The Priyanka gamble

Bhaiyyaji rajneeti mein hain, saalon se (bhaiyyaji has been in politics, for years),” an old Congress worker from Amethi said to me some two years ago. He was referring to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. That’s how Congress old-timers in the constituencies of Amethi and Raebareli have been addressing her ever since she first set foot there as a nine-year-old with her father, Rajiv. Her cropped hair is presumably what earned her that affectionate moniker.


And yet it is only now that headlines are finally screaming: “Priyanka Gandhi enters politics.” But when has she not been in politics? Challenge it as we may, she has been in it from that day, 20 years ago, when she introduced her mother to the Kannadiga crowds of Bellary in their language. Sonia Gandhi was contesting her first election against Bharatiya Janata Party veteran and current external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. How her presence had rattled the BJP even then! Swaraj’s defeat in that election was attributed to the Sonia-Priyanka (read dynasty’s) charisma.


Times have changed. Dynasty is a disqualification. And we will never know what Priyanka could have achieved vis-a-vis her less charismatic brother had she taken the plunge as a career politician with him in 2004. Or even earlier.


Sure, she has always been in the picture, but somewhat on the margins: either as a backroom strategist first for her mother and later her brother or as a proxy leader, handling the everyday affairs of Sonia’s constituency, Raebareli. So much so that on a visit to Raebareli, Sonia addressed party workers as “Priyanka ki sena (Priyanka’s army).”


So now, as she joins her brother to take on the BJP far more actively and aggressively than ever before, the question is: why did this have to take so long?


Priyanka Gandhi
She has a list of small achievements in the past — but only as someone from the family lending a helping hand. Along with her mother and strategist Sam Pitroda, she became the bridge between her brother and the party’s old guard, which had a mistrust of Rahul and his ways. 


But to say that she could have accomplished more than her brother if she had spent her 30s and early 40s in the party would be mere conjecture now. Rahul has expended years on building the party’s organisation through its many lows and electoral defeats.


A natural people person, Priyanka has, unlike Rahul, been strong on optics for as long as we have seen her. And like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she is also strong on bayanbaazi, coming up with the right retort at the right time. 


Rahul struggled hard for years to get that right. Though he has shown perseverance and courage in the face of a campaign to paint him a dud, the wait for him to come of age has cost his party dearly. Because it simply waited doing precious little before the leader was battle ready. That’s not how democracy works.


Had this team of siblings — with one working on strengthening the Congress and the other taking charge of the optics — emerged earlier, the grand old party would probably not have hit rock bottom the way it did in 2014. Despite the decade-long anti-incumbency, maybe it would not have let the BJP walk away with a full majority. A weak opposition, its decline catalysed by a weaker Congress, has allowed a free-run to absolutism by one political party and one political ideology.


This is not to say that one person could have altered the party’s fortunes. But the larger point is: why could this not have happened earlier? Say, in the 2012 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh when the Congress needed to consolidate on its gains of 2009 (it had 22 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state). The party fared miserably in the state polls, winning only 28 of the 403 assembly seats and that defeat snowballed into the miserable defeats of 2013 and 2014.


And if she really is the Brahmastra that the Congress would like us to believe, the delay in her entering active politics is inexplicable.


Whether it was waiting for her brother to get his act together or for her own children to grow up, it boils down to the point that a woman, no matter how empowered, is the one who has to bear the responsibility of putting the family first.


To imagine she can dent the prospects of the SP-BSP combine or the BJP, both formidable forces, without any Congress cadres on the ground in a couple of months is wishful thinking. Priyanka’s entry is just good optics resorted to by her brother. She may indeed prove to be the trump card. We’ll find out soon enough.

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