Priyanka Gandhi's Ayodhya visit busts hollow claims, shows she has neither skill nor charisma to salvage Congress
Priyanka's campaigning and interaction with party workers give us less imprints of an electoral genius and more an affable personality who is more easy-going at public appearances and before the camera than her brother
Priyanka Gandhi's much-publicised Ayodhya trip tells us a lot about Congress, and the predicament that the party finds itself in
We were told that Priyanka is the smarter one. She apparently is the silent backroom worker, the brain behind the dynasty
But her campaigning and interaction with party workers give us less imprints of an electoral genius and more an affable personality who is more easy-going at public appearances and before the camera than her brother
Priyanka Gandhi's much-publicised Ayodhya trip tells us a lot about Congress, and the predicament that the party finds itself in. Priyanka, we were told by the Congress' PR machinery in media, is the "smarter one". She apparently is the silent backroom worker, the 'brain' behind the dynasty and a 'reincarnation' of Indira Gandhi, her grandmother — certainly in looks if not in charisma.
So, when the 'smarter one' formally took the plunge in active politics, there was a sense of anticipation that we may finally get to see the telegenic personality at work, find out how she rescues the Congress party from irrelevance in India's most populous state, whether the media frenzy around her is justified, if she really is a self-assured, smart and magnetic personality as a section of sycophantic media, commentators, Congress politicians and spokespersons would have us believe, or there is a different reality behind the myth-making.
If the grand old party needs a 47-year-old who has no experience in fighting elections to emerge from her reclusiveness and mitigate Congress’ existential crisis at the proverbial eleventh hour, then she either must be the smartest politician in the world or a feudal Congress cannot look beyond a dynasty when it comes to electoral success. Either way, Priyanka's role as the party’s general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh was going to give us some answers.
We may not quite have the proof of the pudding yet but early impressions of Priyanka’s campaigning and interaction with party workers give us less imprints of an electoral genius and more an affable personality who is more easy-going at public appearances and before the camera than her brother. We haven’t seen any evidence yet of the mythical qualities that Congress politicians or the media have bestowed on her. In fact, her methods so far appear too flippant for a serious politician and rather unimaginative.
Confusion on whether she will remain the party's general secretary or take the electoral plunge against the prime minister in Varanasi might be a great way of sustaining media attention, but it is not necessarily a great electoral strategy. Priyanka is dropping large hints about contesting the polls yet appears coy in the same breath.
"If my party says that I have to contest the election, then I will definitely contest," she tells journalists in Amethi, before adding that "my wish is that I work for the party because there is a lot of work to be done in the organization." And as if to dispel the notion of settling the debate, she goes on to casually ask party workers whether she should contest from Varanasi — Narendra Modi’s constituency.
This flippancy has been interpreted as a “surprise element in her armory” but it sits uneasy with Congress’s stated strategy of unseating the BJP government at the Centre and providing a politically stable coalition government. If the ace weapon in Congress’s armory seems flippant and indecisive about fighting elections, the message that goes down to voters isn’t that of stability.
The Ayodhya visit reveals that Priyanka possesses no big electoral idea or imagination that may resuscitate a moribund organisation — her primary job. This is the third time a Gandhi has come calling in Ayodhya before the Lok Sabha polls. In her choice of a road show in Faizabad and visiting of Hanuman Garhi temple she stuck to the tradition of her grandmother Indira, but it is a measure of how far the seed has fallen from the tree that all Priyanka could offer during the Ayodhya visit was the regurgitation of the same electoral strategy that has so far seen Congress steadily losing its national footprint.
The only thing that mattered during Priyanka’s visit was whether she would visit the disputed site for Babari Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi temple. She stayed clear of it. Not just that. Priyanka also steadfastly avoided any reference to the Ram Mandir during her Ayodhya visit and when cornered by journalists, took recourse to the excuse that the “matter is sub-judice”.
Instead, Priyanka kept her eyes fixed firmly on Modi and in different nukkad sabhas and multiple rallies, targeted her rhetoric at the prime minister. "Modi had gone to Pakistan in 2015 to eat biryani," said the Congress general secretary.
It isn't difficult to understand her strategy. The Ayodhya visit is aimed as a dog whistle to the Hindus that Congress isn't really an "anti-Hindu" or "minority appeasement" party that BJP paints it to be. However, by avoiding all references to Ram Temple during her interactions in Ayodhya and staying away from the Ram Janmabhoomi site, the Congress was trying to assure the Muslims that it hasn't transformed into a BJP clone either.
This is not a clever electoral strategy but a desperation that Congress faces in trying to differentiate itself from the BJP in the marketplace of ideas. For the better part of its almost six-decade rule over India since Independence, the Congress has never needed to think about counter-mobilisation of Hindus against it. Now that a neo middle class has arisen that despises the old elite and their incestuous hold over power and is challenging all conventional wisdom about the idea of India, the Congress, which represents the old elite and nurtures this ecosystem, suddenly stares at an existential crisis.
Priyanka could have taken the bold step of visiting the site. That would have sent a signal of commitment. By choosing to do neither this, nor that she has made explicit her lack of imagination as a leader. It is difficult to imagine that she could be Congress’s redemption song.
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