Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
It is the media speculation about Priyanka Vadra Gandhi that has always had a feverish ring to it. She is expected to bring a magic wand to revive the decimated party, something that her brother and party president Rahul Gandhi is supposed to have failed to do, though he is fighting the first general election this summer. And there have been conspiratorial theories that in old-style palace intrigues, the ostensibly charismatic and cleverer than her brother Priyanka is supposed to replace him in the party. There are some courtiers in the party who talk of these things in hushed tones and which the media believes to be the ‘pulse’ of the party. But the facts are prosaic.
She was slated to lead the party like her distinguished grandmother Indira Gandhi, and it has been in the air since 1999 when she attacked Arun Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin who joined hands with VP Singh in 1988 and turned against her father. She launched an emotionally-charged frontal attack, accusing Arun Nehru of stabbing her father in the back.
At the time her mother was the party president, and she and her brother were not in politics. There was speculation again in 2003 that the brother-sister duo would join the political fray and help revive the party’s fortunes in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. It did not happen.
It was Sonia Gandhi with the help of advisers who reached out to allies and formed the United Progressive Alliance and succeeded in forming a government in 2004. Rahul Gandhi had then joined the party at the time and became a first time Member of Parliament from Amethi, even as Sonia Gandhi contested from her mother-in-law’s constituency of Rae Bareli. There was not much speculation about Priyanka in 2009, though the hushed talk was heard again how Sonia Gandhi, like a typical Italian-Indian mother, is doting on the son to the neglect of the talented daughter.
Even as Rahul Gandhi struggled to find his political feet in the Lok Sabha election of 2014 after he became the vice-president of the party in 2013, and as president in 2017, there was no loud talk about Priyanka entering politics. So when the press statement was issued on January 23 appointing her as the general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, the key Hindi heartland state which will decide the fate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP, the news caught everyone off guard. No one expected her to be inducted at this moment in this way, and given a modest assignment.
Uttar Pradesh will be looked after by Jyotiraditya Scindia and Priyanka, two new generation leaders, who are in their 40s, and whose fathers have been leaders in the party. Scindia had campaigned for the party in the parliamentary elections of 2004, 2009 and 2014, and the assembly elections of 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018.
In many ways, Scindia is the more experienced of the two. Priyanka had only been the campaign manager for her mother and brother in the parliamentary elections in Rae Bareli and Amethi.
It is indeed a moot question whether the two new appointees can do anything to turn around the fortunes of the party in the most populous state in the country with the largest contingent of 80 members in the Lok Sabha. Priyanka’s formal political baptism in Uttar Pradesh will be just that, a baptism. She cannot be expected to do miracles for the party in this election.
There is, however, the danger that her formal presence in the party structure will make her a power centre of her own, and she will have to tackle the position deftly because she cannot, and should not, turn away members of the party who would want to approach her to get favours from the brother. At the same time, she has to avoid becoming a power centre parallel to that of her brother.
Party insiders make it clear that there is no inner rivalry in the family, that Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka act in unison and they consult each other. There was a sense that Rahul Gandhi faced problems in asserting his authority in the party while he was the vice-president and after taking over as president, because Sonia was keen that feathers should not ruffled, and the party old guard should not be thrown out in any peremptory action.
It does appear that her counsel has prevailed. Priyanka will, however, be seen as the bridge between Rahul and the party cadre, and she may have greater freedom to take decisions, which will not be overturned by the brother.
Priyanka is yet to win her political spurs. Her charming personality cannot be the base for inferring that she will be a charismatic leader in the mould of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. Many people forget that Indira Gandhi had to struggle to establish her credentials in the party as well as in the country from 1966, when she took over as prime minister after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri and 1971 when she won a massive mandate with her slogan, ‘Garibi hatao’. But her charisma did not work in 1977 when she and the Congress were wiped out in Uttar Pradesh.
