The next general elections are a litmus test for both Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
By Rasheed Kidwai
Can Priyanka Gandhi bring back “good old days” for the struggling Congress Party? The jury is sharply divided. Congress leaders and those sympathetic towards the grand old party feel Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has charisma, resemblance with Indira Gandhi and enough “verbal ammunition” to challenge Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Opponents and sceptics feel that Priyanka’s formal entry into politics is a case of too little too late. They are also convinced that in this age, connect with Indira Gandhi or spontaneity is just not enough to overcome barriers of caste, sub-caste, proven administrative skill, political acumen. First time voters, for instance, are unlikely to be swayed by someone who has not held any responsible post and office in public or in her professional career.
The allegations of corruption against her husband Robert Vadra is posing an additional problem for Priyanka Gandhi. She may use her lung power to dub these charges as “politically motivated,” but given the middle class’ apathy towards “tainted politicians,” her task of winning of educated classes, youth and women are indeed insurmountable.
Another obvious problem is that Priyanka Gandhi has too much in her platter. Other than taking a stand on the tricky issue of corruption vis-a vis Robert Vadra, the new AICC general secretary is expected to be constantly on a fire fighting mission. She is expected to be a social media warrior, pro-active on Twitter and use 24X7 television news to her advantage to take on the combined might of the highly skilled and resourceful BJP. There is no dearth of Congress leaders who want her to be a “star campaigner” outside eastern Uttar Pradesh — in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Gujarat, Punjab and rest of the country.
As if these seemingly insurmountable tasks are not enough, Priyanka Gandhi’s job needs to be a bit understated, so that it does not overshadow the office of the Congress president, her brother Rahul Gandhi. This is one area where spin doctors, professionals and party leaders have little scope to advise or strategise. The relation of brother and sister is such that there is little avenue for any third person (except perhaps for mother Sonia Gandhi) to intervene or guide.
A cursory look at Priyanka Gandhi’s life explains why she is considered as a harbinger of hope and promise at least within the Congress circles. In 1999, she alone had demolished her uncle, Arun Nehru, a BJP nominee who was pitted against the Nehru-Gandhi family retainer Capt. Satish Sharma. Addressing a public rally then, she had delivered a brutal putdown in Hindi: “Mujhe aap se ek shikayat hai. Mere pita ke mantri mandal mein rehte hue jisne gaddari ki, bhai ki peeth mein chhura mara, jawab dijiye, aise aadmi ko aapne yahan ghusne kaise diya? Unki yahan aane ki himmat kaise hui (I have a complaint. A man who was a traitor in my father’s cabinet, who stabbed him in the back, answer me, how did you let this man in here? How did he have the guts to come here)?” she asked voters.
As the stunned audience listened, Priyanka Gandhi went on: “Yahan aane se pehle maine apni maa se baat ki thi. Maa ne kaha kisi ki burai mat karna. Magar main jawan hoon, dil ki baat aap se na kahun to kisse kahun. (I spoke to my mother before coming here. She told me not to speak badly of anyone. But I am young, and if I can not say what is in my heart to you, then to whom else can I speak?)”
Priyanka Gandhi’s remarks were so fierce that even an ace orator like Atal Bihari Vajpayee failed to blunt it. Vajpayee, who was then the prime minister, visited Rae Bareli a day after Priyanka Gandhi’s speech. In his typical style, he took a dig at Priyanka Gandhi, saying he was ‘scared’ to visit Rae Bareli as it was someone else’s ‘ilaqa’ (area). But it was too late. Nehru’s fate had already been sealed and he was defeated. It was more important for Congress supporters then that Priyanka was one member of the family who could speak this way.
In another instance, she had spoken in Tamil Nadu: “Ellorum Congressikku vote podungal (All of you vote for the Congress).’ That was the only sentence Priyanka Gandhi uttered, but it had drawn the crowd wild. Sriperumbudur was supposed to mark Sonia Gandhi’s political debut. But on 11 January 1998, Priyanka Gandhi completely overshadowed her. Priyanka Gandhi’s red and orange sari was brighter than her mother’s green and maroon — and so also was her smile. In sharp contrast to a nervous and hesitant Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi was confident, effusive and comfortable with the crowd. Congress circles across the country were elated. They had two crowd pullers instead of one. While Priyanka Gandhi’s appeal appeared wider, Congressmen were careful not to play up this point. The wiser among them were quick to declare: “Congress will not have leadership problems for the next fifty years. Sonia will lead the party for at least 20 years and then we will have Priyanka.” Twenty years later, these words proved somewhat prophetic. Sonia Gandhi got the Congress two back to back victories in 2004 and 2009 and now it is over to Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to usher in “good old days.”
These flashes of “spark” was witnessed in 1998-1999, over 20 years ago. A legitimate question arises now — whether she can repeated her charm outside Amethi-Rai Bareilly region of Uttar Pradesh. In 2012 and 2017 State assembly polls, however, Priyanka Gandhi’s focus in Uttar Pradesh assembly seats of Amethi and Rai Bareilly did not produce any spectacular results.
In India’s 72 years of post independence history, Gandhis have led the Congress for 59 years. Congressmen of all hue and shades look up to Gandhi family members as unquestionable leaders and in return, expect electoral success, power etc. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, no Gandhi membership has failed or abruptly opted out of politics. As a result, Congress leaders blindly follow them and do not wish to look beyond Gandhis. Gandhis like Rahul and now Priyanka, have to live with this illusion of grandeur and prove Congressmen’s political instincts right.
The next general elections are therefore a litmus test for both Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
Like Indira Gandhi of 1950s, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi has been extremely reluctant entrant in politics. Priyanka Gandhi had in fact told interviewer Barkha Dutt on 24 April: “Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve figured out why myself, but I’m very clear I don’t want to be in politics. I’m very happy living my life the way I am. I think there are certain aspects of politics which I’m just not suited to.”
From that day onwards, Congressmen were not sure if Priyanka Gandhi will stick to her remarks. In the last week of January this year, they have smug smile when Priyanka Gandhi’s name figuring as AICC general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh was made public. Coming at a time when Lok Sabha polls are barely three months away, the announcement is a psychological tool to shock both the ruling BJP-NDA and third-front protagonists who were scripting their success story counting on the Congress support.
So what is next in the store for Priyanka?
Ten years of the UPA rule (2004-14) did not enhance Rahul Gandhi’s political stature. Rather, it made a somewhat promising politician appear as confused, reluctant and often non-serious character. In this sense, Rahul Gandhi’s subsequent task was to restore aura of a credible, 24X7 politician, earn respect from his fellow partymen and demonstrate his capability to defeat the BJP. December 11, 2018 provided him that opportunity when the Congress, on its own strength, humbled the BJP in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Priyanka Gandhi’s task for 2019 is to queer the pitch for PM Modi, who represents Varanasi in the Lok Sabha as well as UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who hails from Gorakhpur. If the big two can be pinned down in eastern UP, the BJP will be deprived of the two key campaigners in the rest of the country during the crucial last lap of campaigning. A good showing for the Congress in UP would be bad news for the BJP which is hoping to make maximum gains in the country’s most populous and politically significant State.