Her formal entry into politics nearly two months ago as Congress general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh created a buzz in political circles. For starters, Priyanka succeeded in galvanizing an otherwise frustrated and dejected party cadre.
Always seen as a natural and instinctive politician unlike her brother Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Congress workers had been clamouring for years that Priyanka is given a larger role in the party. Her resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi, her easy connect with people and her ability to give speeches in flawless Hindi had convinced the party rank and file that Priyanka indeed possesses the Midas touch to turnaround the Congress’s fortunes, not just in Uttar Pradesh but across the country.
However, Priyanka is a mystery for the Congress party’s political opponents. The Bharatiya Janata Party was, of course, quick to attack the Congress for promoting dynastic politics when Priyanka was appointed party general secretary. The BJP followed it up by highlighting her husband Robert Vadra’s involvement in dubious land deals. At the same time, the Modi government fast-tracked pending inquiries against Vadra soon after Priyanka’s plunge into politics. Her decision to back her husband and her public declaration that she “stands by her family” baffled the BJP as it did not know how it should react to Priyanka the politician. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, which left the Congress out of their seat-sharing arrangement in Uttar Pradesh, is also wary about the impact Priyanka could make in this electorally-crucial state which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha.
After its initial acerbic comments on Priyanka, the BJP decided to ignore the new Gandhi in the field. On her part, Priyanka also went underground after making a splash with a roadshow in Lucknow. The Pulwama attack and India’s retaliatory air strike against Pakistan sent the Congress into a tailspin and forced it to put its political activities on a temporary hold. Priyanka’s much-awaited press conference was called off while her tour programme was deferred. With the BJP riding high on its nationalist agenda, it appeared that the euphoria over Priyanka’s political debut had waned.
But now that the Lok Sabha election is round the corner and the country is in the grip of feverish political activity, Priyanka has come out of her shell. This will force the Congress party’s political rivals to reassess Priyanka’s political role.
After keeping a low-profile for the past two months, the new Congress general secretary finally addressed her first public meeting and, that too, in Ahmedabad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf. Her brief, understated speech referred to the Modi government’s failure to deliver on its promise to create more jobs while drawing attention to farmers’ woes and the issue of women’s security but without naming the Prime Minister.
At the same time, Priyanka has embarked on her first tour in Uttar Pradesh including a boat ride down the Ganga, from Prayagraj to Varanasi. Modi’s Parliamentary constituency. Undoubtedly, Priyanka is familiar with Uttar Pradesh. She has been managing both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituencies, Amethi and Rae Bareli, for several years now. But so far, she confined her activities to the two Nehru-Gandhi bastions. She is now stepping out of this safety zone and in a new role. Her public foray will be monitored closely by her own party and its rivals as each one seeks to assess how people are reacting to her and whether she can live up to her reputation as the Congress party’s trump card.
But Priyanka has a tough job at hand. The Congress has been reduced to a bit player in Uttar Pradesh, having lost its traditional support base of Brahmins, Dalits, and minorities to the BJP and the two regional forces, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. With a defunct party organisation and no social base, Priyanka requires more time to get the Congress back in shape. She was given charge of Eastern Uttar Pradesh barely three months before the election which certainly does not give her sufficient time to build a cadre and carve out a social base for the Congress.
As it is, Priyanka has to contend with a resurgent BJP, which got an impressive 42 percent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, the area under her charge. At the same time, the SP-BSP combine, which brings together the social forces of Dalits, Yadavs, and minorities, also poses a tough challenge as it has an equally strong presence in this region.
The Congress is hoping that Priyanka will succeed in disturbing the BJP’s Brahmin vote and reach out to Dalits and minorities, particularly women, youth and workers. It is a tall order but in the process of rebuilding and strengthening the Congress, the party may end up helping the BJP as her outreach has the potential of dividing the anti-BJP vote. It is unlikely that Priyanka’s presence will work instant miracles.
The Congress rank and file will possibly have to wait till the 2022 assembly election to find out if Priyanka has what it takes to pull the party out of oblivion. After all, Rahul Gandhi did say that Priyanka is here for a long haul.]]>