THE CHALLENGER

Indian Polity has been witness to some “watershed events” in its long & arduous journey. Would Priyanka, getting Pole position in Congress become its ‘Turning Point’ in the prevailing political atmosphere?

BY ANIL ANAND

There air is one of expectation & surprise. The murmurs have become garrulous chatter & the unending speculation, surmising & summation has reached its zenith in the aftermath of the Priyanka Gandhi Vadra being assigned a strategically significant role by the Congress. Almost instantly the reverberations of the 2012 Congress slogan ‘Priyanka nahin aandhi hain, doosri Indira Gandhi hain” have begun to disrupt the air in Lutyen’s Delhi & elsewhere. Undoubtedly Priyanka comes across as a lady on a mission; someone who ploughs through the enchanting crowds with effortless ease along the most arid & vengeful political landscape of UP & elsewhere.

Her connect with the electorate encompasses her cheerful disposition & a neat demeanour so fitting of a lady politician. Her graceful & affable order is in keeping with her inheritance from the illustrious Nehru – Gandhi lineage. She is undoubtedly the most charismatic living member in the family who has taken a proper plunge into politics, just at the right time. Contrary to the selective amnesia of her critics, it was a matter of time before she meant to fulfil her own quip of 2012 that “I’ll do anything for my brother, whatever is required of me. I’ll do whatever he requires me to do.” She is naturally gifted with her grandmother’s leadership qualities, her looks & hairdo that she almost completes the package as Congress’s ‘ Brahmastra, unleashed by her brother & Congress President, Rahul Gandhi.

 
It may be no coincidence though that every time a fresh face from the Nehru-Gandhi family plunged into politics, he or she has succeeded in energising the party and raising new hopes. Rajiv Gandhi did it in 1984 & so did Sonia Gandhi in 1998. Can Priyanka Gandhi Vadra repeat a similar feat in 2019? Let us wait & watch.

BATTLE ROYALE

Uttar Pradesh, the largest state which accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats, has created a political tsunami of a different variety. First it was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Samajwadi Party (SP) the arch-rivals’ alliance that created ripples in polity beyond UP; And now Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s formal entry into politics as All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of Eastern UP with other half of the politically significant state going under the charge of Jyotiraditya Scindia.

The two developments have re-established the political significance of UP primarily on account of the highest number of MPs it sends to Lok Sabha but more significantly in setting the political agenda for the entire nation.  The BSP-SP alliance was the first trigger in this direction which in fact had paved the way for a bigger explosion when Congress was kept out of this arrangement.

So came, the entry of Priyanka Gandhi on the political scene in pursuit of Congress’ plan ‘B’ that certainly transcends UP! Questions arise as to what consequences her entry into active politics would have for Congress as well as the much talked about but fragile opposition unity moves. Would she be able to steer the Congress ship in UP and of course in rest of the country as well overcoming glitches in the opposition unity?

Priyanka is dynamic and ostensibly has genetic qualities, inherited from her grandmother Indira Gandhi, to charm and assimilate with the workers and lower and middle rung of the Congress. This is in addition to her capacity to get even with the senior leaders if the need arises. She begins with this strength and it would be interesting to see as to how she is able to use it to her and the party’s benefit.

Given the fact that she has admirers and critics in equal numbers it will be a real test of her mental strength and the training which she underwent  as a member of the country’s first political party of decades, unmindful of the fact that one-day she would have to take up the onerous political assignment. On one hand she has the hostile BJP dispensations to cope with, on the other she has some of her own old party stalwarts to negotiate too. Even though she would be expected to succeed, her critics would not want to miss any to hit back at her in case she fails. She has the knack to snare at the critics which she had amply exhibited in the past beginning with plotting the defeat of his uncle and shrewd political manipulator late Arun Nehru as a BJP candidate from Amethi.

However, the BJP top brass seemed to have been wary of the possibility of her entry into active politics much before the Gandhi family would have deliberated on the issue. An index of this mindset is the repeated overdrive by various arms of the Union Government and some BJP-ruled states in cases related alleged land scams involving her husband Robert Vadra, which despite all hype and hoopla have only reached to the stage of filing FIRs during the last five years. This overdrive is loyally backed by a section of the electronic media. The obvious aim is to indirectly build pressure on Priyanka and thereby create a public perception, right or wrong, so as to thwart her entry into active politics.

