Opinion | "She'll Shine": Will Indira Gandhi's Words About Priyanka Hold True?

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Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has finally relented. She has been named as the Congress candidate for the by-poll in Kerala's Wayanad. Ever since Rahul Gandhi entered politics in 2004, there has been internal clamour within the Congress for her induction as well.

The late Jagdish Piyush, a longstanding Congress worker from Amethi since Sanjay Gandhi's days in 1977, coined a slogan in 1999: Amethi ki danka, bitiya Priyanka (Amethi's clarion, daughter Priyanka). That was when Priyanka first campaigned for Sonia Gandhi in neighbouring Raebareli. The slogan adorned the walls of the region, earning Piyush the moniker of the 'Bard of Amethi'.

As recently as late April this year, Priyanka's husband, Robert Vadra, publicly supported her candidacy when decisions on Congress candidates for Amethi and Raebareli were pending. He even offered himself as a candidate if she hesitated to step forward.

A Strong Start

When Rahul Gandhi entered politics two decades ago, Priyanka had stated that her priority was raising her children, who were then very young. Her son, Rehan, is now 23, and her daughter, Miraya, is a year younger. Priyanka has been actively involved in campaigning for her mother and brother in the past elections, making frequent trips to oversee work in Sonia Gandhi's constituency.

Since formally joining politics in January 2019 as general secretary of the Congress, Priyanka initially served as the campaign head for the party in Uttar Pradesh, though without significant success. Her notable two-day Ganga yatra from Prayagraj to Varanasi in March 2019, on a boat, garnered attention but not votes.

Her role as Uttar Pradesh in-charge, however, facilitated strong relationships with local politicians. Unlike Rahul, who thinks in English and translates while speaking in Hindi, Priyanka, who spent many hours in childhood at the home of acclaimed Hindi scholar Harivansh Rai Bachchan, is fluent in colloquial Hindi. This ability proved vital in forming the Congress-Samajwadi Party (SP) alliance in Uttar Pradesh in 2024, which posed a formidable challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

During state elections in Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh, Priyanka emerged as a key campaigner for her party. Her influence was particularly noted in the success of the Himachal Pradesh campaign, attributed in part to her efforts alongside trusted aide Rajiv Shukla, a Congress secretary and cricket administrator.

In the 2024 Lok Sabha campaign, Priyanka came across as someone who would come up with swift and sharp rebuttals against the BJP's allegations, often invoking the sacrifices of her grandmother and father.

"People Will See Me In Her"

Makhan Lal Fotedar, a trusted aide of Indira Gandhi who oversaw elections in Raebareli from 1977 and served as her political secretary from 1980 to 1984, recounted a conversation he had with her in Srinagar on September 28, 1984, just days before her tragic assassination on October 31, 1984. Fotedar chronicled this conversation in his memoir, The Chinar Leaves, published in 2015. Indira Gandhi had visited Kashmir with her grandchildren on September 27, returning to Delhi two days later before embarking on her final campaign tour to Orissa (now Odisha). Her scheduled interview with British actor Peter Ustinov for a TV channel on the morning of October 31 was tragically cut short due to her assassination.

Recalling the events of September 28, 1984, Fotedar writes that Indira Gandhi visited the shrine of the Kuldevi of the Nehru clan, Sharika Bhagwan Ashtadash (goddess with 18 hands) at Hariparvat, as well as the dargah of Sufi saint Makhdoom Sahib. "Returning to her guest house, she said something remarkable about herself and her granddaughter," Fotedar writes. "Fotedarji, I may not live long. But you must watch over Priyanka as she grows." Fotedar asked, "Do you think I will live that long?" To this, Indira Gandhi replied affirmatively, "You will live to see her grow and shine on the national horizon. People will see me in her and remember me when they see her. She will shine and the next century will be hers. Then people will forget me."

Fotedar passed away in September 2017. It is uncertain whether the majority of Indians today, born after her assassination 40 years ago, remember Indira Gandhi apart from the enduring legacy of the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971 and the unforgettable memory of the Emergency imposed 49 years ago in June. However, as Priyanka makes her electoral debut, this conversation recorded by Fotedar is worth recalling.

In 1990, I asked Fotedar whether he had shared his recollections with Rajiv Gandhi. He confirmed that he had and that Rajiv Gandhi had inquired, "Did Mummy really say so?" Later, after Sonia Gandhi's entry into politics and the popularisation of Jagdish Piyush's slogan, Amethi Ka Danka, bitiya Priyanka, Fotedar formally wrote to her, citing the conversation. It did not receive a reply.

Will Priyanka Reignite The Spirit Of Debate?

If Priyanka wins in Wayanad, she will become the sole woman MP from Kerala, a state that has a rich legacy of women's role in society. Announcing her candidature, Mallikarjun Kharge reiterated her 2022 statement, "Ladki hoon, Lad sakti hoon" (I am a woman, I can fight). If elected, Priyanka will hopefully reintroduce spirited debates in the Lok Sabha. While occasionally echoing Rahul's discordant rhetoric, her discourse has largely been in line with what Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat recently described as the "Paksh-Pratipaksh" spirit of debate-meaning, opposition not just for the sake of opposition.

The Congress team of 99 MPs includes promising figures who comfortably won in closely contested polls: Deepender Hooda (Rohtak, Haryana), Gaurav Gogoi (Jorhat, Assam), Rakibul Hussain (Nagaon, Assam), Manish Tiwari (Chandigarh), Geniben Thakor (Sabarkantha, Gujarat), Varsha Gaikwad (Mumbai North Central, Maharashtra), Vishal Patil (Sangli, Maharashtra), Praniti Shinde (Solapur, Maharashtra), Rajesh Rathore (Sitapur, UP), and Thiruvananthapuram's four-term MP, Shashi Tharoor.
Rahul Gandhi's decision on whether to accept the position of the leader of the opposition is awaited.

If Priyanka wins in Wayanad, one of the prominent Lok Sabha faces from the opposition may once again be a woman, reminiscent of the days of Sushma Swaraj, who had led the BJP's spirited opposition during the Manmohan Singh era.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author