It’s not Modi but regional foes of Congress who are put on notice.
Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and a host of those who joined the “United India” cabal hosted at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground last weekend have chosen to keep mum on the appointment of Priyanka Gandhi as general secretary of AICC. BJP has reacted on a dismissive note. Congress leaders, expectedly, have gone gaga—their long suppressed disappointment with the leadership style of Rahul Gandhi has at long last spied a ray of hope.
The formal appearance of Priyanka, who has been the prompter acting on the sidelines of the Congress centre stage since long, was decided in New York. Rahul Gandhi had told his NRI audience in Dubai on Priyanka’s 47th birthday, 12 January, that he had a surprise up his sleeve. He flew to New York from Dubai, where Priyanka was getting her daughter treated medically, and persuaded her to finally take the plunge.
While Mayawati was tying up with Akhilesh in Lucknow and Mamata was rallying support for her prime ministerial ambition in Kolkata, the Nehru-Gandhi siblings were taking note of the Congress’ isolation by regional satraps and planning their next moves. Mallikarjun Kharge addressed the Mamata rally sans the presence of West Bengal Congress leaders’ participation on 19 January. The very next day the AICC in charge of Bengal, Gaurav Gogoi, gave vent to the Bengal unit’s feelings by reiterating that if a non-BJP regime was to be envisaged then it had to have Rahul at the helm. DMK’s Stalin addressed the Kolkata rally in Bengali, but once back in Chennai he reiterated his resolve to back Rahul for the top job. RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav hailed Mamata in the rally, but next day in Patna he described Congress as being “the best equipped to lead the Opposition charge”.
Priyanka’s formal entry—which will take place once she returns from abroad next week—has not unruffled BJP; it has set cat among the pigeons in the non-Congress, non-BJP camp. Her induction has boosted the morale of Congress. Over the past three decades, since Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 poll, Congress cadre strength has decimated and so has its social base. The four months left for the 2019 battle are not enough to regain lost ground. But with Priyanka’s formal presence the party can hope to enter a long distance race. Rahul Gandhi has set a target of 2022 UP Assembly poll for his two new generals in UP: Priyanka and Jyotiraditya Scindia. That in itself betrays that he is not planning a sprint, but looking at a marathon. The division of UP into two organisational parts was first attempted by Sanjay Gandhi in 1976 in the Youth Congress structure. Perhaps Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was a Sanjay acolyte, dusted out the old plan and placed it before Rahul and Priyanka. Or it may have been Ambika Soni, who presided over the plan in 1976.
Traditional Congress vote base in UP used to be drawn primarily from its Brahmin, Harijan and Muslim base. Muslims have drifted decisively to Samajwadi Party and the Harijans back BSP. Brahmins have found comfort with BJP. If Priyanka is able to attract back a portion of this base, then it will be primarily at the cost of SP and BSP.
The 19 January rally in Kolkata was an expensive show of strength. Cut-outs of Mamata and her apparent heir, nephew Abhishek Banerjee, were put up across the city and on roads which lead to the city from the mofussil areas. Biriyani was served to the participants. In a rather unusual move, a caterer was appointed to serve condiments to the leaders of 23 parties who adorned the dais. Within half an hour of start of the rally Mamata started announcing that no one should leave before 4 pm—but television cameras captured restive crowd moving out while speeches were being made in English.
Opposition veteran Sharad Yadav kept on referring to Bofors—Mamata’s emissary Derek O’Brien had to hand him a slip of paper to remind him that it was Rafale which was to be shot down. Arvind Kejriwal shared dais with the same very people whom he had decried till some years back. Congress’ Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who had once described Kejriwal as “anarchist CM” seemed comfortable in his company. A political analyst in Kolkata described the motley gathering on the rally dais as “Shivaji-Afzal Khan meeting”.
No coherent narrative emerged from the Mamata rally except virulent attack on Narendra Modi, echoing Rahul’s “Chowkidar chor” charge. Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Shatrughna Sinha pitched in from the “rebel” camp to bolster Mamata’s leadership. Sharad Pawar, the senior most member of the Opposition pantheon, was strategically seated next to Mamata to give out a message of her “acceptance”.
Priyanka’s induction into formal political role was preceded earlier this week by the Rajasthan High Court allowing the Enforcement Directorate to interrogate Robert Vadra and his mother Maureen in the Bikaner land case. While putting an estoppel on their arrest without the court’s consent the bench refused the plea that “coercive action” be prohibited.
A book authored by Priyanka, Against Outrage is likely to be released soon. The book, published by Penguin Random House, will be simultaneously released in vernacular versions too. Her entry will change the paradigm of Indian politics. More than BJP, the regional satraps, who grew by usurping Congress’ space, have been put on notice in the run up to battleground 2019.