In a way this stance of the BJP and some of its allies is a direct reading of her yet to be tested capacity as a mass leader who can deliver on ground. There could never be a better tribute coming from a sworn political rival than this.

Winning Formula

She has crossed the first hurdle by brushing aside the BJP’s Robert Vadra cases threat to plunge into active politics ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha elections. It could be anybody’s guess that she and the other Gandhi family members must have weighed the pros and cons of Vadra factor and worked out a fight back plan before taking this crucial decision. There is no doubt that the BJP’s discourse on this front is going to be shriller as a possible checkmate to Priyanka’s unhindered political flight to strengthen the hands of her brother Rahul and the Congress in the run up to the elections.    

The countdown to her appointment began as soon as the AICC announced her formal entry into politics with immediate focus on UP. Apart from galvanising near defunct Congress organisation in the state, she has, as the reports suggest, another onerous task at hand and that is to build bridges with various caste and religious groups that were once her party’s core supporters. It would be naive to say that the ripple effect of her political presence would be confined to UP alone.

As soon as the AICC announced her appointment, which was kept a closely- guarded secret, through an innocuous routine press communiqué that was rather surprising; expectedly then the chorus of furthering the dynastic and family rule mainly fuelled by the battery of arch-rivals BJP spokespersons was on full display. It (appointment) was certainly not unexpected but what made it more significant were the circumstances and the timing coming barely three months ahead of Lok Sabha elections.

So guarded and shrouded in mystery was the move that even the all powerful AICC general secretary in charge of UP and Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad was remotely unaware of what was going to transpire. It was only few days after he presented a ground situation report to the party president in the aftermath of SP-BSP alliance, suggesting therein that Rahul hold series of rallies across the state. Even when his suggestions were accepted and Azad told to  make preparations for these rallies, he immediately found himself divested of UP charge.

Why this veil of secrecy? This is a million dollar question. Was it meant to catch the party’s old-guard by surprise lest there is any intrigue to thwart or at least weaken the effect of this most significant step in the current transitional phase of the Congress from old to the new generation?

Clearly the biggest and the politically most important state of UP going under the charge of Priyanka-Scindia team with Rahul overseeing the developments, the transition process has taken a significant step forward in the state. It will pave the way for similar generational shift in other states in the days and weeks to come and would get a fillip by Priyanka’s presence.

Old Wine?

There is no denying the fact that her advent on the political scene would also given much needed strength and speed to Rahul’s attempts, at times failed, to give a new look to the party. Perhaps he realises that all his attempts to connect with the youth and young voters would be an effort half done till he had a young profile of the AICC as well as in the states and that Priyanka can act as an effective catalyst.

Priyanka’s entry into active politics and directly landing into UP’s political arena evoked reactions on expected lines. The supporters welcomed the move and the rivals termed it as admission of failure of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership whereas the ilks of BSP and SP chose to be initially guarded and later going into respective huddles to mull over the emerging political situation and impact over electoral prospects of the combine.

Rahul has already declared the Congress’ intent to bat on front-foot and go alone not only in UP but elsewhere also where the regional satraps such as SP, BSP, Trinamool Congress and others are acting pricy. The question foremost in everyone’s mind is whether Priyanka’s presence would compel BSP-SP combine to rethink on their alliance plan to include Congress too with a similar effect in other states also.

Again, it is no secret that despite talk of similarity of Priyanka’s mannerism and conduct to her grandmother the indomitable Indira Gandhi, and her behind the scene political management of family bastion Amethi-Rai Barelli, she has no proven track record of leadership or organisational skills. She has the first hand experience of managing the family fiefdoms of Amethi, Rai Barelley and Sultapur Lok Sabha constituency in UP. But in her new role as in charge of Eastern UP’s over 40 seats, it will be a real-test case of her political skills and leadership.

