Priyanka takes up Congress role in UP after over a decade behind the scenes

Priyanka Gandhi
With the general elections less than 90 days away, Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday appointed his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, which constitutes roughly 40 Lok Sabha seats, including their family bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Varanasi constituency.  

Priyanka, who turned 47 earlier this month, has been an important, behind-the-scenes figure in the party’s decision-making processes for over a decade, but Wednesday’s announcement marks her official political debut. With UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi having already indicated her desire to retire from electoral politics, the move could pave the way for Priyanka’s entry into the electoral arena and she could contest from Rae Bareli, the seat currently represented by her mother, party sources said.

Her appointment, however, opened the Congress to renewed attacks from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over “dynastic politics” and "lack of inner-democracy". 

BJP Spokesperson Sambit Patra said the Congress had admitted to Rahul Gandhi having “failed” in providing leadership.

The Congress's allies, including Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, welcomed the news, though. Congress strategists believe Priyanka's charisma would help the party perform better in key states of UP and Bihar in the Lok Sabha polls. The appointment has ramifications, at least in UP, not just for the principal rival BJP, but also the frenemies Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP).

Speaking to reporters in Amethi, the Congress president indicated his party would be willing to renegotiate its electoral understanding in UP with the SP and the BSP. Earlier this month, the two parties had announced their alliance in UP for the Lok Sabha polls, keeping the Congress out of it but also promising that they would not field any candidates in Amethi and Rae Bareli. The three parties are looking at what within the Congress is called the 'Jangipur model', where the Congress might put up strong fights in 15-20 seats in the state and help the SP and the BSP by eating into the BJP's upper caste votes in the rest. In bargain, the SP and the BSP would field weak candidates in the Congress strongholds.

For the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, nearly all hands are now on deck for the Lok Sabha polls. While their first cousin Varun Gandhi is currently a BJP Lok Sabha member from Sultanpur in UP, it is little secret that he is out of favour in the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dispensation and there is speculation of his joining the Congress.

Many within the Congress view Priyanka's appointment as the dynasty sounding the war bugle against Modi and the Shah-led BJP. Some said the move was also the party's last throw of the dice to win over the electorate in not just UP, but also northern Bihar.

The loss of party's influence in UP and Bihar post-1989 has meant the Congress never winning a majority in the Lok Sabha in the last 30 years. Several party leaders have now taken to argue how it was time the Congress jettisoned its decision taken in its Shimla conclave of 2003, where it resolved to forge coalitions to defeat the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP, and return to its Pachmarhi resolution of ekla chalo re, or walk alone. For 2019, the Congress's objective in UP is two-fold -- strengthen the party as well as ensure the BJP's defeat.

Apart from Priyanka, the Congress president appointed Lok Sabha member Jyotiraditya Scindia a general secretary to take care of the remaining 40 seats of western Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress believes that Priyanka and Scindia have an appeal that cuts across caste and religious lines, and they could help it regain the party's old support base among the upper castes, particularly Brahmins, as also Muslims and dalits. The party believes Priyanka — and Scindia to a lesser extent — would be popular among women and youths across religious and caste divides. It hopes the two could help the Congress repeat its 2009 Lok Sabha performance in UP, when the party won 21 of the 80 seats.

"Rahul Gandhi could have been that leader, and is attempting to shape himself as such but he faces a baggage of losses as well as the constant lampooning he has suffered at the hands of the Sangh Parivar. Our rivals would find it much more difficult to be dismissive about Priyankaji," said a Congress leader, who requested that he be not identified.

The Congress president also appointed Lok Sabha member K C Venugopal to the key position of general secretary (organisation). He replaces Ashok Gehlot, who is now the chief minister of Rajasthan. The appointments mark the entry of younger leaders to key positions. Scindia is 48-year-old and Venugopal is 55.

In a tweet, businessperson Robert Vadra, the husband of Priyanka, congratulated her. "Always by your side in every phase of your life. Give it your best," he tweeted. In the past, Robert Vadra has expressed his ambition to join politics. Robert Vadra has found himself embroiled in allegedly improper land deals. The couple have two children.

There could now also questions within the Congress of two separate camps led by the brother and sister, but the party's younger leaders believe her entry into UP politics would help the Congress with not one, but two leaders to take on Modi, Shah and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

After the appointment, the Congress president tweeted: "UP is central to building a new hope filled & compassionate India. The new UP AICC team lead by Priyanka and Jyotiraditya, will herald the dawn of a new kind of politics in the state. We will offer the youth in UP a dynamic new platform to transform the state."

The results of the Congress strategy would be evident in less than 90 days, but on Wednesday, the Congress seemed to be winning the social media war with the news dominating the platform.

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