Like Modi's takeover in 2014, will the entry of Priyanka Gandhi be a major turning point in Indian political history? While that's hard to predict, I do believe it's going to be a huge turning point in this year's parliamentary election. So far, she was serving a guest role; now, she will be a principal actor for the Congress, turning its narrative into a multi-starrer along with her brother, Rahul, who is the Congress President. For now, she has been given charge of Eastern UP. She has also been made General Secretary of the party just like her brother and father Rajiv Gandhi were when they entered politics. But it will be a mistake to assume that she will confine herself to a limited sphere. She is going to have a huge influence and there will be a a demand for her to campaign pan-India.
When Rajiv Gandhi died, I was a cub reporter and was waiting, along with other far more experienced journalists, to see if another member of the Nehru-Gandhi family would take over the reins of the party. Sonia was offered the post of the Congress president which she declined. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, Arjun Singh was waiting for his chance to unseat him and his wild card was the Nehru-Gandhi family. In a candid conversation, he told me that Priyanka would be the one who would carry the mantle of the family. He was of the opinion that Rahul was too gentle but Priyanka had the knack for politics with many traits of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. I was stunned to hear this from a seasoned and wily politician. But Arjun Singh was close to the Nehru-Gandhi family and it was difficult to ignore his views. That was also the time when it was not certain if Sonia would ever venture into politics or would allow her kids to follow the path of their father and grandmother.
In the 2014 elections, I could see some truth to what Arjun Singh had told me so many years ago. In a public statement, when Modi dismissively said the Congress is a 124-year-old party and Priyanka was asked to respond, she asked the media "Does she look old?" When Modi patronisingly said that she was like his daughter, Priyanka was furious. She said "Nobody should try to be my father. I love my father". These two incidents made her strength and reflexes clear along with the aggression that was typical of Indira Gandhi. But excelling in a guest role and carrying the film are two different things. Priyanka now is in the game and like her brother, she has to prove herself. The Congress is not the same party it used to be, but is in better shape than in 2014. Priyanka Gandhi has entered politics at a time when the Congress is recovering from the shocks of its earlier existential crisis. It has just won three state assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Rahul is no longer called "Pappu" and Modi is on the defensive and his popularity is down.
Priyanka will be an asset for the Congress in general and Rahul in particular for four reasons:
1. There is no denying Priyanka's solid charisma. She has long galvanized Congress workers and draws crowds who are curious about her. Her presence will should draw votes for the Congress, perhaps converting those who are not enthused by Rahul.
2. Priyanka, known as a trusted ally of Rahul and his greatest counsel, will be trusted with delivering him honest feedback and advise which others may not be bold enough to.
3. Sonia is not too well and does not travel as much as she used to earlier. Now, Rahul and Priyanka can divide campaigning responsibilities and appearances. Rahul won't have to worry about the areas he can't visit due to a paucity of time. Those areas and constituencies can be taken care of by Priyanka. India is still mostly a rural society. Indira Gandhi was hugely popular among rural folks where she is still remembered with fondness as "Indira Amma"; she had special appeal among women. There are already posters in UP and other areas depicting Priyanka as Indira.
4. Priyanka has very smartly been given the charge of Eastern UP, where the upper castes played a very important role in the rise of BJP in 2014. It is not to be forgotten that these sections had been a great supporter of the Congress before Mandal and Ayodhya politics took centrestage. This upper caste was looking for a political platform and in 2014, it found the BJP. According to a CSDS in survey in 2014, 72% Brahmins, 77% Rajput, 71% Vaisya and 79% other upper castes voted for the BJP, partly because of Modi. But a section of upper castes are angry with the BJP due to its stand on the SC/ST Act, when the centre intervened to circumvent some of the changes ordered by the Supreme Court. The bulk of upper castes might not vote for the BSP and SP alliance but if they have an option, they can go for the Congress. This should be a cause for concern for the BJP - that the Congress could now take back some of the upper caste vote.
Those who argue that Priyanka could emerge as a power centre in the Congress and cause problems for Rahul are missing the close relationship of the siblings. And the immediate gain is more import than what happens in the future. So Priyanka's entry into politics is for now very good news for the Congress.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)
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