This Article is From Mar 11, 2010

Priyanka Gandhi on her life and politics

New Delhi: The media has one persistent question for Priyanka Gandhi. Will she join politics? Her answer, so far, has remained a steadfast, No.

But, now for the first time, Priyanka Gandhi, the charismatic campaigner for the Congress in Amethi and Rae Bareili reveals that for many years of her life, she was sure that politics was "absolutely what she wanted to do."

In an extensive interview to NDTV's Barkha Dutt, Priyanka talks about how she really felt about her father's assassination and why she decided not join politics despite knowing that she connects with people better than most politicians. " I know I'm good at it, I'm not a fool" she says, in this candid conversation, where she also describes herself to be more like her father, than her grandmother.

Barkha: Priyanka I know you've been asked the question of whether you will join politics a million times. So I'm not going to ask that question. The question I'm going to ask instead is, we know you've said you don't want to be in politics, but you've never told us why you don't want to be in politics?

Priyanka: 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.

Barkha: You're saying that from experience, from having seen a lot of it?

Priyanka: Yes, from having seen a lot of it. I mean, there was a time when I was a kid, when I was about 16-17 where I thought this is absolutely what I want to do with my life.

Barkha: Really, you were excited by it?

Priyanka: Yes, but I think I wasn't very clear about my own identity.

Barkha: When was that moment that you knew for sure, that you would never be in this profession?

Priyanka: In 1999. Because in that election it was a question in my mind, whether I would want to stand for elections or not. So I did some thinking, and I realised that I didn't.

Barkha: And since you identify it as such a definitive moment, what was that moment for you?

Priyanka: Actually I went for Vipasana meditation. I was so troubled by the fact that I didn't know my mind, so I just disappeared and went for 10 days of meditation, so that I better know what my own mind is, rather than what other people want of me.

Barkha: Did something happen in 1999 that made you take such a definitive decision?

Priyanka: No it's just introspection that happened.

Barkha: OK, now the assumption from afar is that Priyanka Gandhi does not want to be in politics because right now she is devoting all her time to her family, to her kids. So then the next question becomes, when the children grow up -- maybe then -- will her decision change?

Priyanka: This question for me has existed since I was 14 years old. When I first came to campaign here, even, these things were said about me -- that I would be suited to politics, and that I looked like my grandmother and I am like my grandmother. And I have to say that I think, because you are asking me, what really was the definitive thing;  I think it was a growing up thing, rather than an epiphany.

Barkha: It wasn't a specific event?

Priyanka: I grew into myself. Earlier my own identity was a bit confused, because I did idealise my grandmother, I grew up in a household where she was the head and she was an extremely powerful woman. Not only politically powerful, but she was a powerful human being to be around. So being a little girl and seeing this woman who was strong and stood for so much, it did have an effect on me. So I think my own identity was confused until a certain point and when I discovered that- 'Hey, Priyanka is actually this'- then I realised that this is not for me.

Barkha: As simple as that?

Priyanka:  It wasn't simple, I can tell you.

Barkha: It was a deep conflict at one point?

Priyanka: Of course.

Barkha: I liked what you have often said that life is too complex to ever use a word like never and the media took that to mean -- maybe tomorrow, maybe when the kids grow up. But you seem to suggest that in a moment of internal resolution you've settled this question once and for all, is that correct?

Priyanka: I think so, yes. And when I said -- one should never say never in life -- I really meant in life, I didn't mean in politics. I meant in life, because as you grow up, you realise that there are a lot of things that you're very rigid about when you're younger -- you think, this will never happen to me, I will never do this and I could never be like that. And as you grow up, you become a mother and everyday you're faced with something new and you have to respond to that thing. And  you realise that your responses change as you grow up, so you can't just be absolutely rigid black and white and say 'yes' and 'no' to things. That's what I meant.

Barkha: But, what is the definition of being or not being in politics? Because you may never contest an election, but from what I understand, you are in politics, you're a political person. For example, it's quite well known that when the family takes decisions, you're part of those decisions and sometimes they are political decisions. So, would you at least say that you're in politics to that extent that politics is in your blood, it's in your DNA, its part of your life?

