On Tuesday, April 15, with just a month to go before the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls will be known, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the youngest of the first family of the Congress party broke an unwritten rule of the larger, undivided Gandhi clan, of never attacking another from the family in public. Priyanka chose her cousin, Varun Gandhi, the BJP candidate from Sultanpur, for her salvo, accusing him of “the betrayal of my family”, basing her anger on the anti-Muslim hate speech that Varun had delivered five years ago in another Lok Sabha poll. Both Priyanka’s comments and her anger at Varun on his politics came unprovoked. The divisions in the Gandhi clan being made public for the first time was attributed to the divisive politics that Varun’s party endorsed. Naturally, Priyanka dubbed Varun’s association with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress’s arch rival this election, as treason.
But betrayal as a theme is not new to Priyanka’s election campaign. She had used it effectively 15 years back, in 1999, when just 27 years of age and clad in cotton saris akin to her grandmother Indira Gandhi, she had arrived in Rae Bareli to campaign for party loyalist Satish Sharma and mother Sonia Gandhi in Amethi. Emulating Indira’s trademark stride and style, Priyanka had not just evoked memories of her martyred grandmother but even demanded unflinching loyalty from the electorate in the family bastion, against family member-turned-foe Arun Nehru. Back then, she had asked the electorate how they had allowed a back-stabber like Arun Nehru to enter the electoral fray in Rae Bareli. The latter famously faced a drubbing at the polls that year.
An emotional pitch touching on loyalty to the Gandhi family is evident yet again. As a campaign tool, this is not new to the Congress first family. And time and again, it has paid them rich dividends. After the post-Emergency drubbing, it helped Indira Gandhi bounce back to power in 1980. Rajiv Gandhi rode a hugely emotional campaign after his mother’s assassination to blow away the opposition in 1984. Sonia Gandhi has evoked the same sentiment each time she seeks support from the public—for both the Congress party and the Gandhi parivar.
Through the attack on Varun Gandhi, Priyanka was also quietly furthering the issue of saving “Bharatiyata” and “Hindustaniyat” that her mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi had raised in a three-minute televised commercial aired the previous day. The short address had surely enthused the Congress worker on the ground but more than that it had brought the Gandhis back centrestage in an election campaign which so far had been dominated by Narendra Modi but was now clearly a one-on-one fight between the Gandhis and Modi. The slogan to “save Hindustaniyat” after all wasn’t such a bad call. But the odds seem stacked against the Congress, perhaps facing its toughest electoral fight ever. Almost every survey in recent times has indicated that the Congress in 2014 will have a tally poorer than its 1996 performance, so far dubbed as its worst performance ever.
Faced with the prospect of such a huge defeat, the Congress in 2014 is realistic enough to know that incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot be blamed for it. It’s no wonder then, the compulsion for Priyanka to hit the campaign ground running came from extraordinary circumstances within the party.
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
Last week, the first family was literally under siege. Not just on the campaign front, but even on the personal front. A series of books on the goings-on of the government in the last five years painted the Gandhis as the villains of UPA-II. Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister, made the Congress president and vice-president look like an authoritarian set up with little respect for constitutional posts even as high as the PM’s office. In private, party leaders admit that “the Gandhis haven’t come out smelling of roses even though no one will officially ever endorse what Baru has written”.
It was a familiar pattern. The party had entrusted Uttar Pradesh to Rahul in 2012. The Congress crawled to a humiliating defeat there. In Gujarat in 2012, Rahul intervened far more than was acceptable for senior leaders like Ahmad Patel, ordering as many as 30 of his chosen candidates to be accommodated. Gujarat was again lost to the BJP. In the winter of 2013, the Congress again lost three out of five states which had gone to polls to the BJP. By the time the Lok Sabha polls dawned, it wasn’t just the Congress worker who was disillusioned and demoralised, the voter had lost confidence too in the party.
No doubt, Rahul was fighting the 2014 polls with the baggage of a seemingly arrogant, scam-ridden UPA-II. Anti-incumbency had already translated into an anti-Congress mood in the country. The government’s policies and flagship schemes were finding little resonance with the electorate. The achievements of UPA-I and ii even on economic and social fronts—despite statistics to back those claims—were being overshadowed by the government’s inability to control corruption and price rise. As historian Irfan Habib says, “The BJP’s rise is a result of the last 3-4 years of misgovernance by the Congress. A lot of people who are not really BJP supporters have moved to the party because they’re disappointed with the Congress.”
