Congress organisation was razed to the ground during Sonia Gandhi’s tenure. With no foot soldiers in the field, there is not much the new general secretary can do.
NEW DELHI: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s formal entry into active politics as Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh is likely to benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party, while simultaneously weakening Rahul Gandhi. The belated announcement, which seeks to create an impression that being an appointee of the Congress president, Priyanka would play second fiddle to Rahul, is in sharp contrast to how the party activists would see it. In fact, her induction has created a situation where there are going to be two power centres within the organisation, with a large number of leaders preferring her over her brother, who has been working overtime to bring the party back on the rails.
In plain and simple terms, Rahul may have committed political hara-kiri by assigning her a party position, since it could be detrimental to his own standing. Several Congress veterans, on condition of anonymity, said that they believed that those who had been marginalised by Rahul within the party would now be in an elated state since they had a legitimate route for a comeback. In any case, even in her non official role, Priyanka has, to a good extent, been wielding the baton, and many of the key party functionaries are considered to be closer to her rather than her brother, who has always been the number one choice of their mother and former Congress president, Sonia Gandhi.
There is no doubt that Priyanka has a charismatic dimension to her personality and many people see in her the image of Indira Gandhi, her legendary grandmother. Indira Gandhi herself regarded Priyanka as someone who would lead the country, at some stage or the other, and had verbalised her thoughts to her political adviser, Makhan Lal Fotedar, a few days before she was brutally assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. Fotedar, who conveyed her sentiments to Sonia Gandhi, was sidelined since she was inclined on promoting Rahul Gandhi as the heir to Indira’s political legacy. Janardan Dwivedi, a trusted aide of Sonia Gandhi, too had voiced his support for Priyanka as a potential leader, but his views were overlooked as well.
In the meanwhile, after being ridiculed as a misfit for over five years, Rahul has carved out a position for himself, which is now under threat. It is evident that he does not possess the wit and repartee of his sister and is viewed as a person who at times puts forth his beliefs without analysing the consequences. In comparison, Priyanka comes across in a different light, as is illustrated by her famous rebuff to Narendra Modi, who once described her as “like his daughter”. Priyanka shot back that she loved her father and needed no one to take his place. Prior to that Modi had referred to the Congress as a 124-year-old organisation, to which Priyanka, tongue-in-cheek, retorted by demanding to know how old did she appear.
For over four decades, the Congress has functioned as a party with a singular command centre. This, however, given the current scenario, is going to change. Priyanka may have been asked to restrict herself to eastern Uttar Pradesh, but in actuality may expand her role much beyond that. She is obviously aware that while naming her as general secretary in charge of just a region of UP that includes nearly 47 districts and 36 Lok Sabha seats, Rahul has inadvertently made her share the limelight with party colleague, Jyotirditya Scindia, who is in charge of western UP. Interpreted politically, the announcement diminishes Priyanka’s stature, while elevating Jyotiraditya’s political standing. This has not gone unnoticed in political circles.
Congress workers and supporters are elated with Priyanka’s official debut, but it would be unfair to expect her to change the political narrative, especially since the party has no organisational base in most parts of the country. The organisation was more or less razed to the ground during the nearly 19-year-odd tenure of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul has done little to strengthen it either. With no foot soldiers in the field, there is not much the new general secretary can do.
Priyanka’s own track record in UP has not been very noteworthy either. After Rahul toiled for over two months in every district of the state in 2017, Priyanka took the initiative and sewed up an unworkable alliance with Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party. The consequences were disastrous for both, more so for the Congress, which did not put up candidates in over 300 out of the 403 Assembly seats, much to the disappointment of its workers. The result was that in these constituencies, the 6% odd Congress vote migrated to the BJP, since for over 25 years, in these areas, the workers had been battling both the SP and BSP. For them, the BJP became a better option contributing to the saffron outfit’s unprecedented victory in the state elections.
Priyanka, who actively campaigned in Rae Bareli, Amethi and Sultanpur, had nothing to show for her participation. Out of the 15 seats in these Lok Sabha constituencies, the Congress won only two, while its candidates forfeited their deposits in at least six. The party’s overall tally came down from 22 in 2012 to only seven in 2017. Things have not changed much on the ground, and her entry would not make any difference, other than occupying media headlines.
The question that arises: why would the Congress president take such a decision which would not rake in any political dividends? If Rahul’s intentions have been to pin down Modi in Varanasi, by stationing his sister there, it may work out to some degree, but the Prime Minister is not the one who would be tied down to one place, being the principal campaigner of his party. If Priyanka were to contest against him from the holy city, it could send a message amongst the minorities that the Congress had put everything at stake to defeat Modi. A section of Muslims may shift from the SP and BSP alliance, but that would assist the BJP, rather than the Opposition, since it would split the anti-saffron vote. The danger is that the triangular fight, in most places, would provide the BJP with a clear advantage. And if the BSP and SP retaliate by fielding nominees from Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Congress would face the prospects of losing both seats.
The thinking within the Congress circles is that Priyanka may contest from Amethi and Rahul may shift to Rae Bareli, with Sonia Gandhi opting out. Thus, with an angry Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, both would enter the fray with a probable defeat staring the Congress in its face. Therefore, it appears that the Congress, after some posturing, would want the BSP-SP combination to accommodate them in the alliance with more seats than what they have been allotted. If this were to happen, Priyanka’s utility would be undermined, as the successful candidates would owe their win to the might of the SP-BSP, rather than that of the Congress, which virtually is a non-starter in most of the 80 seats.
In addition to the prospect of being wiped out in UP, in the event of an alliance not materialising, Rahul would be walking on thin ice all through the poll campaign. The challenge before him would be to take the Congress past the 100-mark, and if for some reason, this does not happen, his own position would be in peril, as there would be a clamour to furnish his sister with a larger role. To prevent the 2019 polls to be his last major election, Rahul must think things through, and take pragmatic steps as opposed to acting on emotional impulse.
He has the responsibility of reviving the Congress, and thus must ensure that the rhyme, “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again” does not apply to the Grand Old Party.