Priyanka: Yes, to that extent, absolutely. I belong to a family where most members of the family are in politics, they have been, I've grown up in that atmosphere. I mean I've grown up in an atmosphere where at the dining table you discussed big political issues. Right from when you were a kid. So obviously to that extent I am. And whenever my help is required by mother, by my brother, for small things generally, not big things, like I wrote all my mother's speeches in her first campaign.

Barkha: And now?

Priyanka: No, no, now I don't.

Barkha: Never?

Priyanka: Very rarely. If I'm passing by and I see something's being written then my advice is asked for, but otherwise very rarely.

Barkha: But do you prep her sometimes for a press conference or an interview or something?

Priyanka: No.

Barkha: She's also much more comfortable in a sense?

Priyanka: Absolutely, completely comfortable, doesn't require any tutoring, prepping, nothing. And she's comfortable being herself, now. Because she was very shy, so that was hard in beginning.

Barkha: You say that, and I was going to ask you that, that in a sense you're always described as the more gregarious person. As a person who'll sit down here under a tree with me and talk freely. Whereas both your mother and Rahul are seen as much more reticent, more withdrawn, more shy. Would that be correct?

Priyanka: My mother is shy. Rahul is ... I'm much more a recluse than Rahul is.

Barkha: Really?

Priyanka: Yes.

Barkha: It doesn't come across that way at all...

Priyanka: Personally I'm a complete recluse. I'm OK in this situation and I sort of think that I'm doing a job here, I'm doing my duty here and this is part of the job that I'm doing. So I look at it that way. But it's not an extroversion.

Barkha: So actually you're more fiercely private while able to...

Priyanka: I'm a recluse.

Barkha: A recluse?

Priyanka: Yes, I'm almost a recluse.

Barkha: You don't like people?

Priyanka:  No it's not that I don't like people, I like people, but I spend most of my time on my own.

Barkha: So this perception that Priyanka is a gregarious person and Rahul is a shy person is a media construct?

Priyanka: No, I think perhaps the difference between me, Rahul and my mother is that I'm very much more open about my personal stuff in that sense. I can sit and you know somebody will ask me something very personal and I'll just say it, which Rahul and my mother are more reserved about.

Barkha: But you were talking about watching your mother change and evolve, you used that word. How have you seen the change in her over the years?

Priyanka: Well, in the beginning as I said, first of all, she wanted to have nothing to do with politics. And people ask why did she enter politics and all, and it was in one simple sentence she said that - I can't look at these photos in this room if I don't do this, which were the photographs of my father, my grandmother. Because she felt that this was her duty and that is what she really felt. So she really did it out of a sense of duty and she went completely against her grain to do this duty. She was shy, it was hard for her, public speaking was very difficult for her and both of us had to really be there for moral support, for everything. And now she's completely on her own. She's comfortable... so that's the evolution.

Barkha: And do you feel proud of that?

Priyanka: I'm extremely proud of my mother, I can't tell you how much. If there's one woman I admire in the world, it's my mother. Because I've seen what it's taken for her to do it. And when I say I wouldn't do it out of a sense of duty, it's that I wouldn't have that courage to go completely against my grain because I felt it was my duty to some ideal or to my family.

Barkha: Even though you've seen your own mother do it?

Priyanka: Absolutely. Because deep down somewhere, as a woman, as a mother, deep down somewhere, I feel that she has gone against her grain in a sense. I mean, of course, the fact that duty was such a powerful pull, also means that is part of her, that is also who she is, that duty is a powerful pull for her. So that is very much who she is, but deep down I see my mother as retiring in a forest cottage in the hills, reading, gardening, she loves that stuff. So as a daughter sometime I feel, why not? Why couldn't she allow herself that?

Barkha: You think that will happen one day?

Priyanka: I hope so. I'm building a little cottage in Shimla, hopefully she'll use it.

Barkha: And hopefully you'll use it too. But Priyanka, you said that you won't have that courage, but she made that choice in very very extenuating circumstances, God forbid those extenuating circumstances are in front of you, you're really too philosophical to know what you would do and what you wouldn't do....

Priyanka: I don't know what I would do if I were faced with particular circumstances, but I think it would be very hard for me to be convinced that, for example, the party needed me, or something like that. I would rather do something like that out of my internal feeling, something that moves within me.

