Priyanka Gandhi is campaigning now for the 2017 general election

All these flowers, and she’s not even running (yet).
All these flowers, and she’s not even running (yet).
Image: AP Photo
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In the past ten days of campaigning, Priyanka Gandhi has stolen airtime and most of the show from her own party and rivals alike, calling the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party “befuddled rats” and accusing their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi of giving valuable Gujarat land away to his “friends” at throwaway prices.

Despite the fact that she’s not actually running in this election, she’s become more visible than her mother and Congress Party president Sonia and brother and party vice-president Rahul, who are running for seats in Amethi and Rae Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka has practically owned the campaign for the last four stages of polling, which will send 311 lawmakers to parliament. Though she has restricted her physical presence to a few constituencies, she has deftly used television channels to reach a national audience.

So what’s the game? Two people familiar with the party’s current thinking and strategy say the Congress Party is certain that it will be booted out of power in this national election, but party heads believe that the BJP and allies may not make it past the halfway mark of 272 seats needed to form a government alone. That means regional powers would cobble together an unstable government, perhaps with Congress support.

The Congress will be injured if it loses these elections, but it will not be as hurt as the rival BJP if there is no clear result. If it does not definitively capture power now, the BJP will be seriously crippled and Modi’s appeal as a leader significantly dented.

Instability at the center would most certainly lead to elections earlier than schedule; perhaps in 2016 or 2017. The charismatic Priyanka Gandhi could then lead the Congress Party in the elections, both as the star campaigner and perhaps even as the prime ministerial candidate, these people say.

Priyanka’s entry into the campaign appears to be timed with a slight slackening of the BJP’s momentum. She managed to draw the lime light to herself and the constituencies of Rae Bareilly and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, shifting it away from Varanasi from where Modi is fighting elections.

But more importantly, she has also drawn considerable attention to her husband Robert Vadra and his controversial real estate deals. Talking openly about his business, and responding directly to BJP accusations about him, Priyanka has actually managed to buy some insurance for him against prosecution.

Because Vadra has become a subject of debate in a bitter election fight, any non-Congress government will find it difficult to legally move against him unless there is a water-tight case. Even then it will be seen as a politically motivated witch-hunt. Because the opposition has nothing else to throw at her, it is exhausting the ammunition against her husband in an election that the Congress Party may lose anyway.

In her April 22 statement to supporters, Priyanka referred to her grandmother: “I am saddenedby the attacks [on my husband], but I have learnt from Indira Gandhi that the truth becomes courage.”

The BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, will remember what happened when the Janata Party government went after Indira Gandhi when it came to power post-Emergency in 1977. The government tried to investigate several cases against the elder Gandhi who, playing the hapless victim, put up a stoic resistance, wearing down her opponents even as public sentiment gradually shifted in her favor. She won hands down in the next elections.

The BJP has already said that it is not interested in a witch hunt. In an interview to CNBC TV18, Modi explained what his approach to corruption would be. He said his priority would be to stop “new” corruption. Once he achieves that, he will go after the existing cases. Otherwise, he felt, it will slow down the government.

When, during an interview, PTI specifically asked him about what he would do about Vadra’s land deals, he said that has to “happen in an institutional manner as per due process without interference from any quarter. Such actions should never be guided by political considerations.”

If Modi and BJP are unable to capture power in the current elections, Priyanka and the Gandhis may take the game away from them.

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