Priyanka Gandhi takes political plunge: Congress plays trump card, but questions around 2014 performance abound

Last week, a contractor with a contingent of masonry workers turned up at Nehru Bhawan — Uttar Pradesh Congress headquarters — on Mall Avenue in Lucknow. The two-storey building has a magnificent façade, but its interiors had become shopworn: much like the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, which has been out of power for the past 30 years.

The workers were surprised by the extensive renovation plan: new fixtures, fitting and furniture. The sudden interest of party high command and directions to finish the work expeditiously amused them and gave way to heated peculation. Some thought this was preparation for Priyanka Gandhi’s grand entry into the Congress, and that she'd have an office there and hold meetings. They were proven correct.

A file photo of Priyanka Gandhi with her husband Robert Vadra. AFP

A file photo of Priyanka Gandhi with her husband Robert Vadra. AFP

The Congress has finally played its trump card. Priyanka is now All India Congress Committee general secretary, a post her father Rajiv and brother Rahul held before taking the reigns of the party. After reaching Amethi, a visibly elated Rahul said, “I am very happy that my sister, who is very capable, will work with me. This is a good move, the BJP is nervous. We will now play on the front foot, not on the back foot.”

Priyanka has been given the task of reviving the Congress' prospects in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Jyotiraditya Scindia, another dynast, has been given the task of boosting party’s prospects in western Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka and Jyotiraditya  will be in-charge for 40 seats each.

That’s not an easy task, given the fact that Congress’ expectations have skyrocketed. Minutes after a formal announcement, some Congress leaders claimed that the party will win 30 seats in Uttar Pradesh. They believe that since Priyanka is a good communicator and looks like her grandmother Indira, she has the potential to change the fortunes of the party. Rahul’s statement, that if Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav want to have fresh dialogue with Congress, then he has no problem in talking gives the impression that he thinks the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party would be forced to reconsider their decision of keeping Congress out of their alliance.

The key question: Can Priyanka deliver? Consider the following:

In terms of its electoral prospects, Congress is sandwiched between two powerful combinations: BSP-SP coalition and the BJP. Where does that leave the Congress, which hardly has leaders with fighting spirit and workers on the ground willing to sweat it out? Eastern Uttar Pradesh, where Priyanka is tasked with taking care of 40 seats, has Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath from Gorakhpur and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as BJP MP from Banaras. The SP-BSP large support base is always going to be there. Rahul's claim that the Uttar Pradesh Congress will now have a new thought process remains to be verified.

While taking a plunge into the Uttar Pradesh political grind, Priyanka will also have to fight two perceptions. First, that she has been formally brought into the Congress’ organisational fold because Rahul failed to deliver. Congress workers across the country have always been inclined to believe Priyanka was better suited to be a leader than Rahul. A substantive section of voters don’t really like to see the perpetuation of dynastic politics. In the Gandhi family’s case,  Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka are officially at the helm of Congress.

Second, the baggage of perception about Priyanka's husband Robert Vadra. Though none of the charges against Vadra have made substantive progress in legal terms, but in terms of popular opinion, Vadra is already a villain. Out of familiar turfs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, Priyanka may have a tough time responding to the perception around her husband.

During the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, erstwhile poll strategist Prashant Kishor planned to build a campaign around Priyanka as the chief ministerial face. But she backed out. Then, Priyanka was credited with stitching the alliance with the Samajwadi Party. Ahmed Patel credited Priyanka in his tweet on 22 January, 2018: “Wrong to suggest lightweights were dealing on behalf of Congress party. Discussion was at highest level- b/w CM (UP),GS I/C & Priyanka Gandhi”

Some other Congress leaders suggested Priyanka would campaign through the state to ensure that the Samajwadi Party-Congress had a thumping victory, but that never materialised. It was said that leadership was wary of consequences if Congress did not do well. Senior Congress leader and then in-charge of Uttar Pradesh Ghulam Nabi Azad said Priyanka had taken command of all backroom strategy and was holding series of meetings with workers. But after the Congress' eminently forgettable performance in Uttar Pradesh elections, no one talked of Priyanka’s role.

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It seems that Priyanka  finally took the plunge out of necessity rather than choice. The Congress has been jilted by BSP and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, in Bihar mahagathbandhan seat negotiations have run into trouble with RJD leader Tejashawi Yadav telling Congress to be pragmatic about their strength and accordingly limit their demand for seats. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is unwilling to yield much space to Congress; in Karnataka the Congress ally JD(S) is demanding a larger number of seats and Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy made it clear in a statement he would prefer Mamata as prime minister over Rahul. Thus, for Priyanka and the Gandhis, it was now or never.

The Congress’ hope in Uttar Pradesh is limited only to two seats: Amethi and Rae Bareli, which have been left for Rahul and Sonia by Mayawati and Akhilesh. In the rest of 78 seats, the Congress’ fate has almost certainly been sealed. There is a sense of despondency among Uttar Pradesh Congress leaders. The Congress thinks Priyanka will change that scenario.

In the 2017 Assembly election — where Priyanka didn't campaign much in Amethi and Raebareli — the Congress won two Assembly seats out of five in Rae Bareli and lost all five seats in Amethi. In the last parliamentary elections, Rahul's victory margin in Amethi reduced from 3.70 lakh in 2009 to 1.07 lakh in 2014. In Rae Bareli, Sonia’s victory margin was also reduced. Priyanka campaigned extensively in both constituencies. In the 2012 Assembly elections, despite Priyanka's nukkad to nukkad campaign, the results were hugely disappointing for the Congress: the party lost every single seat in Rae Bareli.

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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 21:27:43 IST

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