“Last night, every single one of you congratulated me. Many of you hugged me. But last night, my mother came to my room and sat with me and cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many people seek is actually a poison. She can see it because of what it does to the people around and the people they love. Most of all, she can see it because she is not attached to it. We should not chase power for the attributes of power, we should only use it to empower the voices.”
— Rahul Gandhi
in January 2013, upon being made vice president of the Indian National Congress party.
The year is 1980 and Rahul Gandhi and his sister, Priyanka, are in a parked Ambassador car at New Delhi’s Palam Airport, not yet named Indira Gandhi International Airport. There is an argument, a little pushing. In the door frame, unnoticed, appears a handsome man in the uniform of an Indian Airlines captain, smiling as he peeks in at the scrapping pair. A word from him and the duo are separated, their dispute forgotten. The car drives off noisily, children now focusing on Rajiv Gandhi, India’s future prime minister.
Some weeks later, as New Delhi’s Raghubir Singh Junior Modern School on central New Delhi’s Humayun Road celebrates Sports Day, Rajiv and his wife, Sonia, turn up in T-shirts and jeans to mingle unobtrusively with children and fellow parents, whose children share Priyanka’s class. Gamely, Rajiv joins a potato-sack race organised for parents. As the contest starts, he tumbles over and so do a few other parents. In a trice, portly sports minister Buta Singh, chief guest at the event, leaps to his side, obsequiously dusting off the younger man’s clothes as other parents fend for themselves. What a fool the politician, attempting to ingratiate himself so plainly! Indira’s older son waves him away, and he and Sonia exchange winks and nudges.
Dad and Mum, dinner over at the joint family home they share with prime minister Indira Gandhi, drive the short distance to the India Gate monument to the war dead, for the popsicles and ice cream sold by a fat Sikh man whose trolley rolls up every evening and stays until just after 11pm. Which kid would not like Mum’s pasta, especially when the recipe is straight from Italy and she is only too happy to enter the kitchen? For the pre-teen Rahul and Priyanka, life would have seemed complete.
Forward to 1988, and Rajiv is prime minister of India, having been elected with a record parliamentary majority that beat the best results delivered for his Congress party by even his famous grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, thanks to the flood of national sympathy over the assassination of Indira Gandhi. It is the 100th anniversary celebration of a key government department, and Rajiv, as chief guest, has brought his family along for the dinner. The dessert is a sweetmeat common in northern India called revdi, a hard, sugared candy made in flat rounds encrusted with sesame. Food aficionados credit the revdi made in Meerut, a busy cantonment town 70 km to New Delhi’s northeast, to be the finest in India. Spotting the sweet in the buffet line, Sonia turns to mutter to Rahul in rapid-fire Italian, the boy vigorously nodding in agreement. Her husband, who follows Italian, explains to a curious onlooker: “She is telling Rahul: ‘Remember, before Dad became prime minister, we used to drive down to Meerut over the weekend to eat their revdi. Don’t you miss those days?’”
These and other similar moments must surely play through the minds of the Gandhi widow and her two children a thousand times as they dutifully trudge the dusty hinterland of India, even as the tide of public opinion has swung so sharply against the Congress party they inherited, and lead. The assassinations of father and grandmother aren’t the children’s only painful memories. Uncle Sanjay, their father’s politically active younger brother, was killed when the stunt plane he was flying crashed in June 1980. That was when Grandma, bereft of Sanjay’s muscular support, turned to Dad, forcing him to leave his Indian Airlines job to “help Mummy”. Sonia wept that day, knowing her calm and carefully ordered life was soon to turn upside down.
And of course it does, starting within the household. Indira Gandhi’s turning to Rajiv upsets Maneka, Sanjay’s young widow, who had stood by Indira Gandhi during her bad times and now assumes the political legacy will come to her. There are tensions in the joint family, shouting, and then the spunky aunt is bounced out of the house by Grandma. With her goes Priyanka’s toddler cousin, Varun Feroze, the boy who carries the name of Indira’s husband, and is loved by one and all.
