Many in the Congress—and some even outside—see Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra as a mirror-image of her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi; the cropped hair, the same confident stride, similar crowd-pulling oratorical skills. Priyanka, Congress workers believe, is born to lead, like her late grandmother. It was only a matter of when, and not if, she will take the plunge. The answer came on January 23. But not in the manner many expected it to be. A matter-of-fact press note announced the appointment of Priyanka, 47, as the party’s general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, along with other senior leaders given separate responsibilities. Despite keeping it low-key, the appointment could be the Congress’s boldest gamble to regain as much space as possible in Uttar Pradesh, the most crucial state for any party dreaming of grabbing power at the Centre.
The story only gets more interesting from here on. The general elections are due in the next few months and Congress president Rahul Gandhi has handed over the bellwether state to his sister and another relatively young leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, who has been given charge of western UP. The state sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, the most by any state. In 2014, the Congress had managed just two seats in UP as the BJP rode a Modi wave to bag 71. Since then, the saffron party has lost three of those in by-elections. The two seats that the Congress won in 2014 are Rae Bareli (Sonia Gandhi) and Amethi (Rahul Gandhi), the only constituencies where Priyanka had campaigned.
“Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment could be the Congress’s boldest gamble to regain ground in Uttar Pradesh”
Priyanka’s baptism also comes weeks after the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) stitched a pre-poll alliance for UP without the Congress, much to the surprise of political rivals. The Congress also announced its decision to contest all the seats in UP on its own, signaling growing confidence of the party which was obliterated just five years ago. Rahul Gandhi has just led the party to stunning victories in three heartland states and BJP strongholds—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Congress leaders insist that the wheels of BJP’s winning chariot are coming off. And Priyanka, they believe, will deliver in eastern UP, a belt which include Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, Varanasi.
It was in chief minister Adityanath’s fortress Gorakhpur, also in eastern UP, that the Congress had managed to cut into the BJP’s upper caste vote share in the by-elections last year, helping the SP to win the seat. Priyanka’s elevation has to be seen in this context, as the Congress plans its moves on the poll chessboard. “With Priyanka focusing on the region, the Congress may again get the support of a section of upper castes and also the Muslims. Muslims constitute 19 per cent voters and are not likely to trust the BSP. It is advantage Congress,” says poll-watcher Alok Kumar Rai, a professor at Banaras Hindu University. The Congress also appears to be targeting the young voters with Rahul Gandhi tweeting, “The new AICC team led by Priyanka and Jyotiraditya will herald the dawn of a new kind of politics in the state. We will offer the youth in UP a dynamic new platform to transform the state.”
Priyanka has stayed out of the spotlight but a Congress leader close to her reveals that she is ready for her new role. “Years of vipasana (meditation) have made her an extremely calm and focused person. She doesn’t get flustered by challenges. She is raring to go,” the leader adds. Party spokesperson Sanjay Jha describes Priyanka as a leader with “a sharp political instinct” and as a good communicator. “This move will have a ripple effect across the country in the coming Lok Sabha elections,” he adds. This remains to be seen but sources in the Congress say that the entry of Priyanka was in the works for a few months.
It was just a matter of choosing the right time. “Priyanka has been brought in when Rahul’s stocks are high after the big assembly wins. Had she been brought in if the Congress had not done well, it would have been seen as a desperate move. Now she will play a supportive but crucial role to the CP (Congress president),” says another senior leader. Sources say the party had left the decision to Priyanka as she had her “own priorities”, including ensuring a normal childhood for her children. “She made it a point to attend all parent-teacher meetings, their school functions and sport events. Now that her kids are somewhat grown-up, she is ready to take the plunge,” a leader says.
Despite the enthusiasm among Congress leaders and workers, Priyanka still has to live up to her brother’s assertion that she is “capable and hard-working”. “Priyanka has campaigned in a limited manner in the last elections. She has not been campaigning for the party itself. We are yet to witness how effective she could be as a campaigner. It’s premature to say it’s a masterstroke by the Congress,” says Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
The BJP, for one, will go at her hard. Modi may have already set the tone when he mocked her appointment without naming anybody. Interacting with party workers from Maharashtra, Modi said for the BJP the party is the family “unlike most cases” where the family is the party. Priyanka will also face the heat over her husband Robert Vadra’s alleged dubious business deals, which the BJP has often cited to target the Congress’s first family. Harish Chandra Srivastav, the BJP’s spokesperson for UP, was more caustic, reminding the Congress that “this is not a Bollywood movie”.
The Congress would, however, love to believe that it has launched the perfect crowd-puller “hero” who will ride into the sunset after annihilating all opponents. But, as they say, picture abhi baaki hain.