Priyanka's Reaction to 'Daughter' Controversy

Published: May 02, 2014 13:09 IST
(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

It is one of the ironies of politics that an incident that didn't happen can still have broader consequences. The reference is to Narendra Modi's alleged remark that Priyanka Vadra was "like my daughter". It turns out Modi never said that. He only commented on how Priyanka was "a daughter" who would naturally be expected to rush to her mother's defence. (A daughter would defend her mother, I have no problem in that: Narendra Modi on Priyanka Gandhi)

Nevertheless would heavens have fallen if Modi had indeed said Priyanka was like his daughter? Such lines and perfunctory courtesies are par for the course in public life. Despite the misreporting of the initial remark,  the issue would not have become controversial had Priyanka and the Congress not reacted in the manner they did. It is this reaction that is worthy of comment. (Am Rajiv's Daughter, says Priyanka Gandhi Amid Controversy Over Narendra Modi's Reported Remarks)

Accosted by television journalists in Amethi, Priyanka was not just uncomfortable but visibly angry. She cringed her nose, pulled a face and made apparent her hostility and disgust. For her - and presumably for her family - Modi is not just another political opponent; he is an object of visceral loathing. Priyanka responded she was the daughter of Rajiv Gandhi, who "died for this country more than 20 years ago" and whom she "loved more than anyone in the world". As such, she couldn't be bothered with Modi.

Three things need to be noted here, especially if Priyanka is to be seen as a political figure or someone at the cusp of politics. First, she has strong emotions and wears these emotions, moods and feelings on her sleeve. She is remarkably thin-skinned. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with this. In politics, when you have to deal with a whole range of stakeholders and interlocutors - even if you run a single-party government - such emotionalism and tendency to be provoked easily will be interpreted as a vulnerability to exploit. Politicians look out for these things.

Second, Priyanka's default reference points always appear to relate to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Even if Modi had used that "like my daughter" phrase - and to be fair Priyanka believed he had, at least at the time journalists asked her - she could have laughed it off, said "But he's not like my father" and just moved on. Instead, she used obviously deeply-felt words about Rajiv Gandhi and his sacrifice.

As a daughter's tribute to her father, a father she loved and cherished and clearly still misses, this is completely understandable and deserving of sympathy. However, as in the case of Rahul Gandhi, has Priyanka lost the ability to tell a personal relationship from the long view of history? The frequent recalling of the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi by both Rahul and Priyanka are not lines used to impress voters. They represent a family mythology that the two have genuinely internalised.

While the events of October 31, 1984, and of May 21, 1991, were truly horrific, they occurred in a context. Both the Punjab and Sri Lanka problems were created by Congress governments of the 1980s, and by Indira Gandhi's sense of siege. It is to be expected that grandchildren would prefer to see their grandmother and children would prefer to see their father with an uncritical eye - as hapless victims in a black-and-white drama where they (the grandmother and father) were always on the side of virtue. However, what if your entire political assessment, and sense of calling, hinges on such a simplistic and simple-minded calculus? (Priyanka centre-stage, but benefits for Congress may be too late)

This is something Rahul and increasingly Priyanka seem to betray. Can they be rational and clinical in any political analysis that takes place in a framework that includes the family?

Finally, coming to 2014 itself, Priyanka's interventions in Amethi and Rae Bareli, and that she has become a magnet for the media and taken up so much of television time has - probably inadvertently - eclipsed her brother. From a man who was the face and mascot of the Congress campaign, Rahul, to use a cricket expression, has retired hurt. (In Rahul Gandhi's Constituency, They Say Priyanka is Better)

In the Congress fraternity, doubts and questions about Rahul have got accentuated. To many in the party, Priyanka's ascension to the leadership is now inevitable. Whatever the post-election future may hold, how will this confusion and brand conflict serve the Congress with two phases of polling still to go?

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