by Atul Cowshish
The timing of the appointment of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as a general secretary of the Indian National Congress and given charge of eastern UP unleashed a political storm across the country and enlivened the political scene with some substantive debates, instead of the vituperative public discourses heard on TV channels and party briefings.
Some of these comments appeared way too bizarre—comparing Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the Congress ‘Brahmastra’—the ultimate weapon. A realistic assessment would have required some restraint in speculating about what she will be able to do for the party to make it the dominant political force it once was. But that cannot be done at this juncture.
The largely Modi-admiring media was shaken enough to view Priyanka’s appointment as a Congress strategy to cash in on the declining popularity of the prime minister by projecting her as a popular youth leader. But there is nothing at present to conclude that Priyanka will pose a serious challenge to Narendra Modi whose ‘marketing’ skill is universally known.
Priyanka’s brother Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, might have been surprised to discover that he was actually praised in some otherwise unfriendly quarters for asking Priyanka to hold an official position in the Congress and take on the onerous duty of reviving the Congress in the difficult terrain of eastern UP.
Of course, critics of the ‘dynasty’ got busy instantly, but for once their crackle could not be heard over the din of praise for an act of the Congress president. It hardly helped the ruling dispensation that after the formal baptismal of Priyanka it could think of nothing beyond the usual charge of promotion of ‘dynasty’ and Rahul Gandhi’s alleged failure to galvanize the Congress.
The induction of Rahul Gandhi’s sister in active Congress politics was always on the cards and hardly a matter of surprise. But the wide attention given to her assignment in the party is the result of a somewhat exaggerated belief that the 47-year-old Priyanka will come with a magic wand that will restore the fortunes of the Grand Old Party in UP and, indeed, in the rest of the country.
Creditable as the Congress victory in the recent assembly polls in three Hindi-speaking states was the real test for the party will come at the time of the Lok Sabha polls early in summer. Priyanka’s foremost task is to help the Congress put up a good show in the Lok Sabha polls in one half of UP, the eastern part of it. For the Congress, an impressive performance in all of UP, not just one part becomes necessary after the snub it received from the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance that kept the Congress out and later brought the RLD on board.
A reading of the current political scenario in UP would suggest that the electoral scales are tilted in favor of the SP-BSP alliance which together will claim support of nearly half the electorate of the state, particularly the OBCs and Muslims, while the RLD will bring in the Jat votes of west UP. The Congress hope may rest on the upper caste votes and its once solid bloc of SC/ST and Muslim votes but this pie of voters will also be claimed by the BJP. The Congress will not get a cent percent share.
The BJP was able to penetrate various caste groups (minus the Muslim votes) in the last parliamentary polls. To expect Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to break through the supporters of all other parties—BJP and non-BJP–and deliver an impressive tally from the nearly 40 Lok Sabha seats in eastern UP appears to be a tough call.
The hoopla over Priyanka’s formal entry in Congress politics stems from the belief that her ‘charisma’ will work across the country. That means that she might have to take extensive tours through the length and breadth of the country during the Lok Sabha poll campaign and not remain confined to eastern UP.
On the other hand, it is just possible that she spends more time in eastern UP than other parts of the country. That may true if she is asked to contest the Lok Sabha poll from her mother’s constituency, Rai Bareilly.
How different her role will be from her last foray in campaigning—in 2014? She had confined herself more or less to Sonia Gandhi’s constituency and made it possible for her mother to retain her seat—one of the only two won by the Congress, the other winner being Rahul Gandhi, in 2014.
The upshot of it all is that while Priyanka Gandhi Vadra may be able to draw larger votes to the Congress than her brother, her ability to energize the Congress in UP and elsewhere has to be on display before the Lok Sabha polls get underway.
If she has to fulfill the prophecy of political pundits, she has to establish her credentials as an all-India leader and not of a part of a state, no matter how large it is. That places her as a challenger to her brother who finally managed to infuse enough life into the ‘dormant’ Congress to score a hat trick of victories. In the immediate and near future, Priyanka is very unlikely to be promoted over her brother.
So, while she may gain importance within the party in the coming days and months, she will not have the occasion or opportunity to live up to the hype created around her as the ‘ultimate weapon’ of the Congress. But what does look possible is that depending upon Lok Sabha results from eastern UP, Rahul Gandhi may utilize in whatever manner he thinks fit the services of his sister to restore the Congress to its original health.
The most urgent task for the Congress is to make the party machinery fit and strong enough to take on the Modi juggernaut which will roll with all guns blazing in the coming months. It will be a mistake to think that Rahul Gandhi can achieve this task only with the help of his sister. After all, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was hardly visible during the recent triumph of the Congress in three state assembly polls. She may have played a role in the selection of chief ministers in one or two these states, but that kind of backroom exercise she probably has been doing for long.