Priyanka Gandhi scores valuable points on debut and rejuvenates Congress supporters, but battle has just begun

In a nation where sporting analogies are routinely used to depict political scenarios and developments by politicians and commentators, it is apt to draw one to portray Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's political debut in Uttar Pradesh — the state that will possibly decide who shall not be prime minister — if not exactly determine who will eventually make it to the seat.

But for once, this likeness will not be drawn from the only 'religion' that units the nation — cricket. Instead, this imagery is drawn from a 'genuinely' Indian sport, theorised to have roots in the Vedic period, the 'contact team sport' much like politics — kabaddi or hu-tu-tu.

In her debut as a 'raider' who enters the opponent's half of the playing arena, the recently-appointed AICC General Secretary for Uttar Pradesh East, has returned home after 'tagging' or 'touching' at least one of the important players of the opposing team.

She has picked up valuable points on her first foray but it is a long haul before the final whistle. Moreover, not all 'raids' can be conducted by her as others in the other team will have to somewhat match her gains.

A hoarding with the picture of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra along with Indira Gandhi during the Lucknow road show. PTI

A hoarding with the picture of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra along with Indira Gandhi during the Lucknow road show. PTI

She has to play an important role in warding off 'raids' of the opponent, shepherding other members of her team but ensuring she should not challenge the leadership to set up a power struggle within the party between her loyalists and those of others.

Yet, it would be naive for the Congress leadership to think that its opponents, and this includes the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party for the moment as party president, Rahul Gandhi, spelt his ambitions for the 2022 Assembly polls too, will not come up with a counter move.

Moreover, the success of the Lucknow road show does not mean that the Congress is guaranteed to perform creditably. For if political rallies and marches could win elections, in 2017, the 'UP ke ladke' (Rahul and Akhilesh Yadav) would have performed better than the measly 54 seats the two parties won out of a total of 403.

The slogan — 'UP ko yeh saath pasand hai' — may have been a hit with the media and even a crowd puller for being a play on a number from a Salman Khan film, but it was a flop as far as voters were concerned.

Nonetheless, Priyanka has secured a good start in the race for 2019. Her entry in politics has resulted in two developments immediately. First, the Congress network of karyakartas or party workers that had become unenthusiastic or even charmed by Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, has not just returned to the fold, but also sees purpose in turning out.

Second, her entry into politics has clearly rattled BJP leaders as is evident from their resorting to misogynous statements. This line of criticism will not blunt Priyanka's challenge, but only make it more worrisome.

Television channels interviewed several party old-timers, one of them from Allahabad even flaunted a wedding card signed by Indira Gandhi inviting the man's grandfather to the marriage of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. Such memorabilia, long lying forgotten in the lowest family shelves have been dusted out alongside resolve to once again canvass for the party.

The crowd that lined up the streets of Lucknow visibly cut across community, class and age with young and old both displaying enthusiasm in equal measure.

From when she campaigned for her mother in Bellary in 1999, Priyanka's physical likeness to her grandmother has not been lost on people. But, the bolstering of these visual parallels with virtual political paeans of Indira and the manner in which her 'toughness' has been 'affixed' on her granddaughter is suggestive of two realities.

First, despite criticism of Indira for imposing Emergency, popular nostalgia on her also has a contrary thread wherein the pre-1975 image merges with that of the 'martyr' gunned down by her bodyguards.

It is argued that today's generation has no recall of Indira, but this is the mobile phone-backed India of 2019 and the spectacular increase in consumption of data is not only entertainment-driven, because infotainment too is widely consumed.

Second, Priyanka continuing to be a draw with the people shows preference for a 'tough leader' — Modi's rise owes much to the projection of his muscular nationalism in contrast to the 'weak' Manmohan Singh caricatured by Anupam Kher in The Accidental Prime Minister.

In contrast to Priyanka's 'eagerness' when she finally took the plunge — and even before, Rahul remained the reluctant politician till his new post-Berkeley avatar took shape. In Modi's emergence as India's front-ranking leader lies the unrecognised Indian preference for an 'assertive leader' who can secure respect and admiration globally.

Rahul has begun paying Modi back in the same coin and securing success. This is evident in the way his evocation of the word 'chowkidar' is followed by the rest of the slogan he has coined. But it is Priyanka who has demonstrated capacity to develop a counter-narrative and contend that firmness need not be displayed with a sledgehammer.

She recently told an audience that to run this country, leaders did not need to have a 56-inch chest but a "large heart" and that they could do a better job if they had "moral strength" and had no need to use brute State force. She is clearly working to delineate a vital difference between her 'forcefulness' and that of Modi's.

On her part, Priyanka appears to have taken to the streets and mass politics, the way a fish takes to water. It was obvious she has the capacity to connect with people, remembering names and faces, looking down at people thronging the truck and the open SUV later and not gazing ahead into the horizon as most leaders on road shows are wont to do.

In India, despite the emergence of social media, the oral tradition is deeply entrenched and if tales of her charming presence is transmitted on this network, it will require a redoubled effort on part of the BJP to counter.

At the moment, the saffron party is fixated on the recurring Vadra-corruption-dynasty themes but the party has to think beyond this to ensure the Priyanka road show does not acquire a national character.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 16:46:23 IST

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