Barkha: One of the things you've said in interviews is that it's a mistake to say that you're like your grandmother, you're actually much more like your dad...

Priyanka: It's true...

Barkha: Although everybody sort of prototypes you as -- she has the walk of her grandmother, she drapes her sari in that way, but you don't think you're like that?

Priyanka: I have a huge problem saying no, I couldn't say no to you, I couldn't say no to a thousand others, I have a problem saying no, my grandmother would say it like this (snaps her fingers).

Barkha: But beyond that, that's just one difference, although it's a fundamental difference, I take that point. But you see yourself more like your father?

Priyanka: Definitely, I see myself more like my father..

Barkha: In what way?

Priyanka: Well, my grandmother was a different personality. She was... I think my father was gentler... not to say that my grandmother wasn't gentle in her own way. But my father was gentler, and I really think that I'm gentler than she was.

Barkha: So whose taken after your grandmother in the family?

Priyanka: My brother.

Barkha: Less gentle, tougher?

Priyanka: My brother was absolutely, let me tell you, her favourite and the idealizing granddaughter would be kind of marginalized for the favourite grandson.

Barkha: Did that feel bad at that time?

Priyanka: (smiling) Little bit...

Barkha: Little bit, yes...

Priyanka: But she had this bond with him. And she taught him and she spent a lot of time with him, talking to him. Even the morning that she passed away. And I think that Rahul has imbibed a lot of that and his thinking is in many ways is a lot like my father, because he is a visionary like that. He's an institution builder like my father was, but it's a good mix. Because his understanding of politics is really very good. Much better than he is given credit for. And that I think comes from my grandmother.

Barkha: And you think he's also tougher?

Priyanka: He's definitely tougher...

Barkha: And more able to maybe take an unemotional decision?

Priyanka: He will not suffer fools. He's tougher. Definitely.

Barkha: I want to share a little story with you, which reminded me of you. We were doing this television programme on Qasab, the terrorist who has been caught in Mumbai, and one of the relatives who had lost his wife, Shantanu Saikia, in that horrible moment, was telling me how his son, who's only 12, wanted to go and meet this man. And he said you know, we've decided as a family that we're not going to carry anger any more. We've decided that we want to not follow this trial. We want to maybe even forgive this man and I have a child who wants to meet this man. And immediately, though in a very different context, it reminded me of you and your visit to Nalini in jail and I actually said that to Shantanu, and I said that Priyanka was so much older and so many years had passed. I wanted to ask you, how many years did you live with thinking that maybe you wanted to meet her -- feeling before it actually happened?

Priyanka: Not very long actually. Maybe, a year and a half or so. In the beginning when my father was killed, I didn't realise it, but I was furious. I was absolutely furious inside. I was furious not with particular individuals who killed him, but I was furious with the whole world.

Barkha: When did you learn to recognise that rage?

Priyanka: It was a very slow process. It was realising that you're angry. I think the whole thing about this whole business of forgiveness is really, at some level, we all consider ourselves victims. Maybe it can be a case of someone being nasty to us, or someone would have done something like kill someone we love, which is a bigger thing and then we consider ourselves victims. But the minute you realise that you're not a victim and that the other person is as much victim of that same circumstance as you, then you can't put yourself in a position where you are anyone to forgive someone else. Because your victimhood has disappeared. And to me, people ask about non-violence, I think true non-violence is the absence of victimhood. The sense that somebody else is doing harm to you. Whatever is happening to you is happening because of your own circumstances, you are creating a lot of that suffering. And anybody else who does something overtly, like kill somebody you love, or hurts you, beats you, that is also an action that is happening because of their suffering.

Barkha: Did that meeting (with Nalini) help purge the anger? Or was the anger already gone before?

Priyanka: No I was already not angry. The anger, I think, didn't last that long. Because when you're younger, you feel angry and you don't understand things. But as you grow up, the anger passes and of course there's been a lot of time, its been 17 years.  That meeting, for me -- the big learning that came from that meeting was exactly this, that I was still, though I was not angry any more, I did not hate her, and I wanted to meet her, I was still thinking that I was somebody who could forgive her for something she had done. And then I met her and I realised -- what am I talking about?

Barkha: Because there are no victims?

Priyanka: I mean, here is a woman who's gone through as much if not more than me. And whatever she's done...

