Watch: In Rahul Gandhi's Constituency, They Say Priyanka is Better

PUBLISHED ON: April 30, 2014 | Duration: 11 min, 56 sec

Just as talk peaked of how the Congress seemed unstoppable in hurtling towards its worst-ever performance in an election, Priyanka Gandhi asserted herself.

In small villages in Amethi and Raebareli, the neighbouring constituencies of her mother and brother, the 42-year-old established a new normal that saw her matching Narendra Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, barb for barb, charge for charge.

Priyanka, 42, is not running for election - she is managing the campaigns of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the two top leaders of a party groaning under the weight of corruption scandals, 10 years of anti-incumbency and an economy that remains stubbornly lethargic. Her aggressive initiative against Mr Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, is the result of his allegations that her husband, Robert Vadra, has configured a vast fortune based on land deals powered by the influence of the Gandhis.

In the areas that Priyanka visits, she seems able to strike an immediate and warm connect with the people she speaks to. Her brother, Rahul, older by a year, has struggled with labels of diffidence and awkward public poise.

In his constituency of Amethi, which he has represented in parliament since he entered politics in 2004, there is no political correctness among the Congress workers who are waiting for Priyanka's arrival. Most say that it is Priyanka who can offer a challenge to Mr Modi in an election where his strong personality has become a central point of debate.

"Definitely the sister is more effective at taking on Modi," says a party worker before explaining why. "She has presence of mind, she is able to retort immediately. Rahul will take too long to react." Other Congress workers voice their agreement.

In her speeches, Priyanka makes it clear she is an emissary of her brother, offering praise for him and defending him against the taunts hurtled by Mr Modi, who has described him as "a shahzaada" (prince) with little to offer beside his famous last name. "I've been campaigning for 14 hours am very tired but kya karen .. Bada bhai karna pata hai (I am tired after 14 hours on the road..but this is for my older brother...I have to step up)", she says light-heartedly.

But as she waves aside the Special Protection Group commandos that guard her, abandoning the stage to wade straight into the crowd, operating by instinct, there are signs that if the family has a natural leader, it is this one. Her conversational style of speeches, her brisk walk, and the handloom saris chart a strong resemblance to her grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But there is also the inevitable contrast with her brother in anything but flattering terms, making her charismatic interventions a double-edged sword for the Congress.

A few hundred metres from her election sabha, a young Congress supporter says that if Rahul wins this time, credit should go to his sister. "People show up to listen to her, not so much to him," he argues.

The geographical confines of her mother and brother's constituencies notwithstanding, Priyanka's words are aimed at a national audience. Every day from her campaign trail is a new headline-grabbing comment on the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, whom she matches punch for punch. Today she takes him on for using "yeh dil maange more" - the famous slogan used by Kargil martyr Captain Vikram Batra. "There is one leader. He said 'Yeh Dil Maange More'. These people - they just keep wanting things from you. They ask you for things. I am not making any demand of you. I just want your love. As women, you must find your inner strength," she says to a group of women voters.

Priyanka's critics say the media comparison with India Gandhi is facetious. Indira, they point out, was already Congress President at the age of 42. At the same age, they argue, Priyanka has no political milestone. Other than invoking her family's legacy or defending the controversial land deals of her husband, say her opponents, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's campaign remains more rhetorical than substantive.

This is a point made strongly by Smrithi Irani, the actor-turned-politician from the BJP who is running against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. The family has described her as an outsider to voters. "Is Rahul Gandhi from here? Is Sonia Gandhi from Uttar Pradesh? This is a joke and no one is going to buy this argument," says Ms Irani.

Between her and Kumar Vishwas of the Aam Aadmi party, this is an election where Rahul Gandhi could be made to work much harder for victory than in the past. In 2012's state elections, the Congress fared abysmally in the assembly seats in both Raebareli and Amethi, a clear message from voters that Brand Gandhi cannot drive votes without delivering on basic bijli, sadak, pani (electricity, roads and water).

Now, as the Congress fights possibly its toughest election ever, the young woman who first stepped out of her comfort zone in 1999 to campaign in Raebareli against estranged uncle Arun Nehru, and delivered a surprise victory for family loyalist Captain Satish Sharma, is on the road, saddled with the expectations of a deeply beleaguered party.
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