Nevertheless and given this backdrop her formal entry into politics with a key assignment to reinvigorate Congress in UP has generated more interest, curiosity, anxiety, anger and anguish in different quarters depending upon the colour of the political hat that the particularly viewer or observer wore. So the time tested adage perfectly fits in this situation: “You love her or hate her but you could certainly not ignore her”. And that is the importance of being a Priyanka Gandhi.

Having said that, these certainly are not the best of times for any high profile political launch and that too of a “dynast” as the Nehru-Gandhi family’s bitter rivals describe its members. Yet another popular saying “baptism by fire” perfectly fits in this situation. Priyanka’s entry into politics when the chips are down for the Congress with even its prospective friends (read allies) not prepared to give much leeway but in turn expect the “elder brother” to be more accommodating, is no less than a baptism by fire.

But a baptism by fire such as this would also weaken the accusation of political rivals’ (read BJP) of para-trooping into active politics using the family name. She has been brought with a mission to revive and strengthen almost defunct Congress organisation in UP and electrify the party workers in other states. Her political launch cannot by any standards be described as means for immediate personal aggrandisement.

All eyes henceforth would be riveted on her and her each and every move would be under close scrutiny. Since not much time is left for the Lok Sabha elections the task for her is as tough as the prescribed deadline to give results. Obviously the real test for her in this case is the Lok Sabha elections and the task to help Congress make its mark despite being sandwiched between BJP on one side and BSP-SP combine on the other.

Congress had never been known for its adventurist political skills till the phenomenon called Narendra Modi drubbed and shook them out of the slumber. The party under Rahul Gandhi seems to have picked up some time-tested skills that were alien to the party till recent times. Now that they have embraced the adage “offence being the best defence” & by leading from the front and putting their best foot forward, it remains to be seen how much of this adopted bravado shall conclude into a tangible dividends. The offence part has already been taken care of by Rahul and the other phenomenon had started taking shape when the party did not allow BJP’s established chief ministers in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to have an easy go by fielding weak candidates against them in the recently held Assembly elections.

Voice & Vote

Priyanka’s appointment is a big leap forward in continuation of this policy and a total departure from Congress’ inglorious policy of saving and protecting the best and the strongest, God knows for which occasion.  In fact this had become the core of the party’s sycophantic culture over the decades where during any trying circumstance the so called loyalists would counsel the top brass to remain invisible and not question or rebut or speak out to dispel even the false propaganda.

She has a tough task ahead and very little time for experimentation. The Priyanka- Scindia youthful line-up of two “upper caste” leaders having been made in charge of UP does explain to some extent the scope of their assignment. It seems to be a two-pronged strategy that they are supposed to pursue in the next few weeks and that is to enthuse the party’s dormant rank and file as well as the general public or more precisely the targeted voter with a focus on youth.

Secondly and even more importantly the duo are expected to help in working out the caste and religion combination favourably that is different from what BJP and BSP-SP is looking at and which would certainly entail weaning away some sections from these two groupings. Here comes into play the “upper caste” background of Priyanka and Scindia. It is no more a hidden fact that the “upper castes” the traditional support base of BJP have no love lost for the saffron party following the reservation related developments. A strong message has been sent to these castes by the Congress with these appointments.

One reason why Muslim community had serious reservations on voting for Congress was that the party had no other supporting vote bank to ensure victory of its candidates which resulted in the minority community looking towards BSP and SP in the past. Currently both the “upper castes” and the Muslim community are restive though for different reasons and are in quest of new forums for redress of their grievances.

Conclusion

Could Priyanka help Congress spin this magic even beyond the borders of UP?

This is a significant question awaiting an answer. There is no denying the fact and which is borne out by initial reactions following her appointment that Priyanka effect is bound to be felt among Congressmen across the country.

As the chorus grows in her favour the Congress would be faced with yet another tricky situation requiring a fine balance between Rahul and Priyanka. This balancing act is needed to prevent any possibility of two power centres developing and the shrewd Congressmen developing a vested interest in playing the siblings against each other.

The going would be tough for Priyanka both on field and within the party. It will be interesting to see how Rahul-Priyanka combo deals with the situation that also includes the Robert Vadra factor.