Barkha: You honestly feel that?

Priyanka: Of course, honestly, of course.

Barkha: Your mother, even before this happened, commuted her death sentence to life because otherwise her child would have been an orphan. Where does that spirit come from?

Priyanka: Because you've been through it. You've been through it.  Something has happened to you that has made you feel awful. Something has happened that has crushed you inside. So how can you want that to happen to someone else? An innocent child, what has that child got to do with anything?

Barkha: When you hear the whole politicised debate around the LTTE that's taking place in these elections. I know that previously you said that you didn't really want to get into it, but as a concept -- when you see the very strong Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu, coming from all parties, including DMK. Does that make you feel uncomfortable, does it make you just withdraw or are you able to take those opinions also head on?

Priyanka: I think for me there's a clear separation. First of all, I completely admire the Tamil people. I really do. They're intelligent, they are great workers. That's one people that I really admire. So I understand that feeling, I understand the Tamil nationalism, I understand their cause. I don't agree with their method, because fundamentally as a human being I don't agree with the method. I don't agree with killing people for anything. But I make a very clear separation between the political and the personal. I completely understand that as a nation you cannot condone the killing of an Ex-Prime Minister. But I also understand a nation cannot react as Priyanka, daughter of Rajiv reacts. That is my own personal reaction.

Barkha: You're able to separate that?

Priyanka: Absolutely. It's a complete separation in my mind.

Barkha: But when you hear a political ally maybe being soft on Prabhakaran, along with many other parties in Tamil Nadu, he's not the only one, you're able to make that separation of political and personal?

Priyanka: Absolutely, and when its political, it's very clear, it's very clear that he's making a political choice, so why should I bear that as a grudge against him.

Barkha: And you wouldn't bring the personal loss of your father to that political equation?

Priyanka: Not at all.

Barkha: So you're not disturbed when you hear these kind of comments?

Priyanka: Not at all.

Barkha: That's pretty amazing. I did want to ask you, you spoke about how your mother was a reluctant participant in politics and I remember I had just done this one brief interview with her, where she had spoken about something that she said quite often, how she never wanted her husband, your father to get into politics and she was always scared that something would happen to him. Now, you've seen what happened with your grandmother, you've seen what happened with your father. Do you feel scared for your brother, do you feel scared for your mother, do you feel scared for yourself?

Priyanka: No, I don't. I don't feel scared for them at all. But  I did have this one moment of terror in 2004 when I peeped into her office and I saw this bunch of, you know, Lalu ji and everybody surrounding her and saying that you have to be Prime Minister, I had this one moment of complete terror. And I burst out crying.

Barkha: You did?

Priyanka: Yes, and I didn't realise that I was afraid. And I burst out crying. I ran to my brother, I was like -- she's going to die -- and, I realized -- hey, you know, you think you're not scared, but you are scared of losing someone else you love. So I won't be very macho and say that it's never crossed my mind, but I think that since then, I mean on a day-to-day basis, no. I realise that this is part of her duty. Like now I know there are threats on her, there are threats on Rahul, but I would never say to them -- don't go out, be in the car, don't do this, don't do that. I wouldn't, because I know that they're doing their job, it's part of their duty and if they lose their life doing so, then, we must accept it.

Barkha: Do people misunderstand how clear she always was, your mother, that she did not want to be Prime Minister?

Priyanka: I think so, yes. She was clear way before the election. Rahul and I would have these discussions with her where we would say -- why don't you just say so now?. But she didn't and because it came about after the elections, I think the idea went around that perhaps her decision was  because of external pressures, rather than her own clarity. But she was very clear from before.

Barkha: And you and Rahul never wanted her to be PM?

Priyanka: No, we didn't.

Barkha: But, there is a sort of acceptance that one day, if politics goes a certain way, Rahul will be Prime Minister, or could be, I won't say will be.

Priyanka: It's quite possible, yes.

Barkha: It's quite possible. Is the family comfortable with that? In terms of the background of reluctant participation?

Priyanka: I think so, yes. Provided that he works hard towards it, provided that he goes through the grind and provided that he deserves it.

Barkha: Is there anything you'd like to see different him as a politician, not as a brother, since you said you can separate the two...