Outside the home, Indira Gandhi is facing Sikh separatism in Punjab, partly fanned by her own home affairs minister, who is in a political battle with the Akali Dal group that governs Punjab. Forced to send in troops to oust the rebels from the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, Indira draws outrage from the Sikh community, even those who have no sympathy for militancy. One day, the car carrying Rahul and Priyanka to school is bumped by another vehicle. Indira, fearful it is an attack on her grandchildren, or at the very least a warning, gathers the kids and takes them on a short holiday to Kashmir, seeking peace amid the maples, evergreens and pines of the Valley. Short weeks later, on October 31, 1984, she is cut down by bullets fired by her own Sikh bodyguards, and it is Mum, Sonia, who rushes the mortally wounded prime minister to hospital. In less than seven years, their own father, who succeeds Indira as prime minister, would be killed too, blown up while campaigning in Tamil Nadu by a woman suicide bomber dispatched by the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. So massive is the blast that Rajiv is recognised only by his running shoes. The body is accompanied to New Delhi by his school chum, Suman Dubey, who has since remained a father figure to the Gandhi kids and Sonia’s most trusted counsellor.
Whatever you may say about the Gandhi clan, their vanity, lack of intellectual depth or propensity to fall for flattery – the obsequious Buta Singh rose to be home affairs minister in Rajiv’s Cabinet – it is indisputable that a streak of public service runs in their veins. So, too, a concern for the dispossessed and the people who lead marginal existences. Rahul’s selfimage, for instance, is clearly of one selflessly and unceasingly defending the interests of the poor and the underprivileged, in the tradition of his grandmother, Indira, and great-grandfather Nehru. It is a role he takes seriously. Ashutosh Varshney, head of the political science department at Brown University in the US, recalls sharing a Virgin Atlantic flight from New Delhi to London. Rahul had dozed off for a while and when he awoke, Varshney, seated near him in Business Class, suggested a chat at the bar. For the next three hours, Rahul stood there sipping orange juice and discussing poverty and other developmental issues with the Ivy League don.
His critics, and there are millions of them now, refer to Rahul as Pappu – a Hindi word for dupe. Jokes about his intellect abound within India’s swelling middle classes. A Doon School contemporary remembers him as not a particularly bright spark in an institution that emphasised a wellrounded personality and sound instincts over academic excellence. Rahul was removed from school early and abruptly because of fears for his safety – Rajiv, reportedly driving himself and with a security car following at a discreet distance, showed up early one morning and took the lad back into the security of the prime ministerial home. From then on, for the cocooned lad, some of his best pals were his father’s security officers, all older than him, and alongside whom he sometimes practised at the Special Protection Group’s firing range in Mehrauli, emerging as a crack shot.
Those who know the man better have a different take on his intellect. Like Varshney, senior people in Singapore who know Rahul speak of an earnest person with a keen interest to debate, and learn about, development issues. One Singapore minister who hosted Rahul in his house spoke of spending the entire evening in serious discussion. In New Delhi, former external affairs minister K Natwar Singh, no friend of the Gandhi clan these days, once noticed that a book I was carrying had several passages underlined with a pencil. Rahul, he said, was also a voracious reader and, like me, tended to highlight key passages or thoughts in his books. Despite their falling out, Natwar Singh seemed to have no animus towards Rahul. And he was firmly of the opinion that Congress would not survive if the Gandhis were not around. Both Sonia and Rahul, he pointed out, were unquestioned dynasts – but they were also elected dynasts, repeatedly endorsed by people in parliamentary elections. Sonia too, it appears, is a book lover.
Nevertheless, the image of Rahul stuck in people’s minds is that of a genial dunce, or Pappu. A series of gaffes has contributed to the reputation. In April 2013, a year before he led the Congress party into the national election that got it all but wiped out, Rahul spoke to the country’s top businessmen at an event organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry. There he warned about investing too much hope in Modi, saying “We go into this model where you have one guy who will come and fix everything. He is going to come on a horse, the sun is in the background. There are a billion people waiting. He is coming and everything is going to be fine. No, it’s not going to work like that.”
