Priyanka Gandhi typifies popular Brahmin ideas but will encounter challenges from other dynastic charisma in Uttar Pradesh

Priyanka Gandhi has always been deemed a charismatic personality, but extraordinary attributes are irrelevant if the personality does not garner votes. The 2019 Lok Sabha election results from Uttar Pradesh will provide evidence whether people beyond those who are Congress supporters also perceive Priyanka as charismatic. For long, Congress workers have wished that Priyanka lead them in the electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka's charisma, they presume, will lure back the millions who stopped voting the Congress over the last three decades.

Priyanka's charisma has not been electorally-tested — she has, for instance, never spearheaded an election campaign beyond the family boroughs of Amethi and Raebareli. Nor does she boast of accomplishments outside politics. Nevertheless, she is considered charismatic because she is said to have inherited it from her illustrious family. This has many see Indira Gandhi in Priyanka. It kindles in them the hope that Priyanka can re-establish Congress domination as was under Indira.

It is possible to identify other sources of Priyanka's charisma. A clutch of women leaders have dominated politics in India's neighbourhood because of their links to dynasties. Think Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Khaleda Zia, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Sonia Gandhi.

Priyanka Gandhi typifies popular Brahmin ideas but will encounter challenges from other dynastic charisma in Uttar Pradesh

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and party general secretary and sister Priyanka Gandhi in Lucknow.

A feature common to all these women leaders is that their fathers or husbands were assassinated, sociologist Robi Chakravorti pointed out when Sonia entered electoral politics in 1999. In an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Chakravorti wrote, "One can argue that part of their appeal on the popular mind stems from the inherited aura of connection with famous, powerful relatives and the sufferings they underwent. One can describe this phenomenon as dynastic charisma."

The Congress harps on the assassination of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi to ensure that dynastic charisma is not devalued. It is a reminder what Gandhis endured for the nation. It subtly fuses the idea of nationhood with the charisma of the Gandhis. For Rahul and Priyanka, the suffering was twice over — their grandmother and father died in their childhood.

Dynastic charisma is ascriptive. A person acquires it because of his or her birth. It is inherited, not acquired, as is so true of caste status. A person cannot acquire caste. He or she is born into it. Just as the idea of nationhood is fused with the charisma of the Gandhis, so is caste. Over the last four years, the Congress has consciously identified Rahul as a Brahmin who wears jenau or sacred thread. The charisma of the Gandhis has a Brahminical foundation.

In many ways, Priyanka typifies popular ideas of Brahmin-ness. She is tall, fair and has sharp features. In an inherently racist North India, forever conflicted about dark complexion, Priyanka is the physical embodiment of the ideal Brahmin. She reflects the self-conscious superiority of Brahmins, not least because of her flamboyant style and repartee.

It is for this reason that the Congress believes Brahmins will identify with her as they did with Indira Gandhi. The spin on the similarity between Priyanka and Indira is a subtle manipulation of the popular consciousness. Priyanka is a reminder to Brahmins about the unchallenged hegemony they enjoyed decades ago.

Priyanka is also the Brahmins' best bet to thwart the challenge from below. This is because only an Indira look-alike in the Nehru-Gandhi family can deploy her charisma to bridge the caste and religious chasms. In other words, it is not the Bharatiya Janata Party, but Priyanka who, like Indira, could garner the affection and votes of lower castes and Muslims. Priyanka is a tempting invitation to Brahmins to return to the Congress to reclaim their traditional leadership of the society.

But Priyanka's charm will also encounter challenges from other forms of dynastic charisma. Over the last four decades, the non-upper castes too have spawned their own dynasties. The patriarchs of these dynasties symbolise the aspirations and struggles of the backward castes and Dalits. They may gawk at Priyanka, but they will also view her charisma as an attempt to erode the gains they have made.

In the last few years, non-upper caste dynasties, in the manner of the Gandhis, are also witnessing dynastic succession. In Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav has taken over from his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Like Priyanka, he too has inherited dynastic charisma, which he tried to widen by distributing computers and building highways. These were signifiers of his caste-neutral development policy.

Yet Akhilesh was trumped in the 2018 Assembly elections. He has now taken to saying that "they" have made him understand that he is a backward caste. Akhilesh has chosen to root his charisma in the backward castes. Just as India's polity has become increasingly fragmented, so has charisma. Priyanka's Brahminical, dynastic charisma will, at best, have a limited appeal for the backward castes.

Different categories of castes love the dynasty they spawn. Take Bihar, where Tejashwi Yadav has taken over from the irrepressible Lalu Prasad Yadav. Just as Priyanka is perceived to have suffered on account of violent deaths in the family, there is sympathy for Tejashwi as his sick father languishes in prison. Lalu acquired charisma because he symbolised the pride, self-respect and assertion of subaltern groups. Tejashwi is now building upon it, evident from his demand for 90% reservation in government jobs.

Likewise, Chirag Paswan will inherit the dynastic charisma from his father, Ram Vilas Paswan, who has an appeal for a large segment of Dalits in Bihar. Even outside Bihar, different castes have their own destinies and their scions acquire dynastic charisma. They will deploy it to counter Priyanka's should she seek to weaken them. Who will the people of Odisha back - Naveen Patnaik or Priyanka, both Brahmins? Patnaik, like Priyanka, has inherited dynastic charisma. He then fused it with Odisha pride.

Priyanka will also face challenges from those who have acquired charisma, not inherited it. Into this league place leaders such as Narendra Modi, Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, KC Rao, etc. As far as Uttar Pradesh goes, Priyanka's charisma will get pitted against Modi and Mayawati's.

Modi is charismatic for Hindutva followers and those segments of the middle class which look upon him as Mr. Development. Will they get swayed by Priyanka's charisma which also has a secular element? On the other hand, Mayawati is charismatic for Dalits. She embodies both their pride and aspirations. Her rise symbolises to Dalits the possibilities open to them. Die-hard supporters of the Congress once, Dalits will see Priyanka's charisma as a tool to deny them their share of power.

Priyanka could have had a bigger pull had she chosen to expand her dynastic charisma before wading into the swirling political waters of Uttar Pradesh.

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 13:46:28 IST

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