The belief of the spineless members of the Congress that it is the Nehru-Gandhis who will bring them back to power is not in sync with the national mood. The people in this country are evaluating every political leader on their ability. Prime Minister Modi will learn to his dismay in the May election that people do not care much for his so-called charisma, which the members of the BJP slavishly believe. Charisma is a component of political reckoning of leaders but it is not the only one. There has to be a feasible programme, an acceptable ideology. Each leader will have to make sense of what is the programme and what is the ideology. If Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra were to speak the language of their grandmother, then they might find there are no takers for this. The poor people in India of 2019 think differently from the poor people in the country back in 1971. Mr Modi knew that people had no patience for the mumbo-jumbo of Hindutva and the Ram temple in Ayodhya. That is why, through the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, he did not utter the words ‘Hindutva’ and ‘the Ram temple in Ayodhya’. He cannot harp on slogans of 2014 in 2019. The dynamic of democracy does not allow that.
The fact that Priyanka has been assigned eastern Uttar Pradesh means that she will not campaigning for the party across the country as Rahul, who will be chief campaigner in his capacity as party president. The burden of the Congress’ national campaign will rest on the shoulders of Rahul Gandhi alone, this time around. Priyanka will have to do her years of apprenticeship as did her brother. Rahul served an apprenticeship of 13 years from 2004 to 2017.
Priyanka will have to be an apprentice at least for five years. In the unlikely scenario of Rahul Gandhi taking over as prime minister of an anti-BJP coalition government, then there would be frantic moves by the sycophants in the party to make Priyanka the party president. As of now this looks an unrealistic scenario. Whatever be the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, Priyanka Gandhi will travel across the country and meet party workers and leaders, and the people. She will familiarise herself with the politics of the country. It is something that the Nehru-Gandhis do. Jawaharlal Nehru did it, so did Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The only one who did not serve the apprenticeship period is Sonia Gandhi. She took over as president of the party in 1998 without prior experience in politics and in the party. But that was an exception. The party was so desperate in 1998 that it allowed a novice to take over the party. But she handled her job well because Sonia Gandhi worked with the senior leaders in the party. She did not display the impetuosity that is characteristic of the Nehru-Gandhis. She was very un-Nehru-Gandhi in the manner she managed the party. And she did her job creditably well. Rahul and Priyanka can make mistakes and get away with those. They can lose elections and not be thrown off the perch in the party. What will bring electoral success to the party will be changing mood of the people rather than the ability of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. This was proved in victories in the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December 2018. Whether in 2019 or in 2024, people are likely to vote for the Congress and it may not be entirely due to the charisma of either Rahul or Priyanka. With most of the political parties choosing their leaders from a family, whether it be National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir, Akali Dal in Punjab, Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, it is no more a stigma for the Congress to stick with the Nehru-Gandhis. The BJP cannot attack the Congress on the dynastic succession issue and hope to score a point. The BJP has yet to establish its democratic credentials in choosing its leader. Right now, it is the closed shop Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that chooses the BJP president and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The party formally approves the RSS nominee. Rahul and Priyanka will have to prove their political worthiness to win elections. They cannot fall back on the family connection. The family talisman does not work in 21st century democratic India. So, the brother and sister will have to hone their political skills, evolve a vision that chimes with the people of India at this moment, and build a team of new leaders in the party. It is a grueling and thankless task, and most probably they know by now political leadership is indeed a crown of thorns.
Whether the century-and-a-quarter old Congress learn to stand on its own feet and stop depending on the Nehru-Gandhis is a question that will persist. The answer does not lie with Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka but with the new leaders in the Congress. This does not necessarily mean that Rahul and Priyanka will have to be thrown out of the party. It would only mean that other emerging party leaders will share the responsibility of managing the organisation and lead it to victory in elections at the national level. It will only mean that Rahul and Priyanka will be part of the galaxy of leaders in the party and not the only leaders. It is not likely to happen going by the present mood in the Congress. As a consequence, Rahul and Priyanka will have to plough a lonely furrow for the party.