Whole essays have been written on the visible similarities between Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. The hair is the same, the downward tilt of the face while making a point is the same, the blind affection commanded by supporters is almost the same. But Indira and Priyanka are bound by yet another common thread: they are perhaps two of the least reluctant people in the Nehru-Gandhi family to have taken up leadership roles in the Congress.
Priyanka, on Wednesday, became the fourth woman in the Gandhi-Nehru family to have entered active politics.
Unlike her father and her mother, Priyanka arrives to fulfill her first definitive charge in national politics not riding on a wave of collective grief, but to fill a specific political purpose. A natural on the campaign circuit, Priyanka spoke openly of her desire to take up an active role in the Congress in 2012. "If Rahul asks me to campaign, I will," she said, shedding the customary reluctance that has accompanied many scions' foray into politics.
Her father Rajiv entered as the reluctant leader of a party mourning the loss of Indira. In the taut atmosphere of an assassination followed by widespread riots against Sikhs, Rajiv Gandhi played a role lauded by some and criticised by many.
His own assassination in 1991 was followed by an intensely private Sonia taking up the lead role in the Congress in what was natural progression to a party already appreciative of the value of a dynasty.
With time, the Congress's de facto headquarters evolved into Sonia's house at 10, Janpath, in Delhi. A role at the official headquarters at 24, Akbar Road, would be meaningless if a Congress leader did not have ease of passage at the Janpath address.
In Javier Moro's controversial book The Red Sari, the moment when Sonia had discovered that her life was to change is rendered in great detail and portrays emotion that few have seen her show in public.
The book disappeared from India's bookstores in what is considered an unofficial ban in 2008, only to return in 2015, ostensibly after the Congress went out of power. A section quoted in Outlook goes:
"Priyanka ran to her mother’s room and searched feverishly for her inhaler and antihistamines. When she came back into the living room, she saw Sonia sitting on an armchair with her eyes almost turned up, her mouth open and her head thrown back, trying to get air. She thought she was dying."
In her everyday task of taking care of her mother upon discovery that her father was dead, Priyanka was also witnessing historical events: the death of a country's head and the creation of a future political leader of India's grand old party. A video which shows Indira Gandhi picking up a stray item from the floor of their house so that Rahul, a child then, can walk through also show a prime minister clearing the way for the chief of a party she once headed.
For Priyanka, in whose life the domestic has been so acutely national, the value of optics has never been lost. She has been seen at the most significant moments: in 1998 with her mother at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu where her father was killed, at the Congress's mainstay in Amethi and Raebareli before every national election and also, in 2008, meeting her father's killer in jail,
"It was a very personal visit and completely on my own individual initiative," she had told PTI about her meeting with Nalini Sriharan in Vellore, asking the media to respect her privacy, like her mother had so many times before.
Perhaps because she has seen her mother navigate the waters of being Italian in a multi-cultural India with a single stoic expression through entire decades, but Priyanka has not been one to follow suit.
An easy affability has always accompanied Priyanka's demeanor, during campaigns with her brother and on stage with her mother. Her conversational attitude while addressing crowds does not allow lengthy comparisons with her mother, who likes her words crisp and her delivery impersonal.
In a campaign speech at Amethi, a younger Priyanka can be seen steadfast in her retort. "This is the workplace of Indira ji. This is our pride. She wasn't just my grandmother but the lady who brought change to India, the lady who wept for India, for all of you. How can you let yourself doubt her?" she asked, with a scowl on her face. Men twice her age stood chastised in the crowd.
A 1978 interview with British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby shows Indira Gandhi at her defiant best as she is asked successive questions on her motives behind calling for the 1975 Emergency. Unflinching, and with words her granddaughter has clearly resonated above, she says, "The people have seen that I brought development. They have seen that I am sympathetic to them. Less than a month after I was defeated in the elections (in 1977), the people were back to me."
Indira says in the interview that she has no intention of being the prime minister ever again. Priyanka, in 2009, said in an interview to NDTV that she was certain she would not enter politics. Interestingly, both reneged on their statements. Indira went on to become prime minister in 1980. And on Wednesday, Priyanka was given charge of Uttar Pradesh East, daring the two big guns of the BJP — Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath.
Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 14:22:53 IST