New Delhi: The image of Priyanka Gandhi that has stayed with me is of her campaigning for her mother and brother in Rae Bareli and Amethi in April-May 2014. It was a desperate bid to keep the family in play.
The extraordinary element in the campaigning was that it took place at all. For weeks, months if not years, Kishori Lal Sharma, assigned by Congress President Sonia Gandhi to keep a watch on the two family constituencies, would wait for Priyanka Gandhi to turn up. Sharma, with a moustache like Hardy’s (as in Laurel and Hardy), would mobilize crowds, panchayat leaders, teachers in schools and colleges to be addressed by Priyanka but on most occasions shamianas had to be dismantled after the invitees had tea and samosas. Priyanka, of course, had not turned up.
Sharma, handpicked by Satish Sharma, Rajiv Gandhi’s pilot friend, was the local in-charge. Priyanka Gandhi had been given the task in overall, political control of the “fiefdoms”. But her long absences and repeated non-arrivals led to irresponsible speculations about her health.
Her disinterest or disability must have alarmed the family as Narendra Modi mounted history’s most expensive media campaign. The media was comprehensively under Modi’s spell. Reports reached Sonia Gandhi that the Congress score in Uttar Pradesh was likely to be zero. Never having lived without power, the family pressed panic buttons to at least keep Sonia Gandhi and Rahul in play in the Lok Sabha. That is when Priyanka galvanized the campaign so effectively that the family’s “izzat” was saved in the two constituencies. The credit must go entirely to her for the two elections.
Her husband Robert Vadra’s business misdemeanours were, in popular expectation, the vulnerable points where the opposition might choose to strike. But Priyanka turned the game around. She raised the subject herself. “I am confident like my grandmother always was that the truth will eventually come out.” What saddened her was not that the opposition had tried to humiliate (she used the expression “zaleel kiya”) the family but that her “bewildered” children had to be explained what they were hearing.
Indians are nothing if not a feudal people, holding on to their hierarchies adoringly. It is the dream of the lowest in the land to enact the “princely” image and come riding a horse as a bridegroom on marriage day. Imagine, then the “princess” from the country’s premier family, taking “her” people in the family pocket borough into confidence on the humiliations that the opposition has tried to heap upon her. How evocative. Will not the people be moved?
Priyanka has what in Hindi is called “chhab” or elegance, in the way she carries the sari on her tall frame, just like Indira Gandhi. In her public engagements she follows the stately dictum:
“Favours to none, to all she smiles extends,
Oft’ she rejects but never once offends.”
In her speech she comes across as someone who has grown up among Kashmiri aunts and uncles, with clear diction. It is possible that she picked up the cadences of her diction from limited exposure to her extended Kashmiri family. In this she is far removed from Rahul Gandhi’s blandness of tone and expression.
Priyanka’s persona is potentially a very promising package for public life but with two caveats. There is no assessment available of her intellectual or cultural pursuits, areas that were reasonably cultivated in Indira Gandhi. The second caveat is on her ability for hard work. What her brother, the party President, said while announcing her candidature is fairly ambitious. Priyanka and Jyotiraditya are not being sent to UP for two months but for much longer. “We want to have our Chief Minister in UP.” That will require staying power.
All the empirical data we have so far confirms one fact: she has the stamina for one short burst of energetic campaigning. There will be a question mark on her stamina as a long distance runner. She has demonstrated strong instincts of self-preservation. Towards this end she can work for the family. The unknown quantity is this: can political ambition be ignited in her breast. Her status as Mrs. Vadra may be an obstruction.
For the Mayawati-Akhilesh combination Rahul’s move comes across as:
“Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike.”
Rahul has explained it nicely. “I respect Mayawatiji and Akhileshji and we shall defeat the BJP together.” If requested, he said, he was open to talks with the SP-BSP combine. What else he said in the same sequence expresses either pique or determination. “We shall not be on the back foot.” Playing on the front foot would entail a leadership role in the UP alliance. This would be an outlandish negotiating gambit. Of course, the Congress is the country’s premier upper caste party. That the state of Ganga, Jamuna, Triveni, Kashi, Mathura, Ayodhya, should be timidly conceded to the lower caste formations, is anathema to the party. The prospect makes it feel hollow in the pit of its stomach.
Nothing can be done about the discomfort because the party’s performance in recent elections has been dismal. The formula for seat distribution in Uttar Pradesh was straightforward: BSP, SP, Congress, RLD would be entitled to the number of seats in which they came second, that is, 34, 31, 5, 2 in that order. Against this backdrop the Priyanka shock may be designed to pressure BSP-SP to open negotiations for more. Seat adjustments placing a premium on winnability against the BJP is one way to go. But that will not gain it seats – it will have to search beyond the formula. Otherwise will it play spoiler. Can it? Or will it sting the BJP by weaning away the Brahmins from the arch Thakur, Yogi Adityanath?
Mamata Banerjee’s alliance jamboree in Kolkata did not sideline the Congress but it sidelined Rahul Gandhi by inviting Sonia Gandhi instead. The former Congress President is aiming at retirement. Not only did she not go to Kolkata (Mallikarjun Kharge and Abhishek Manu Singhvi were sent instead) but it is believed she has also decided not to contest from Rae Bareli. Will Priyanka inherit that seat? That will change the whole game.
(Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on email@example.com)