Priyanka: No, I think one thing that I admire about my brother that he has this ability to be focused on what he wants to do. So people will say, you know- You should be a Minister, you should be part of government, you should learn how it works- they'll give all the best reasons for it. But he will say -- no, I'm in charge of the Youth Congress, I think that democracy is important, I think it's the most important thing right now for political parties in India and I'm going to focus on that -- and he does it. And he does it regardless of what anybody thinks of him. I mean, remember the UP election, where he was berated and in the press and everything was piled onto him. But he just went ahead with what he thought was right and, the other thing that I think is great about him as a politician is he's very good with... he doesn't have this thing that he absolutely has to succeed every time and he's very good with things in which perhaps maybe in the short term he wont succeed but he can see that there is a long term success. He will work through that short term failure.

Barkha: Like the decision for the Congress to go it alone in many states right now?

Priyanka: Yes, and I think that's so important for a politician, to be able to sacrifice the now, for the future.

Barkha: What about the charges of dynastic inheritance?

Priyanka: I don't buy that. Because, you know, I would buy it if there weren't elections every 5 years where we were elected by people. People ask me here, in Amethi, how come you're getting elected every time? It's certainly not just because he's a Gandhi. It is because that name and that family stands for something that has been done here, people have seen work. People have seen commitment, people have seen honesty and therefore they support. So I don't buy that.

Barkha: It's been an unpleasant campaign in some ways. Your cousin, Varun, is filing his nominations this week, did that make you upset, that whole controversy beyond the political because it was a member of the family? In sense, I mean in a broader sense, although maybe you all don't really talk anymore...

Priyanka: No, I haven't actually met him since, I think since the day he turned 18.

Barkha: That's a long time...

Priyanka: And before that on my wedding. So it's just sporadic in all these years. But I don't want to make too many comments about Varun, he's after all a cousin and I've said what I had to say. On principle I think it was wrong. And that did upset, me, my brother, all of us, in the way that you think that every member of this family stands for something, not just because it's a title, or it's a thing.. its something that we really believe. It is something we've justified many things with. Like the death of our own father, as children, we justified that this was for our country because he believed in something. Maybe it was a childish thing, so we've lived by these things. Therefore to see a member of our family who somehow is not being able to abide by those same principles is painful.

Barkha: Now you personally- when you hear yourself described as a natural at politics- does that feel good? Have you made your peace with the kind of public gaze there is on you, your children who were here, Robert, have you made your peace with that?

Priyanka: Yes, I think I've made my peace with it. And I think when you talked about my conflict, one of the big things of my conflict because I knew that it came naturally to me. So the confusion was, is this really who I am? Or who am I?

Barkha: So you knew you were good at it, basically?

Priyanka: I know, I'm not a fool. I know I'm comfortable with people; its not an effort for me to talk in front of people or to say what I think or to connect to them, its not an effort at all. But does that mean I want to be in politics? No.

Barkha: And yet your kids were here as part of the whole campaign?

Priyanka: Because I think its very important for my kids know this world as well and I think sometimes its misunderstood, it seems like I'm trying to thrust them into something, but it's not that at all. As children, they must be used to the fact that their family is involved in this thing. They'll see crowds. I don't want them to suddenly grow up, when they're 14-15 be intimidated or to suddenly think that they are great shakes because people are running around them. I want them to be used to it, so unless I do it at this age, bring them into this situation where people are all around us, and it's a normal thing, rather than it being something that they suddenly hits them at 15 and they think that they are the cats whiskers because they have a few people calling them great and wonderful.

Barkha: I can't let you go without asking you, how is your Hindi so proficient? I have so many friends who ask me that all the time?

Priyanka: To be very honest with you, full credit for my Hindi goes to Mrs. Teji Bacchan.

Barkha: Really?

Priyanka: Yes. Because when I was a kid I spent a lot of time with her. And she started giving me Bacchan ji's poetry to read, which I loved. So I read all his books, then she gave me other books to read- 'Godaan' by Premchand and all. So she really got me interested in Hindi literature. Its because that I read so much, that my hindi is good.

Barkha: And can you read Hindi today, can you read it comfortably like you did then?

Priyanka: Yes, yes of course. I still do.

Barkha: Thanks so much for your time. And all the best.