IT was the kind of disaster that makes headlines even in the cynical capital city. As a fire swept through a basti in Jangpura, the flames threatened 60 disabled children in a home run by the Missionaries of Charity. One of the first to arrive was a certain Mrs Vadra, who got there well ahead of Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, the health minister and even the area MLA.
Better known to most as Priyanka Gandhi, she was wearing an off-white salwar kameez and no jewellery. Underlining the fact that this wasn't a photo-opportunity, all she told the press was: "I come here quite often so it's not unusual for me to be here." The cameras clicked on anyway, and the next day newspapers drew parallels between Priyanka's unexpected presence and the late Princess Diana's high-profile charity work.
As a member of India's chief dynasty, Priyanka Gandhi has grown accustomed to living in a goldfish bowl. She values her privacy, but her most personal moments have been enacted under the full glare of the spotlight: the brutal deaths of her grandmother and father, scenes from her marriage and now her work among the underprivileged. Some speculate that this is part of a cleverly-laid plan where Priyanka will play the starring role in The People's Princess: Part II some years down the line; family friends ask the media not to cast its nasty suspicious mind on a perfectly straightforward desire to make a small difference.
What's remarkable is that Priyanka managed to keep her volunteer work in Jangpura undercover this long. Several of her friends didn't know about what was a regular feature on her packed calendar. Says Sister Rosabel, who heads the Home here, "She's been coming here regularly. She teaches the children and spends time with them." Others said that over the last year-and-a-half, she has often taken the kids for outings to the zoo or to buy icecream.
Once she reached Jangpura on the day of the fire, Priyanka headed straight for what used to be Ganga Automobiles, where the children had taken temporary shelter. Along with the rest, Priyanka stood in line, holding a child in her arms and waiting to return once the fire was controlled. Inside, she tied the trademark blue Missionaries of Charity apron over her kurta, and mopped up the mess left behind. She left as quietly as she came, not staying to visit the nearby jhuggis. Congress workers at the spot did not even know she'd been there.
The next day, too, Priyanka's car could be found parked discreetly at the corner, though the presence of four SPG guards was a giveaway. This time she'd brought along her own workers to speed up the process of restoring the Home to its original state. Day three after the fire, and Priyanka's commitment had not flagged. She supervised the work with the thoroughness of an efficient foreman.
Look into the past, and it's clear that Priyanka isn't playing Lady Bountiful for a day. Right from the inception of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF), Priyanka has been an enthusiastic moving force to its projects for the underprivileged. Eulogises a Congress party member, "The RGF has given her an understanding of how the common man lives and his problems."
Political watchers see this as a prelude to the inevitable initiation into politics once bitiya Priyanka is ready to do more than just share the stage with her mother. Another baton-handing ceremony from The House of the Gandhis may be overdoing the dynastic thing—but this is a more painless exercise, where she is accepted rather than foisted upon the populace. It's hard to see how some of Priya-nka's previous enthusiasms—such as wanting to open a restaurant—fit into this blueprint, but stranger things have happened in the soap opera called The Gandhis. Family friends are quick to jump to Priyanka's defence. Says a close friend of Sonia's, "It's good to see that Priyanka has landed on her feet. It's nice to see her do this kind of work." Her natural inclination, some feel, is towards this sort of charitable work, unlike brother Rahul who prefers to maintain a safe distance from such issues.
At the Home in Jangpura, Priyanka's involvement is off-limits to the press. Sister Rosabel says bluntly, "She is very private and doesn't like all this highlighted." Most of the helpers would rather not speak of their "celebrity" visitor; one, perhaps a trifle overzealously, denies that Priyanka had ever been to the Home.
Is this the dry run for Priyanka Gandhi's imminent political debut? Or is it only that Mrs Vadra, like many other private citizens, believes that it's important to help out? Either way, the paparazzi needn't chase Priyanka from grand concert to fancy restaurant any more—all they need to do is head towards Jangpura.