The crucial question is what kind of public image Priyanka wants to project. Because what she initiates for herself now, will remain in contemporary Indian politics for a quarter century for sure. Accordingly, she will have to script her speeches, tone of delivery of ideas and political actions.
When asked why Priyanka Gandhi Vadra decided to take the plunge into politics at this point of time, a senior Congress leader responded by asking counter a question, “Ab nahi to kab (if not now, when)?”
While justifying her decision and its timing he elaborated that just imagine if she would have entered Indian politics before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, how disastrous it would have been, as results showed later that there was a huge anti-UPA wave at the time.
A hard look at the realities as they exist today for Congress will show that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s (name as written by the AICC press release) entry is quite logical at a time when a raging battle of ideologies is going on. She has been sharper and angrier in protecting “Nehru’s ideology” than any other Congress man or woman. Narendra Modi’s five-year term was invested in demystifying Jawaharlal’s Nehru’s legacy. The Gandhis think that before the final assault comes from the RSS-BJP, it’s time to accept the challenge by pulling out all stops. Those who ask “why now?” should know that Priyanka was all set to enter politics, since long. She was all dressed-up and ready, waiting in the wings. Priyanka’s entry and her qualities to lead the party, in the eyes of party men and women, were never in any doubts. And even though Sonia Gandhi had taken the decision to launch her son first in politics and not Priyanka, who was in greater demand among the Congress cadre, all big decisions have been taken in her presence—like in 2004, when Congress won the Lok Sabha elections, the decision on Sonia Gandhi’s rejection of the Prime Minister’s chair was taken inside 10, Janpath where she was present with her mother and brother. Even though Priyanka stayed behind the curtains and her role was in the realm of speculation, she was a huge presence in the decision-making processes. And she has to her “credit” a few failures too—like her idea of allying with the Samajwadi Party before the 2017 UP Assembly elections. She came to the forefront only when, after 14 long years of joining politics Rahul came to be accepted as a “neta” that Congressmen understand and accept. Such an acceptance comes only when electoral victory arrives, which came in the form of the three states, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh won by the party in December 2018.
Of course the Gandhis cannot stop BJP and its supporters from saying “Priyanka’s entry amounts to Rahul’s failure”, but the fact is that within Congress, Rahul took a grip of the levers of power before he invited his sister to become a general secretary. Congress managers will have to ensure now that Priyanka’s charisma and natural political intensity do not overshadow Rahul Gandhi’s slow evolution as a political leader. For that would confuse the party cadre and will defeat the targets the Congress wants to achieve in the 2019 elections. But this delicate balancing act, for public consumption, will be like walking on glass, because the media and the rival parties will exploit this fault-line of the Gandhis constantly. In this regard, the strength of the Gandhis is that the personal equation between Rahul and Priyanka is considered unusually good, which should help them duck the arrows coming their way. But if the media constantly highlights any possible verbal duel between Modi and Priyanka, it will take away the spotlight from Rahul. A senior Congress leader claims that since Rahul has acquired political heft after taking on Modi in the Rafale case and has won three states, Priyanka’s entry will help “speed up” consolidating Rahul’s recent gains. Rather, he explains, Gandhis are now not wasting time and investing all in ensuring a “Modi-mukt India” in 2019; also, BJP will be hit where it hurts as Priyanka will not need to make any efforts to get prime time TV coverage.
But the balancing act between the brother and sister is a small part of the story, when, for the Congress, the real elephant in the room is Narendra Modi and Savarkar’s ideology. The Congress knows it faces a long winter if Modi returns to power. Notwithstanding its recent victory in three Hindi-belt states Congress has been pushed to the wall by the regional forces. In Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, anti-BJP forces are not giving Congress even one extra inch to fight the big ideological battle—that is to defend the “Constitutionally guaranteed secularism”. The regional forces don’t think that only a pan-India party can take on BJP’s “communal game plans” for India’s future. So Congress’ “secular” credentials are no bargaining chips when it comes to the regional parties. This hard reality has forced the Gandhis to put their entire savings on the table in this election.
The BJP leadership has understood this, quickly. A senior BJP leader, who is part of his party’s campaign planning in UP said, “Now, with the Priyanka card in hand, Congress should bargain hard to get a respectable number of seats from SP-BSP and from other states. If they don’t get around 20 seats in UP from the regional parties, then Priyanka’s hyped entry will go in vain much sooner than a friendly media can think of.”
He points out that “Congress’ biggest problem is that it wants to defeat Modi with a vengeance but in process of achieving that target, if it turns ambitious and ignores the SP-BSP, TMC and TDP, it will be ‘Advantage Modi’. In Congress’ so-called fight for secularism, it’s all alone. It’s hardly fighting with any seriousness on 270 out of 543 seats. SP-BSP are not happy to see Congress diluting their chance of defeating BJP in UP.”
Precisely for this reason, Priyanka’s entry is aimed to strengthen Congress’ bargaining power during pre-poll negotiations for alliances. If Priyanka’s entry is carefully launched in the first week of February and if she is able to strike a chord with voters outside the family seats of Amethi and Rai Bareli, then analysts think that in around 15 seats of eastern UP, she may be able to eat into a portion of BJP’s and Mahagathbandhan’s votes. As in UP, the population of upper castes and Dalits+Muslims is in the ratio of 1:4, the damage to SP-BSP will be much more than the BJP.
WORRIES OF CONGRESS
After the announcement of Priyanka’s entry most Congress leaders kept saying, “Let’s see how it works out. Mahaul banana baki hai (the atmosphere has to be created).” The crucial question is what kind of public image Priyanka wants to project. Because what she initiates for herself now, will remain in contemporary Indian politics for a quarter century for sure. Accordingly, she will have to script her speeches, tone of delivery of ideas and political actions. She has not given a substantially long speech on any big issues so far. Nobody has any clue whether or not her anger with RSS-BJP-Modi is backed by knowledge and information. Also, there is the Robert Vadra factor, and his cases, lurking in the background. She always prodded the party to stand up and speak in defence of her husband whenever he faced any allegations. But now the cases against Vadra will get more coverage.
Those who know her claim that “Priyanka will be smart mix of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.” Meaning, she will be firm and ruthless in her politics and amenable and charming like her father in public interactions. However, with some Buddhist influence on her, she is more like her father than grandmother, claim people who have interacted with her. The fact is, she has given mixed signals of her actual personality.
A veteran public-image builder and staunch Congress supporter claims, “Priyanka will play a bad cop and Rahul Gandhi will be the good cop.”
Another Congress insider claims: “What Rahul could not enforce within Congress, Priyanka will. When people meet Rahul they say, his heart is in the right place. But Priyanka will be the doer.”
They say that Priyanka will give it back as she gets it from the saffron leaders.
Priyanka’s immediate task is to help her brother and the party to defeat Modi in the 2019 elections, but the process has to be such, through election campaigning, that ultimately helps her build her own public persona too. Already, Rahul Gandhi has said that Priyanka is fighting a long term battle.