Rahul was right of course, but the intelligence of his words was obscured by his clumsy articulation on these and other issues that headline writers seized upon. One of them was to liken India to a beehive. “People call us an elephant… We are not an elephant… we are a beehive. It’s funny but think about it. Which is more powerful? An elephant or a beehive?” Rahul was speaking about inane comparisons of China as a massive dragon with its insatiable appetite for infrastructure and India as a slow-moving elephant. He meant to speak about Indian society’s resilience, like a beehive that survives strong winds by swaying with it. But while the idea makes sense, the words came out all wrong. People in the audience looked at each other, not sure of what they were hearing. Six months later, he told a conference of India’s Scheduled Castes – former Hindu outcastes now called Dalits – that India’s Dalits needed the escape velocity of Jupiter to escape their plight. To escape Earth’s gravitational pull, he explained, you need to travel into space at a speed of 11.2 km per second. In Jupiter, that was 60 kmps. Since Rahul was illustrating the social plight of India’s most underprivileged social classes, he was perfectly within reason to use the analogy, but India’s media, particularly television and the English print press, is mostly composed of urban, English-educated classes who unconsciously sneer at the lower classes. A fresh round of jokes began to circulate about Rahul. The subtext was that his audience couldn’t be trusted to handle a concept like escape velocity. It was as though there was little he could do without attracting ridicule.
At other times, he simply bombed as a politician. In January 2014, Rahul gave his first television interview, with the Times NOW channel landing the coup. Arnab Goswami, the channel’s combative anchor, mentioned Modi more than two dozen times during the 80-minute interview. Rahul, trying to focus on issues, avoided saying Modi’s name for the most part, and instead talked of issues such as development, women’s rights and corruption. At times he rambled, frequently referring to himself in the third person. The New York Times later wrote, “Mr Gandhi fumbled, stared with a blank expression and a tilted head and looked wounded at times.” There was no question about it. The interview was a failure: it made the self-assured Modi, in contrast, look not only like the more formidable contender but also overwhelmingly more competent as a leader.
Meanwhile, as the polls approached, Congress was a house divided. The old boy herd, whose power was built around a lifetime of influence peddling, gathered around Sonia while Rahul was trying to push his own ideas, including promoting a younger crop of idealistic candidates. The vital southern state of Andhra Pradesh was particularly riven with Congress feuding and some key moneybags refused to open their kitty to the party, even if funds had been gathered in its name. Television channels, sensing the mood was massively for Modi, often offered split-screen live coverage of Modi and Rahul speeches, but while Modi could be heard, Rahul was muted out most of the time.
Nor was it any better after the election, which delivered the Congress party its worst drubbing. With Congress strength in the powerful lower house of parliament cut to 44 seats, a historic low, Sonia and Rahul came out to accept defeat before the national media. After congratulating the new government and wishing it the best, Rahul acknowledged that his party had done very badly.
“As vice president of the Congress, I hold myself responsible,” he said. Then, standing to his mother’s left as she took the microphone, Rahul seemed a picture of relief and joy, smiling throughout the brief session. India’s media, sections of which suggested he had been smirking, quickly speculated on the reasons for Rahul’s behaviour. Many surmised it signalled relief that he would not be called upon to pursue an occupation he didn’t quite relish, but had been pushed into by a sense of duty, or his mother’s ambitions, just as Meryl Streep pushes her son’s political career in The Manchurian Candidate.
Watching his performance on television, I, too, got the same sense. Rahul was radiating unparalleled relief. Later, checks with people close to the Congress leadership offered up a totally different picture. On that day, when Sonia and Rahul announced at short notice they would face the cameras, beat reporters were mostly out of the office, contacting people in the new government. In many newsrooms, the youngest staffers – many of them women barely into their twenties – were told to hurry down to Congress party headquarters. These young women, eager to take photographs of the handsome Rahul or shoot selfies with him in the background, frequently squealed out to him to smile and look their way. With no sense of the moment, Rahul had obliged. Television cameras, stationed in the back of the press scrum, had caught only Rahul’s expression, not the entreaties to which he was responding.
Later, when Sonia, as chair of the United Progressive Alliance, hosted dinner for the departing Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet, Rahul was nowhere to be seen. He was overseas on holiday, after a gruelling election.
It is hard to tell why someone so steeped in his family’s political tradition, and with the best recognised family name in Indian politics, should prove so lacklustre as a leader. Rahul’s parliamentary interventions are remarked upon only because they are so rare. He has one of the worst attendance records. In early 2015, he missed the entire budget session of parliament, having disappeared from India for nearly two months with no explanation about his whereabouts. And he is invariably remembered for the wrong reasons. In August 2015, a journalist with a telephoto lens captured him walking into parliament with a cheat sheet in hand, the key points of his speech, to be made in Hindi, written out in Roman script. Twitter and other social media lit up with #Pappu talk for days.
