Has Priyanka's Time Come?
Perhaps for the umpteenth time, the chatter about Priyanka Gandhi taking over as the lead campaigner of the Congress is reaching a crescendo. On a humdrum day in 1999, during the mid-term elections to Parliament, she stood on a dais in Rae Bareli district and railed against her uncle, Arun Nehru, for daring to contest from an opposition party against a Congress nominee. Her speech turned the tide against Nehru, allowing a Nehru-Gandhi factotum, Satish Sharma, to win the election. These events were to be the genesis of the Priyanka Gandhi mythology. There was growing recognition amongst Congressmen and the party’s vast legion of supporters that she was the true inheritor of the Gandhi legacy as she resembled her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and also displayed similar character traits. Those discussions that began in the mid-’90s should have died down after the line of succession was established in favour of her elder brother, Rahul Gandhi, but they did not. Priyanka limited herself to looking after Rae Bareli and Amethi, the constituencies of her mother and brother in UP. Despite that, for many in the party, she represented Plan B, in the event of both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul coming to grief electorally. That moment of truth came in rather rudely in the 2014 general election. The Congress, led by mother and son, plummetted to a historic low, winning 44 seats in a house of 543 seats, getting wiped out in practically all parts of the country. Was this the moment for change in the party that everyone has been waiting for?
Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi did not reveal how they planned to transform the party’s fortunes after this huge debacle. There was no AICC session or even a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting. There was no analysis of why they lost so badly in 2014 despite their enormous spending on social sector programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. There was no examination of why the people who benefitted from these policies did not vote for the Congress. If you ask old time politicians like M. L. Fotedar, the Congress lost because Rahul was not projected as the prime ministerial candidate. They are of the view that being in the government would have helped the Gandhis in maximising their charisma and reaping electoral dividends. Examples of Indira Gandhi and how she won on the plank of “Garibi hatao” would have been readily proffered to substantiate this thesis.
Alas, the Gandhis of today are not the Gandhis of yore. Rahul does not seem to like meeting people. He is happy amongst friends or working out. Priyanka is the gregarious one who loves to meet and chat up with constituents in Rae Bareli and Amethi. That is why her leadership is wheeled out by the family faithful every time life looks tough. The recent clarion call for bringing her in comes from a political consultant of the Congress, Prashant Kishore, who has been given the mandate to revive the party in UP. Kishore, after spending a month or two in UP, has learnt that the Congress cannot be revived until Priyanka provides the leadership and a Brahmin is made the state chief minister. That is the reason why the name of the former chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, is doing the rounds as the Brahmin leader who could galvanise the party’s fortunes in this sprawling state. The idea is that Priyanka would be the star campaigner and Dikshit, who has links with old-timers in UP, would be presented as the probable chief minister if the party does well. At the moment such an idea seems preposterous, taking into cognisance how well-entrenched the BJP, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are, but there is a view that Priyanka may provide a refreshing option to UP voters if she gives an impression of being a formidable player.
If the tough campaigning that Priyanka had to do to save her brother from losing the parliamentary elections in 2014 is anything to go by, her entry into the Congress will not be a cakewalk. Her narrative has to go beyond ‘I am the granddaughter of Indira Gandhi and I am wearing her saris.’ She would have to dig in her heels and speak forcefully on the vision of her party for the young population of the state.
The Congress needs to peddle something instead of nostalgia and provide a distinct and alternative worldview from that offered by Narendra Modi and his party. If Priyanka is not able to do that then her campaign in UP will sink like the Titanic.