By opting out of Varanasi contest against Narendra Modi, Priyanka Gandhi chose her battles wisely

For Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi, jumping into the fray during the Lok Sabha election, that too directly against Narendra Modi from Varanasi, would have been a different ballgame altogether.

Plaban Gupta April 26, 2019 20:18:01 IST
By opting out of Varanasi contest against Narendra Modi, Priyanka Gandhi chose her battles wisely
  • After dilly-dallying for years, the charismatic daughter from the Gandhi family formally entered the political fray only in January.

  • Contesting against Narendra Modi from Varanasi was a gamble simply worth not taking up as a defeat would have resulted in dwindling political capital for her.

  • Taking a cue from her mother and brother, Priyanka should also decide on what would be an appropriate time for her to challenge the might of Modi-Shah duo.

After Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s decision to refrain from contesting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi, nothing resonates more forcefully than author C JoyBell C’s famous quote, “Choose your battles wisely. After all, life isn’t measured by how many times you stood up to fight.”

Surely, it would set the clock back of the slim chance of reviving the Congress in a state that sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Surely, it disappointed the party workers, who had hoped that the entry of the Congress general secretary for Eastern Uttar Pradesh would galvanise the party's moribund organisational structure, attract the youth and bring Dalits and minorities back to the party fold once again. Surely, the liberals sitting in newsrooms and Lutyens Delhi would be disappointed with the principal Opposition party failing to mount up a challenge against Modi. However, in reality, any defeat from the temple town would have dealt a knockout punch to the Congress’ chance of a comeback in Uttar Pradesh for years to come, besides jeopardising Priyanka’s career in the future.

By opting out of Varanasi contest against Narendra Modi Priyanka Gandhi chose her battles wisely

File photo of Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. PTI

After dilly-dallying for years, the charismatic daughter from the Gandhi family formally entered the political fray only in January, just a few months before the Lok Sabha election. Although this holy-town is scheduled to vote in the final phase on 19 May, the eleventh-hour entry would have hardly helped her cause in a seat where, in the past three decades, the Grand Old Party had managed to win only once, in 2004. There was hardly any time for groundwork, to figure out the problems afflicting the constituency, raise questions and offer solutions, build the organisational structure of the party from scratch and then mobilise voters. Additionally, given the symbolical importance of Varanasi in the pantheon of Hindutva culture, Priyanka would have found herself lagging for not cultivating an image akin to her brother in the mold of a ‘Shiv Bhakt’ or a devout Hindu.

It’s true that she shouldn’t have been carried away or fanned the speculation for weeks of her contesting from Varanasi, saying that she was ready to contest from the seat if her party wanted to, or if her brother wanted her to.

Altogether, it won’t be wrong to assume that all these days, she was testing the waters and gauging the atmosphere of whether to contest. At this moment, we can only speculate that the ground report, after three phases of polling, might have also influenced her decision.

The decision by the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party to field Shalini Yadav to take on Modi also didn’t help her cause as it ensured a split in anti-BJP votes. Although she managed her mother and brother’s constituency, Raebareli and Amethi, for years, jumping into the poll fray amid the heat and dust of Indian politics — particularly in the ‘cow belt’ — and that too directly against Modi is a different ballgame altogether. It was a gamble that was simply worth not taking up as a defeat would have resulted in dwindling political capital for her.

Jawaharlal Nehru never lost an election. Neither did Rajiv Gandhi. Even during the "Modi wave" of 2014, both Rahul and Sonia managed to hold onto her seat. It was only in 1977, on the back of an anti-Emergency and anti-Indira wave, that Indira Gandhi lost to Raj Narain from Raebaraeli. But this is considered an aberration.

The bottom line is that by belonging to the first family of the Congress, Priyanka doesn’t have the option of coming even second best. For a strategical purpose, or when in doubt, the family did contest from a second seat — Indira from Chikmagalur in 1978 and Medak in 1980, Sonia from Bellary in 1999 and now Rahul from Wayanad — but they were all deemed to be ‘safe’ seats.

Varanasi, though, is far from being a safe seat, with the BJP winning in the four Assembly segments that fall under it in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls and NDA partner Apna Dal (Sonelal) winning the fifth. Congress managed to come a distant second in only two of these seats after forming an alliance with Samjawadi Party. Not counting Apna Dal’s winning margin, Congress is faced with an uphill task of bridging more than 1,80,000 votes, if we extrapolate the 2017 Assembly results with no allies to back it.

For the media, though, it would have been the mother of all battles, with television cameras, OB vans and journalists from across the country swarming to the city to cover the ‘Big Fight’. However, in political terms, it would have been largely symbolical. Given his penchant for taking on the ‘family’, Modi would have surely focused on her husband Robert Vadra’s alleged corruption cases and trained his guns on her for paratrooping like an elite commando.

Sonia didn’t jump in to take over the reins of the party after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, despite earnest exhortation by Congress leaders and workers. She took the plunge only when she was sure of reviving the party’s fortune. Rahul also took his own time from being a reluctant politician to leading the charge, starting from the Gujarat Assembly polls in 2017, in spite of being an MP since 2004. Taking a cue from her mother and brother, Priyanka should also decide on what would be an appropriate time for her to challenge the might of Modi-Shah duo.

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