Vayalar Ravi, a longtime Congressman and minister, says Sonia once asked him for advice on how Rahul should go about building his political career. “Madam, in youth politics you have to be a little aggressive, burn a few buses and things,” Ravi offered. Sonia vigorously shook her head in disagreement and changed the subject.
One explanation offered to me by someone who has known the family since the 1960s is that after four generations in power, the biting urge and burning hunger to hold high office à la Modi are simply not there in Rahul. Instead, there is a sense of fatigue. Another could be fear of one more great tragedy being inflicted upon the family, should it accept power directly. It has now come to light that the reason Sonia declined to be prime minister, when the post was available to her in 2004, was not because of any advice from president APJ Abdul Kalam or her own self-confessed “inner voice”. in his book, Natwar Singh described a scene between Sonia and Rahul witnessed by him, Manmohan Singh and Suman Dubey. Sonia apparently was willing to be prime minister but Rahul stepped in and vetoed the idea. As a son, he would not allow her to come in harm’s way after his father and grandmother had fallen to assassins, he insisted. Sonia, of course, famously told the world later that an “inner voice” had stopped her from taking the job.
According to Natwar Singh, the Gandhi clan tried its best to stop the story from surfacing. Indeed, he told me, pointing to the chair on which I sat, Sonia had sat in his drawing room with Priyanka, after years of ignoring him, pleading that he not go public with the event. Natwar could not oblige them – the book, he told them, was already with the printers.
The pity is that young Rahul had shown much promise initially. In March 2006, when he made his first major speech in parliament, he had focused on education. In fact, reading that speech, I discovered that he’d spoken of ancient Nalanda University even before the idea of its revival was mooted by president Kalam. His travels around India, he said, had convinced him that education was not about schools and universities but fulfilling aspirations. “A successful education system must do two things: it must allow all young Indians to dream, and it must teach them the skills to turn those dreams into reality,” he said, to resounding cheers from every section of the House.
The candour and sincerity in his address touched a chord. Word then was that Rahul might be planning to step into the shoes of human resource development minister Arjun Singh, who was ailing. It made sense: more than a third of Indians were below the age of 15 and many would soon be eligible to vote. A new minister tuned to the latest thinking was probably just what the country needed. After all, his father, Rajiv, was credited with laying the foundations of India’s rise as a power in computing and software.
Rahul’s reluctance to enter government was a point of frustration for many young MPs in Congress, who felt their own progress was hampered on this account. While many of the younger guard – Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora and some others – did get junior ministerial berths, some, like Pilot, clearly had potential to go higher. Scindia, too, while no bright spark in school, had flowered in adulthood and won the respect of the bureaucrats who dealt with him. They spoke of his keen grasp of matters and the preparations he made for meetings. But because of his lineage – he is the current head of the Scindia clan that ruled the erstwhile Gwalior state – Jyoti Scindia and others like him had to be particularly careful to not grab too much limelight, lest it touch off some of the famous insecurities endemic to the Gandhi household. So they bit their tongues and bided their time. Many were plainly frustrated but they kept their thoughts mostly private, or confided only in a rare few.
Manmohan Singh repeatedly said he would like to see Rahul in Cabinet but Rahul held firm, insisting he wanted to learn politics “brick by brick”. Having successfully managed his mother’s 2006 by-election with spectacular results, he withdrew into a shell, just when party colleagues felt he had built up the right momentum to make a spectacular lunge for the national stage. There was also fear of being lured into a trap by his coalition allies. To take charge of Congress and then lead the party into disastrous showings in elections would be the kiss of death to the dynasty. Sadly for him, that would be his fate in 2014, except that Congress, desperately short of ideas and appeal, continues to cling to the dynasty.
“Rahul had everything to offer a young person but his gestation period was too long,” noted political anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan told me, as he watched the 2014 election results unfolding on television. “It created a ‘Prince Charles effect’. He was seen as a pupa that refuses to fly.”