Not just voters, the absence of an effective election campaign was glaringly obvious even to Congressmen. Since dissent against the Gandhis is an unknown expression in the Congress, desertions from the party became the order of the day. Even well-known, veteran faces like Jagdambika Pal and C.K. Jaffer Sharief were jumping ship. The Congress playing up Priyanka as a more aggressive campaigner for the party (even planting stories about her keenness to contest against Modi from Varanasi) then, as insiders put it, is essentially an attempt to contain the damage and stop the desertion. Kidwai adds, “The prime task of the Congress right now is to ensure it survives to fight another election.”
Operation Clean-Up surely hasn’t paid off. While paid membership at the Youth Congress level has reduced the army of foot soldiers to a dribble, flawed ticket distribution has driven the nail deeper into the coffin. The silence from the old guard is now deafening. The usual sycophantic cries have been missing even after Baru’s revelations smeared Gandhi name directly. They are refusing to stand by the prince. Senior leaders and known faces like Rajeev Shukla, Kamal Nath, Salman Khurshid, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari and Ghulam Nabi Azad have all been sidelined by Team Rahul and are missing in action. Party insiders confirm that “senior leaders are keeping away and don’t speak anymore, unless specifically asked for an opinion. Unsure what may happen in the future, party leaders want to leave the family to its own devices...to defend itself.” Officially, “they are all busy with their own elections”.
The yuvraj, party sources say, is fighting it out alone. Manmohan Singh has withdrawn into a shell, sulking since his January press conference, at which he famously said, “History will judge me more kindly than the contemporary media.” Far removed from the hullabaloo of the Lok Sabha polls, Dr Singh has been conspicuous by his absence at a time when he should have actually been tom-tomming the party’s achievements under his prime ministership. Rahul’s own PR exercises, like TV interviews with news channels have boomeranged and only dented the party’s reputation further. Congress leaders are still smarting from the 1984 riots gaffe that Gandhi made on TV. As Rahul fails repeatedly, the clamour for Priyanka grows—almost to suggest that Rahul is perhaps not up to the mark. So almost on cue, as Rahul focusses on criticising the economic policies of Modi and his Gujarat model, the man himself is being taken head on by Priyanka, soundbite for soundbite.
So given the scenario, has the Congress then already conceded defeat? Top party leaders indicate as much, some saying that “five years in opposition will make a man out of Rahul Gandhi” (a little putdown for a leader who also reportedly believes that sitting in opposition will only help the Congress clean up the party?) Meanwhile, fighting perhaps its toughest battle ever with no serious rallying point that could stimulate the electorate, the Congress is forced to use its bramhastra, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Will the bramhastra work at this stage? Sources confirm that Priyanka is not in a position to launch herself fully yet. The reason: husband Robert Vadra has been accused of taking financial favours from real estate giant DLF to make windfall gains from the purchase and sale of land in Haryana.
This is where the Congress finds itself in a bind. Leaders confirm that until the allegations against Robert Vadra are sorted out, Priyanka as a political vehicle for the party will only boomerang for the Congress. Priyanka’s hands are therefore tied even as party leaders indicate that there “maybe a greater role for her in the Congress post May 16, when stock-taking is done and new goals are set”. In politics, what works best is hope. And for the Congress, post-May 16 it would be good to hope that at least one Gandhi missile is still left in its arsenal, and which is yet to be fired.
However, by then Rahul would have registered yet another defeat against his name. Kidwai sums it up best, “2014 will remain a peculiar election for the Congress when it is face-to-face with its past (Sonia), present (Rahul) and future (Priyanka), all at the same time.” The irony is that the Gandhis are projecting their fight as one to save the idea of India when they are actually fighting to remain relevant both within the Indian National Congress and the fast-changing political landscape of Hindustan.
