Bringing the Battle to Priyanka
How will the Congress sculpt its victories at a time when people’s fascination for dynasties has eroded and democratic irreverence is the flavour of the season?
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
Earlier this week, a meeting of senior Congress leaders at Rahul Gandhi’s Tughlaq Road residence created quite a stir when Priyanka Gandhi breezed in. Her presence, though fleeting, was enough to trigger speculation on a possible announcement by the party, and what it meant for her mother and Congress President Sonia Gandhi and brother and vice President Rahul Gandhi.
However, as Congressmen desperate for a turnaround moment in their plummeting fortunes latched on to this news, the party leadership was quick to make light of her unannounced visit. The Congress spokesperson clarified that no one should see it more than a family member visiting the young Gandhi’s house. But her visit had come at a time when a section of the party’s top brass was engaged in discussing an organizational rejig, and also about the upcoming AICC session where Rahul Gandhi is expected to be anointed as party president. That is, if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent endorsement of Gandhi as party president carries any merit. His proposed elevation is meant to be Congress party’s response to the growing demand that it should declare its prime ministerial candidate.
In all these changes, where does Priyanka Gandhi really fit in? While there is no doubt that the Congress party will go ahead with Rahul Gandhi as its leader in the next parliament elections – there’s hardly any time for mid-course correction or changing horses in the middle of the race – many party workers and strategists believe Priyanka should play a greater role in party affairs. For quite some time, she has confined herself to looking after the constituencies of her mother and her brother, but now Congressmen, due to the imminent crisis that stares at them, want her to step out and step up. Their belief premised on her famed connect with the people, her strong resemblance with charismatic grandmother Indira Gandhi, her articulate rhetoric, and photo-friendly demeanour. In this age of 24/7 news and social media, she is savvy enough to give good bytes and repartees. In short, Priyanka is packaged better for today’s politics then her brother.
Many of her admirers recall the manner in which she singlehandedly destroyed the candidacy of her uncle Arun Nehru, when he contested against a family retainer, Satish Sharma. In a public meeting in Rae Bareli, she thundered how people of this constituency could reward a traitor who had betrayed her family. Her speech destroyed Nehru’s chances of winning on a BJP ticket. That one performance catapulted Priyanka to star status as a campaigner par excellence. After the grand show, it was largely expected by party men that Priyanka would carry forward her family’s legacy. Many mid-level party leaders who have prospered by engaging in what would be described by outsiders as ‘sycophancy’, began to network with those perceived to be close to her. In 2003-2004, when Sonia Gandhi decided that Rahul Gandhi would carry forward the Nehru-Gandhi legacy, there was disappointment everywhere. In Congress circles and outside, murmurs were galore whether Sonia Gandhi had done great harm by choosing her son over her more competent daughter. Some even invoked the Sicilian tradition of mothers enjoying greater proximity with sons rather than the daughters, who are married off to another family. This cultural practice being similar to what is seen in India, Priyanka’s marriage and subsequent motherhood did not really enhance her claims to a greater role even after her brother became a full timer in the party’s affairs.
While rumour mills initially went into overdrive in Delhi about Priyanka’s exasperation at being ignored by her mother on her political ambitions, the issue quickly acquired a domestic flavour, when the growing differences between her and her businessmen husband Robert Vadra came to the fore. Much of it was driven by the innate desire of Congress leaders who wanted to reclaim her from a life of domesticity and pitchfork her as their leader. The rumours were also meant to purge her of the wrongdoings of her self-aggrandizing husband whose rapacious buying of properties all over the place had become a major scandal. But despite the fond desires of those who believe in Priyanka’s abilities to turn around Congress’ fortunes, there has been no change in their marital status.
Congress, which won two parliament elections in a row, now needs all hands on the deck. Their recent debacle and the rise of Narendra Modi, and now Arvind Kejriwal, have raised the prospects of a political decimation for the grand old party. The way Congress lost in Delhi and the manner in which the Aam Admi Party (AAP) has eaten up the party’s traditional base has caused immense anxiety in the top brass. They fear that the Delhi loss could be replicated in different states till something radical is thought of. Rahul, despite his attempts, cannot attract or move crowds. It is from this standpoint that Priyanka’s name had gained currency again. Despite the quick denials by party spokespersons, what is clear is that Priyanka would manage Rahul Gandhi’s back office. She would also re-connect with all those Congressmen who feel estranged by her brother’s abrasive behaviour. Rahul has shown great impatience with the old Congressmen and is known to be quite tough with them. Priyanka is expected to reach out to them and also ensure that they have a role in the new dispensation. It is a difficult task at a time when people’s fascination for dynasties has seriously eroded, and democratic irreverence is the flavour of the season. The AICC session of January 17 will give the first evidence of the Gandhi family’s thought processes as it braces to face the biggest challenge since the Janata rule of 1977.