There was, of course, the desire to live a life as near normal as his pedigree and position would allow. Rahul loved to race motorcycles, for instance. A ranking bureaucrat, whose government bungalow was not far from Rahul’s, told me of the nuisance that the Gandhi scion and friends often created – getting the Special Protection Group to close off Aurangzeb Road, now renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road, in central New Delhi so they could race around on high-powered motorbikes in the middle of the night.
A trip to Singapore in 2006, where he had two lengthy sessions with founding father Lee Kuan Yew, may also have influenced his thinking. “Rahul came back with two insights from his various meetings in Singapore,” someone who used to speak to him frequently told me. “One is, do not be in a hurry. Second, build a team of able and reliable people that you can count on to implement your vision once you are ready for the job.”
Rahul’s dual persona was in view in the week he spent on the prosperous island in the heart of Southeast Asia. Keen student of the city-state’s development story by day, he was a lounge lizard at night. At least once he was spotted late at the Ministry of Sound nightclub, swilling whisky and enjoying himself. But his instinct for people was present throughout. His tour included a visit to an oil-rig building facility operated by Keppel Corporation, one of Singapore’s top conglomerates. Indian workers on site recognised Rahul and stopped to cheer, a witness to the event told me. Pleased, he turned to meet them. One janitor held up his broom and joined his palms to greet him in the traditional Indian way, signalling he didn’t want to shake hands lest Rahul feel defiled if their hands touched. Jawaharlal Nehru’s great-grandson strode up, yanked the broom away, and vigorously pumped hands with the delighted cleaner. That day, in Singapore, the Gandhi family won one more admirer and perhaps hundreds more in that man’s village.
Was Rahul putting on an act? Not at all. His father, who was as completely at ease sipping a roadside vendor’s tea as dining with the president of the US, would perhaps have done the same thing.
Rahul’s demise as a vote catcher has been sealed with Congress’ performance in the Delhi state assembly polls of February 2015. The fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, led by former tax officer Arvind Kejriwal, swept all but three of the 70 seats in Delhi.
“Aam Aadmi” stands for “Common Man”, and in fact was a phrase adopted by Congress in 2004, thanks to the astute Jairam Ramesh, a speech writer for Rahul and his mother who was subsequently given a Cabinet berth. Against the BJP’s “India Shining” campaign, Ramesh, who did his tertiary education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and remembered Walter Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” punchline from his days in America, thought up the slogan for Congress. The phrase delivered stunning results in 2004 by successfully portraying it as the party of the masses and the BJP as an effete, urban force. It was telling that not only have the poor of India now deserted Congress, but that its key planks have been usurped by all manner of pretenders. Of course, voter fatigue with Congress was a factor as well for its rout in Delhi.
For 15 years from 1998, Delhi had voted in successive Congress state governments, the last of which sank in the stink of corruption scandals associated with preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Yet Rahul, save for one campaign speech, was nowhere to be seen. It was as though he had either lost the zest for a campaign, or had given up hope and did not want to be associated with a lost cause.
For both Congress and the BJP, which too suffered equally despite rolling out prime minister Narendra Modi as its champion campaigner, the opponent to beat was Kejriwal. In December 2013, the mercurial taxman had stitched up a minority government in Delhi with Congress support, then abruptly quit after 49 days when Congress and the BJP refused to support his anti-corruption legislation for the appointment of an ombudsman. When Delhi voted in the elections to national parliament that followed a few months later, it had given all its seven parliamentary seats to the BJP. Yet, barely eight months after that, here was AAP and Kejriwal returning with a stunning and unprecedented electoral showing in the state elections.
Writing in the Business Standard newspaper after the state polls, TN Ninan, perhaps India’s most respected editor, summed up Rahul’s predicament. “A year ago, Mr Kejriwal was in a bigger mess than Mr Gandhi,” wrote Ninan. “He had thrown away a mandate, angered voters, and then eaten humble pie in the Lok Sabha elections. Since then, Mr Gandhi has played hide and seek while Mr Kejriwal has rebuilt his reputation and his party, in the very city where Mr Gandhi lives. While one has delivered resolute reconstruction, the other has been missing in action. There is no further proof required that Mr Gandhi has no taste for the job of rebuilding his party, and no stomach for a political fight. The best thing he can do for the Congress is to get out of the way.”