Apropos of The Pinch Hitter (Apr 28), I am still pulling for Rahul Gandhi, and it’s because Priyanka is an unknown quantity. The Congress will be routed this time and fingers will point at Rahul, but in the long run he’s still a better bet. The past few years he’s tried to build a better party organisation, has fresh ideas which will take time to fructify but will make the party stronger grassroots-level up. As for Priyanka, she’s just crawled out of the woodwork during elections. What do we know about her views on anything of national importance? And let’s not forget that albatross around her neck, husband Robert Vadra. The only thing going for Priyanka are her mesmerising good looks, which remind everyone a little of her grandmother, Indira.
Priyanka’s defence of her husband, and her asking the voters of Amethi to support the family, shows a curious understanding of politics as it is practised today. Her politics is entirely feudal and personal in nature. The Congress first family is showing signs of strain and is maybe starting to fall part. What were you guys thinking?
M.K. Saini, Delhi
She has the audacity to say that her family alone made sacrifices for the country, considers any criticism as blasphemous, passes snide comments against her cousin, even asked people at a past election rally to beat up Arun Nehru, her own uncle, with chappals for being a political opponent. People are not going to fall for the family’s bluff anymore now.
M.A. Raipet, Secunderabad
This is partisan journalism of the worst kind. You seem to be desperate to fight the battle for Congress. What has Priyanka done to earn a cover story, other than being complicit in her husband’s dubious deals?
Pankaj Gupta, Allahabad
With mother and brother turning out to be ciphers, it’s not surprising that Priyanka’s been launched to stem this irrevocable image breakdown that the Congress is going through.
Pramod Srivastava, Delhi
After the elections, the Congress will find itself in a position where it may have to review the fundamental tenets of its ideology, to resonate with a young India that has changed almost beyond recognition. A lot of creativity and imagination will be required. No reason why brother and sister can’t both be part of the enterprise.
Ashok Lal, Mumbai
The BJP must go for the jugular, put Robert Vadra on trial and send him to jail after it comes to power. That will be the start of the cleansing of the system.
Priyanka represents everything that is wrong about Indian politics. She uses her famous last name and demands “unflinching loyalty” from voters. She has no qualifications to be an MP or a leader, her husband has amassed wealth through fraud...and she’s the messiah the Congress is waiting for?
Even after all the mega scams and misgovernance, the Congress never apologised, which shows their contempt for institutions. This is a ship holed out at the bottom by the very people who are steering it.
M.C. Joshi, Lucknow
Whether we like it or not, democratic India still has a soft corner for ruling dynasties. Over 15-odd royals are in the fray even this election. So another member from the best known ‘democratic political dynasty’ of India is no news.
G. Anuplal, Bangalore
The irony is that this time it’s the family’s actions that are pulling down the party. It must be a first for the Congress.
Rajiv Chopra, Jammu
Priyanka and Robber need to face a fast-track court, pronto.
Pradip Singh, Stafford, UK
This is the problem with us Indians, we just get carried away by that fair skin. Hema, Jayaprada, Priyanka....
S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
‘Model’ husband Robert can swing the females in the Congress’s favour. Just look at those pink pants. The last I saw them were on ’80s comedians Bhagyaraj & Co.
Akash Verma, Chennai
Prarthna Gahilote is doing prarthana (prayer for RSVP)
1.Success of this election is, people get to know X missinary bigots in constitutinal institutions, PSUs, MSM, edu. institutions, terror orgs, religious forums, NGO's, comment boards. Simply they call themselves 'SECULAR'
2. Who get (barring few) Noble,and other FFand sister orgs awards are CIA (Rome) agents in various countries.
Misandry is default everywhere - if one only looks for it.
Take this media article as one such example:
A feminist, Priyanka, being actively promoted over a hated middle-aged-male, only because the advantages of utilising misandry are all 'too obvious' to the promoters ( the authoress and the antimale media ).
>> If you claim that the Hindu killers of Sikhs were not real Hindus
That's exactly what people are saying. That they were Congresis.
Why is that so difficult for you to understand?
>>>> "Yes, and the vast majority of people who carried it [1984 Sikh pogrom] out were Hindus."
In a previous discussion, we were told by the same gentleman that Hafiz Saeed and the LeT are not Muslims.
I do not consider them to be real Muslims. If you claim that the Hindu killers of Sikhs were not real Hindus, I would not demur.
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