For many years, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was seen as the trump card in the Indian National Congress’s (INC) pack. So in 2019, when she did decide to enter politics, most believed she would provide a much-needed booster that would aid her brother through in the elections.
Banking on this belief, INC president Rahul Gandhi deployed her in the most crucial of all states, Uttar Pradesh. She was hailed as a perfect bundling of charisma, energy, and strength. At one point, she was even spoken of as a rival to prime minister Narendra Modi in his Varanasi constituency.
And then May 23, 2019, happened.
The deeply disappointed Congress president is now at the crossroads, given the battering he and his party have taken. His agony, however, only clouds the peril in which her fledgling political career finds itself in.
A well-timed debut
For years, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was an unobtrusive presence in Congress’s affairs.
From backing her mother, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in her long-standing constituency of Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, to supporting her brother in the other family bastion of Amethi, she was always a strong but behind-the-scenes player.
A psychology graduate, with a masters degree in Buddhist studies, the Jesus and Mary college alumna has for long commanded attention with her signature dressing style—crisp, elegant saris mostly—leaving the media and ardent Congress followers tantalised.
Yet, her primary focus remained her family—husband Robert Vadra, a controversial real estate businessman, and children Raihan and Miraya. She, and the party her family leads, had a particularly difficult time with Vadra, whose allegedly hazy deals gave ample and regular grist to the opposition’s mills.
Yet, a good section of Congress workers and backers set high hopes on Gandhi Vadra and have for years sought her entry into active politics. For one, she resembles her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi. It was believed—rather hoped—that the resemblance wasn’t limited to the looks alone.
Hence, when the Congress announced this January that the party had appointed her its general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh (east), it sparked a wave of excitement.
Gandhi Vadra began campaigning almost immediately in February. Her first ever roadshow with Rahul Gandhi in Lucknow, the state capital, was deemed a rousing success. She soon made her social media debut, too, launching her Twitter handle that has, however, remained largely inactive.
In Amethi, while accompanying her brother to file his nomination, she appeared along with Miraya, now 16, and Raihan,18.
Her campaign was aggressive, heavily targeting prime minister Modi’s policies. “A Delhi girl is openly challenging you. Contest the last two phases on notebandi (demonetisation), GST, women’s safety, and unfulfilled promises to the youth,” Gandhi Vadra taunted him, during her rally in New Delhi. This followed Modi’s dubbing of her late father, Rajiv Gandhi, “corrupt no 1.”
Her mass appeal has been much talked about for a while already. During the campaign, she was seen jumping over barricades in Indore to reach out to her fans or stopping her convoy to step out and shake hands with BJP supporters chanting Modi’s name. She appeared to be sounding the right notes.
Rumours were also rife that she may contest the election against the Hindutva strongman from Varanasi. That seems to have been a mirage, as was Gandhi Vadra’s success this election season.
Failed to impress
At the end of the day, nothing seems to have worked for her, her brother, or their Congress party.
In Lucknow, her party was at the third spot when the results were declared yesterday (May 23). Union home minister Rajnath Singh of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) romped home with a margin of around 340,000 votes.
Amethi, which Rahul Gandhi has won since his 2004 debut, was lost to the BJP’s feisty Smriti Irani by around 55,000 votes. Of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has been restricted to one—Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli.
Her not contesting from Varanasi seems like a no-brainer in hindsight. Modi’s saffron wave is unlikely to have shown her any mercy.
The Congress party will now have to introspect once again. Its chief’s leadership is likely to be questioned, at least by some insiders.
That leaves Gandhi Vadra, like her brother, at the crossroads, too.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.