Ninan is right. For all his earnestness, Rahul just doesn’t have the pull of the Gandhis. His standing in the party is almost exclusively because no one wants to get on the wrong side of his doting mother, whose grip on Congress is absolute. Aside from the perception deficit that afflicts him, Rahul’s is a limited agenda for one who is projected by his party as a national leader. Unlike his great-grandfather, Nehru, or his grandmother, Indira, he seems to have little interest in foreign policy. Instead, he is so focused on development issues that even the young and upwardly mobile Indians do not connect with him. Perhaps it was because he grew up with the legend of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s deep link with the rural masses. In the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi’s rallying cry, one that helped her win power and dominate Congress, was “Garibi Hatao, Desh Bachao” – Remove Poverty, Save the Nation! Rahul is stuck on that groove.
“My politics is very simple,” he once said. “As long as there are poor people in India, I will stand by them. I do not care what his religion, caste or colour is or where he comes from.”
Rahul’s failing, and Sonia’s too, is to stay frozen in old ideologies without realising that both Indira Gandhi and her son, Rajiv, ruled with more pragmatism than is recognised generally. As early as 1982, for instance, Indira had begun to reduce India’s reliance on the Soviet Union and build ties with the US.
Thus, when Sonia and Rahul oppose government acquisition of agricultural land for industry, they fail to acknowledge that it was Nehru who put land acquisition outside judicial review, saying national interests would sometimes entail displacements. Indira, too, had amended Indian laws to declare that farmers whose lands were taken by the government were entitled to an “amount” but could not expect full “compensation”. Her son, Rajiv, was a practical man when it came to policy, with little fear of private enterprise. This is where Rahul is not easy to understand; surely, with his deep interest in development economics, he must be aware of the importance of industry to growing the employment pool. Factories cannot be built without land.
But Sonia and Rahul soldier blithely on, peddling old mantras, increasingly at odds with even the people they claim to represent while causing immense damage to India’s development prospects at a time when a window of opportunity has opened for it. Alongside, of course, is a conviction that they, and they alone, were born to rule party and government, and almost everyone else is an interloper. While Rahul seems a writeoff – many in India refer to him now as the “former future prime minister” – increasingly, there is resistance to him even within Congress. The old boy clique of Congresswallahs insist that Sonia continue to lead them, which is another way of saying they don’t want the son.
Against the growing realisation that the little emperor has few votes, one tantalising question that will not go away is whether his sister, Priyanka, will one day step into active politics. There is a ready-made constituency waiting for her. The Gandhi women are made of stern stuff and in Priyanka, people sense determination and flair, just as, in her time, Indira Gandhi was hailed by admirers as an incarnation of the Goddess Durga, embodying power and invincibility. Priyanka does have a resemblance to her grandmother, particularly in the way she wears her hair. In repose, she actually looks more like her father.
The spunk in Priyanka surfaced early. In 1991, barely out of her teens, she campaigned against Arun Nehru, Rajiv’s cousin who had fallen out with him and then sought to usurp his parliamentary seat of Amethi after Rajiv was killed. Her entry into the battle proved a success. Arun Nehru was defeated and Rajiv’s friend and flying associate, Satish Sharma, won through in Amethi, establishing Priyanka as a political draw. Captain Sharma yielded the Amethi seat to Sonia in 1999, who then vacated it for Rahul in 2004. Since then, Priyanka’s focus has been on ensuring that Amethi and nearby Rae Bareli, her mother’s current constituency, have been safe for Congress, freeing mother and brother to campaign across the nation. Her best performance came in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections, where Congress won seven of the 10 assembly segments within the parliamentary constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli.
And she was one Gandhi who could match Narendra Modi word for word. In the heat of campaigning for the 2009 general election, Modi had come down from Gujarat to carry his fearsome oratory to UP, repeatedly sneering at Congress as a “125-year-old hag who is a burden on the family”. Congress was a bit uncertain how to respond. It was Priyanka who slew that jibe with characteristic elan. “Do Sonia Gandhi, Rahul or I look old to you? If elderly people feel young, it is good for their health.”
