What Lies Ahead for Priyanka Gandhi After U.P.?

Her sudden entrée into politics has been likened to a ‘surgical strike’ on the BJP, but she will need much more than her charm and her Indira-like looks to win elections

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao JR

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi knows anyway that her party is not going to do any wonder in the Uttar Pradesh elections 2022. Neither will there be any unexpected jump in the seats of Congress in the state. But Priyanka’s whole venture is to revive the dying cadre of Congress. In this election her foremost focus was to increase the vote percentage of her party in Uttar Pradesh hence, she had succeeded in it too. The most important thing about Priyanka is that she is following the footsteps of her grandmother Indira Gandhi in choosing her team. Indira Gandhi used to select district-level leaders in her team despite the big names of the Party. And in the campaign, she also used to take them along. If sources are to be believed, Priyanka Gandhi may get the responsibility of forthcoming assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat to give a new edge and effectiveness to the 136-year-old party. Congress still has a strong presence in these two states and with such a significant role Priyanka can emerge as a national leader of the country who will be able to challenge the King-sized Modi in the 2024 general elections.

LADKI HOON LAD SAKTI HOON

During the Uttar Pradesh elections, she gave the slogan of “Ladki hoon Lad Sakti hoon” (I am a girl and I can fight) and tried hard to restore the lost vote share in Uttar Pradesh. Her whole women empowerment campaign caught just about every political party by surprise, her promise to give at least 40% tickets to women candidates could well be the foundation on which the Congress may resurrect itself.

Addressing the ‘Ladki Hoon Lad Sakti Hoon — Shakti Samvaad’ organised under the party’s women empowerment campaign, she said the Congress’ “one small initiative has awakened all the political parties”. Ladki Hoon Lad Sakti Hoon is one of the slogans given to underscore women’s power. Referring to the women’s manifesto of her party, Priyanka said Congress wants to make women realise their strength. Priyanka Gandhi has “strengthened” the Congress party in UP. “Tell me which is the party in Uttar Pradesh whose 18,000 workers have gone to jail in the past one-and-half years? It is the Congress”, she said. Congress had given tickets to 40 percent of women and had sought votes for the empowerment of the fairer gender in the state. For the Congress party, this election had a special significance.

Priyanka Gandhi is travelling across the state and meeting party workers and leaders, and the people. She is familiarising herself with the politics of the country

FLASH NEWS

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 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.

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 be 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 make decisions, which will not be overturned by the brother.

Priyanka is yet to win her political spurs. Her charming personality cannot be the basis 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.

PEOPLE’S MOOD

The belief of the spineless members of 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. Charisma is a component of the 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 Gandhi were to speak the language of their grandmother, then they might find there are no takers for this. The poor people in India of 2022 think differently from the poor people in the country back in 1971. 

APPRENTICESHIP

The fact that Priyanka has been assigned Uttar Pradesh means that she will not be 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 14 years from 2004 to 2018. Priyanka will have to be an apprentice for at least 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 like an unrealistic scenario.

Priyanka will have to do her years of apprenticeship as did her brother. Rahul served an apprenticeship of 14 years from 2004 to 2018. She will have to be an apprentice for at least five years

Priyanka Gandhi has been travelling across the state and meeting party workers and leaders, and the people. She is familiarising 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 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 the 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.

Priyanka Gandhi will have to hone her 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 gruelling and thankless task

Whether in 2022 or 2024, people are likely to vote for 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 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, Priyanka Gandhi will have to hone her 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 gruelling and thankless task, and most probably they know by now political leadership is indeed a crown of thorns. 


Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

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.

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