of life in the state this time.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Congress had secured only two seats from UP with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi emerging victorious from their family strongholds of Rae Bareli and Amethi respectively.
The party is trying to regain its lost moorings in the state where it currently has only 29 MLAs in the 403-member Assembly.
Charging the BJP with giving "political colour" to the alleged exodus of Hindus from Kairana and Kandhla in Shamli district in western UP, Azad said the Centre has chosen this "wrong path" to divert the attention of the people from its failures.
"The country will have to suffer for this...Congress will not allow polarisation in the name of religion," he stressed.
Noting that communalism has been on the rise in the country in the recent years, Azad said the issue being taken up in Parliament thrice in as many years was indicative of this.
"Central ministers and senior BJP leaders are vitiating the atmosphere and Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintains silence...This proves it is a planned move," said the former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister.
The senior party leader also clarified on UPCC chief Nirmal Khatri's absence from today's meeting with rumours of his resignation doing the rounds.
"Today's meeting was organised by Khatriji who is facing a problem of slip disc. Hence, he could not take part," Azad said, adding that no one has been appointed UPCC chief in Khatri's place.
Congress has been in political wilderness in UP since 1989 following the emergence of 'mandal-mandir' politics and rise of BSP which took away its crucial Dalit vote base.
Mayawati's party had also lured a large chunk of Brahmin votes in the past when candidates of the community were given tickets by her to contest elections.
The Brahmin community plays a significant role in poll outcome in central and eastern UP as it is the dominant caste there. Once a traditional vote bank of the Congress, Brahmins in the state shifted allegiance to BJP in the aftermath of the emergence of 'mandal-mandir' politics.