BJP's lazy charges against Priyanka Gandhi distracts from real issues and gives her chance to build political capital

BJP’s counter-Priyanka Gandhi strategy is not going according to plan. When Rahul Gandhi announced that his sister is joining active politics and will take an important part in the campaign for upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had embarked on a cautious strategy.

Mindful of the fact that Priyanka is smarter, more eloquent and charismatic than her brother and bears some resemblance with grandmother Indira — the country’s only female prime minister who remains a tough-as-nails figure in Indian politics despite her autocratic strain, BJP tried to refrain from launching personal attacks against her. Instead, the party had decided to focus on the motivations behind Rahul’s decision to field his sibling and the sense of entitlement that runs through members of the Gandhi family who treat Congress party as their “private firm”.

BJPs lazy charges against Priyanka Gandhi distracts from real issues and gives her chance to build political capital

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi along with Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Reuters

It made perfect sense too. Focusing on Priyanka blunts BJP’s most effective weapon in the elections — the personality of Narendra Modi. The prime minister still remains a much-admired figure, and surveys have pointed out to the fact that his personal popularity outstrips that of his rivals and towers even over his own party. The BJP’s campaign strategy, therefore, revolves around making the general elections a referendum on Modi’s personality in the lines of a presidential campaign in the US.

The BJP feels comfortable with a Modi versus Rahul contest since the Congress chief, despite some late successes, still cuts a bumbling figure in politics. Pitted against Rahul’s expressions that vary between poker face and righteous indignation, Modi is considerably the better communicator. This picture, however, changes when it becomes a Modi versus Priyanka contest — that the Congress is trying to encourage by handing over eastern Uttar Pradesh to the elder Gandhi that includes the prime minister’s Varanasi constituency. Posters of a ‘Modi vs Priyanka’ fight (though it is still not clear if she will contest in the election) are already visible in Uttar Pradesh.

Priyanka brings an untested ‘x-factor’ to the equation. Coupled with her ease and spontaneity, she also taps into the appeal that a deeply feudal society instinctively harbours for the progeny of a ‘strong leader’, especially if there is some amount of physical resemblance between the two.

Her made-for-TV personality endears Priyanka further to the media which remains obsessed with the dynast. There has been no discussion in the media over the skill set that Priyanka brings to the table, her views on substantive policy decisions and her opinion on the quotidian issues concerning common man. Instead, we have had endless discussions on her sartorial elegance and the apparent ‘ballsy decision’ to take charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, as if the ‘statement’ alone is indicative of her spunk and calibre.

In this age of vacuous and lopsided media debates, the brother may be no match for Modi in a personality contest, but the sister may be able to hold her own. This is doubtlessly a perception until such time that the result proves otherwise, but politics is a game of perception, not data.

The BJP’s original plan was to highlight the fact that it was Rahul’s “leadership failure” that compelled him to fall back on sister Priyanka, and how the airdropping of one more Gandhi on the helm is indicative of the culture of entitlement and elitism that defines Congress.

BJP leader R Balashankar writes in NDTV: “By promoting Priyanka, the Congress has exposed two things. One, that it no more considers corruption and dynastic politics as issues that matter to voters. Two, it is an admission that Rahul Gandhi has not impressed the opposition ranks enough to fall under the Congress umbrella for a "mahagathbandhan"… Priyanka’s debut will certainly unsettle the opposition frontline. It will also raise questions about Rahul Gandhi's leadership abilities…”

Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad posted on Twitter:

These calibrated attacks, that came in the aftermath of the announcement, stuck to the larger plan. The idea was to not give Priyanka the opportunity to play the sympathy card. Unfortunately for the BJP, the rough and tumble of everyday politics upset the best laid plans. Since the first few days, myriad BJP leaders have made sexist and bizarre remarks that any smart politician could use as a weapon.

Bihar minister Vinod Narayan Jha came out with a sexist remark that Priyanka is “very beautiful” but “votes cannot be won on the basis of beautiful faces… Other than that she holds no political achievement or talent”, he was quoted, as saying by ANI. His party colleague and Bihar’s deputy chief minister Sushil Modi took a dig at Congress for inducting a “woman with a tainted life partner”.

Then there is BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, who said that Congress doesn’t have “any leader that is why it brings in chocolaty faces and they want to fight elections with these faces. This shows their lack of confidence”.

On Sunday, senior BJP MP Subramanian Swamy claimed that Priyanka suffers from a bipolar disorder and she “beats up people”. Speaking to news agency ANI, he said “her ailment does not make her fit to lead a public life. The public should know when she is likely to lose mental balance.”

Apart from the fact that Swamy’s statement can be considered as insensitive and stigmatising for those who suffer from such a mental ailment, this line of attack directly plays into Priyanka’s hands by allowing her to bypass policy debates and focus on 'herself'. If the Gandhi scion is really as effective a communicator as she is touted to be, this one remark by Swamy should be enough for her to build some political capital in much the same way Modi turned ‘chaiwala’ jibe into a tour de force.

Attacking Priyanka for her husband’s alleged financial misdeeds is also a poor strategy. If Robert Vadra is really guilty of anything, it reflects poorly on the NDA government instead which has been unable to take any concrete action against him in five years. Any rhetoric now will be counter-productive. In fact, any action against Vadra at this late stage will give Congress the chance to cry foul.

BJP’s attacking of Priyanka on dynasty also makes little sense. This weapon has been blunted by overuse. If voters can accept dynast Rahul — as Congress may argue on the back of recent electoral success — there is no reason why they won’t accept another dynast.

There is a case to be made against Priyanka on how her elevation concentrates power in the hands of one family, but this case cannot be made by repeating the ‘dynast’ charge alone. It must be accompanied by a substantive debate on how nepotism and elitism — which Priyanka’s ascension elucidates — is bad for the country. BJP’s lazy charges against Priyanka instead give her an easy way out.

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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 08:00:42 IST

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