Yet, that solid performance on the stump can no longer be taken for granted as the party loses its roots one by one. In the 2012 state elections, Congress lost in three of the five assembly segments in Amethi. And in the 2014 parliamentary election, despite her hectic campaigning for Rahul in his Amethi constituency to stem an onslaught by the BJP and Modi, the brother retained his seat with a much thinner margin. Still, there is not a Congressman who would not welcome Priyanka taking a bigger role in the party, if nothing else, because she is such a draw and Congress could use her fresh, feisty personality. Indeed, Natwar Singh speaks of her with admiration: “She is superb, witty and great with one-liners that instantly communicate with her audience.”
But Priyanka has steadfastly refused to be drawn in, instead ensuring the maidan (ground) is reserved exclusively for her brother. She is adamant that her principal focus is her children, son Raihan and daughter Miraya. With Raihan now a resident scholar at Doon School, Congresswallahs have not given up hoping she will seize the mantle. Hours after the Delhi state election results were announced in February 2015, signalling a complete rout for Congress at Arvind Kejriwal’s hands, a crowd showed up at Sonia’s door, demanding Priyanka be drafted into the party.
Priyanka’s political Achilles heel is her husband, Robert Vadra, known for his cosy relationships with top realtors around the capital. Vadra’s deals had become an election issue but the BJP has held fire since coming to power, partly because it wants to hold the issue in reserve to pressure the Gandhis when it needs to, which would be if Congress showed signs of a reawakening. As TVR Shenoy, one of the most astute observers of Indian politics, told me, “Modi wants the luxury of being able to choose his opposition at the appropriate time and he will keep Congress alive with this in mind.”
While Priyanka has defended the business dealings of her husband, it is not certain whether this comes from conviction that he is blameless or from a wifely instinct to defend the family name against attack. In her time, Indira Gandhi’s husband, Feroze Gandhi, had also given plenty of trouble to his father-in-law, Nehru. But Feroze, an MP who had changed his original surname, Ghandy, to match that of freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi, had done so by exposing possible corruption in the Nehru Cabinet.
Vadra, a man who was introduced to Priyanka when she was in her teens, is a different kettle of fish. His life has been troubled too. A brother committed suicide, a sister died in a car crash and his father was found dead in a cheap motel some years ago. His mother, Maureen, is listed as a partner in his business ventures, many of which have shown astounding success after the Congress party regained power in 2004. Vadra is also known to be fast friends with the owners of DLF, one of India’s biggest real estate firms, and he occupies a massive apartment in the DLF-built Aralias development in the suburb of Gurgaon. Neighbours say that when he entertains, DLF Golf and Country Club, whose verdant greens his apartment overlooks, obliges by keeping the floodlights on until the party is over.
While he gets along well with Rahul, his relationship with Sonia isn’t apparently quite so warm any longer. Vadra showed up with Rahul as he filed his nomination papers from Amethi but kept a low profile during the remainder of the campaign and was not around when Sonia filed her own papers in the adjacent constituency. That he is a political liability for Congress is undeniable. During the 2014 campaign, Modi repeatedly targeted Vadra’s business deals and often caricatured Congress as no more than RSVP – standing for Rahul, Sonia, Vadra and Priyanka – a jibe that even the feisty Priyanka found hard to put down, although she did try. Priyanka’s counter was to ask Modi to stop trying to be a schoolmaster teaching children the letters of the alphabet such as ABCD and RSVP.
Yet Priyanka’s public image is at odds with the woman she is. Most people see her as gregarious, outgoing, a natural politician. In truth, outside the five-year election cycle, she is a private person, often showing up quietly in New Delhi’s Santushti Shopping Complex or Khan Market to shop alone for cotton clothes. Sometimes she flies Raihan and Miraya to Singapore, where the family can move around with minimum security. Her big intellectual interest is Buddhism.
Of the two Gandhi siblings, Priyanka, particularly, has had more difficulty exorcising the ghosts that haunt them. In 2008, she travelled to Vellore Central Prison in Tamil Nadu to meet Nalini Sriharan, one of the women who plotted her father’s assassination on behalf of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers. Sriharan, sentenced to death, had her punishment reduced to life imprisonment on a plea from Sonia.
“Visiting Nalini was my way of coming to terms with the violence and loss that I have suffered,” Priyanka explained later. “I do not believe in anger, violence and hatred and I do not let these things overpower my life.”