Is Priyanka Gandhi the Congress’s trump card or another instance of dynastic politics?

Centre of attention.
Centre of attention.
Image: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
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Priyanka Gandhi became the latest member of India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty to officially join politics yesterday (Jan. 23). The 47-year-old Gandhi has been appointed her party the Indian National Congress’s general secretary in-charge of the eastern block of the crucial bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in northern India.

The fifth generation politician joins her elder brother, Rahul Gandhi, president of the Congress party, as he seeks to mount a challenge against the Hindutva nationalist government led by prime minister Narendra Modi in the national elections barely three months away. With almost 80 key seats coming from the state, UP almost always plays the most important role in the national government formation exercise.

Originally a Congress stronghold, UP has in recent decades seen the party performing poorly, with the sole exception of 2009.

The fact that prime minister Modi’s seat of Varanasi falls in the eastern block of UP—as also that of state chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s home turf of Gorakhpur—makes Gandhi’s appointment doubly significant. Rumours abound that Modi might go on to contest from a different state this time and if that happens in this backdrop, it will only add to the opposition’s narrative.

The Congress party cadre has long demanded Gandhi’s entry into the electoral fray as they seek a leader to turn the fortunes of the party around in the state. Apart from the family pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi, seats like Phulpur, represented by her great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and grand-aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit, would be on her radar as part of the 40 seats under her charge.

When two major regional outfits, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), formed an alliance a few days ago to take on Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), they left out the Congress from the “grand alliance.” India’s grand old party then seemed to be on the backfoot.

With Gandhi’s entry, the calculations could change now.

Nevertheless, it will be a tough ask for the psychology graduate from New Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College to win seats without an organisational backup in such a short span of time.

Background player

Gandhi is no stranger to politics, though.

For the longest time, she has been working behind the scenes although her public participation was limited to Rae Bareli and Amethi, represented in parliament by her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother, respectively.

Gandhi has always been rated a more spontaneous politician than her brother—she is known to be articulate in Hindi and for her ability to connect with the masses. This ability, coupled with her striking resemblance to her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, is what the Congress may be counting on in a predominantly rural state like UP.

While Gandhi’s formal political debut could be perceived as the Congress’s first family tightening its grip on the party—and giving a fillip to nepotism—she is expected to eventually replace her ailing mother in the party hierarchy.

Gandhi’s entry has coincided with the consolidation of Rahul Gandhi’s position as the undisputed leader of the party following its impressive wins in three heartland states under his leadership last December.

Often dubbed a reluctant politician, Rahul took a long time to emerge out of his mother’s shadow despite having been anointed heir apparent long ago. All this while, Gandhi’s own debut was possibly held back for her older brother to come into his own. Apart from her willingness to play second fiddle, their mother is also known to be keen on according primacy to her son.

Gandhi’s political entry could also have been delayed on account of the allegations of corruption against her husband and businessman, Robert Vadra. However, with the ruling BJP failing to charge Vadra on any count in the past five years, this may not remain a baggage anymore.

Her appointment will also relieve Rahul of the pressure of delivering in UP as he campaigns extensively across the country. The Gandhi siblings are known to share an excellent rapport, which would be helpful in the longer term.

Is charm enough?

Although Priyanka has very little time to turn around the fortunes of her party in time for the elections, her appointment can go a long way in wooing back the traditional vote banks of the Congress and in tapping into the latent goodwill enjoyed by the party in UP. A section of the swing voters is expected to be significantly influenced by Gandhi’s campaign as it comes on the back of a double anti-incumbency for the BJP. She is also expected to make an impact on younger voters, who make up a significant percentage of India’s electorate.

Priyanka’s gift of the gab will stand her in good stead as she takes on the orator in prime minister Modi in the days ahead. As ex-family loyalist and former union external affairs minister Natwar Singh notes in his book, Gandhi’s “exactness of expression” has always been her advantage over her brother as she sets out to prove herself in the electoral arena.

The embrace of the dynasty aside, the optics look great for the Congress as it seeks to come up trumps against the Modi-led central government. Having often been at the receiving end of surprises sprung by the prime minister, the grand old party has played a trump card on the eve of the poll.

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