28 April 2014 National cover story

The Pinch Hitter

Can Priyanka’s late burst of belligerence revive a spent Congress?
The Pinch Hitter
India News Network
The Pinch Hitter
Priyanka In?   Priyanka Out?

  • As Congress waffles over nomination of a candidate against Narendra Modi in Varanasi, the media floats her name. Denial is a qualified non-denial.
  • Rumour fuels perception that Priyanka is ballsier than many long-time Congressmen, who fled the race fearing defeat in the elections
  • Congress spokesman Janardhan Dwivedi states that Indira Gandhi saw shades of herself in granddaughter, hints at a larger role for Priyanka
  • Priyanka breaks the unwritten larger Gandhi clan code; takes on cousin 
    Varun for “betraying the family” in his anti-Muslim hate speech
  • Doesn’t shirk from attacking Narendra Modi as opinion polls show ‘Brand Rahul’ isn’t quite delivering the desired result on the ground
  • This isn’t the first time Priyanka’s name has done the rounds at election time. But she’s campaigned only for her mother and brother.
  • Congressmen believe such rumours are floated to target Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and to create a rift between brother and sister
  • Priyanka has been doing behind-the-scenes party work for a while, taking care of Sonia’s constituency and lightening Rahul’s burden
  • No surprise in Priyanka questioning Varun; she had openly mocked Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin Arun Nehru while campaigning for Satish Sharma 
  • Aware that a larger political role comes with the danger of husband Robert Vadra’s business dealings being probed by next government


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 Varun, she was in the process of escalating both her politics and rhetoric.

But Priyanka’s emotional appeal in Amethi wasn’t just the desperation of an older sister watching her you­nger cousin take on the trinity of the Gandhis (mother, brother and sister) on their home turf of Amethi, Rae Bareli and neighbouring Sultan­pur as a BJP candidate. It was a carefully calibrated strategy of an astute leader. Through Varun, Priyanka was in the process of escalating both her politics and rhetoric beyond the family pocketborough and the state of Uttar Pradesh. As the seemingly more aggr­essive sibling, Priyanka was training her guns on the BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi, whose relentless onsl­au­ght of an election camp­aign had left the Gandhis and the Congress reeling.

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”.

“The prime task of the Congress now is to ensure it survives to fight another election.”

As the country entered the fifth phase of polling on April 17, the unthinkable is happening: the very relevance of the Gandhi parivar in the Congress party is being questioned in hushed whispers. As Rasheed Kidwai, author of Sonia’s biography and 24, Akbar Road, put it, “The deal between the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the Cong­ressmen is very clear and simple. The party workers give them unflinching loyalty and the dynasty delivers res­oun­ding electoral victories. The equation changes when the promised vic­tory is not delivered.” In the 2014 polls, brand Rahul Gandhi’s failing to deliver was hurting the dynasty.

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.”

As Rahul fails repeatedly, the clamour for Priyanka has been growing louder.

Indeed, survival beyond May 16 is the most crucial question at the moment, given that the grand old party has not conducted the transition of power from mother to son smoothly. The party is vertically split between the old guard (which under Rahul is sulking and has remained aloof this election) and Rahul’s own team of tech savvy individuals like Sachin Rao, Mohan Gopal and Kanishka Singh. Even senior supporters like Digvijay Singh are reportedly miffed with Rahul’s high handedness, having refused to give Diggy’s son-in-law a ticket and his son the party symbol when he first filed papers. Rahul, insiders explain, made the cardinal mistake of starting individual and direct skirmishes with the old guard in an attempt to clean up the party. Legal eagle and finance minister P. Chidamb­aram got a ticket for his son only after Sonia Gandhi’s intervention and not before he himself agreed to step away from electoral politics this time.

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”.

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

 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.

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