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Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's Varanasi charade reveals Congress' high command suffers delusions of grandeur

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra backing out of a contest against Narendra Modi in Varanasi has been spun in some circles as a “wise move.”

The argument is hilarious. If the decision to opt out of a contest against the prime minister is “wise,” why on earth was the possibility hyped up in the first place? Has Congress considered the possibility that Priyanka’s last-minute ‘withdrawal’ — after the creation of huge media heat over a “blockbuster” contest — causes irreparable damage to her own image and that of the party?

 Priyanka Gandhi Vadras Varanasi charade reveals Congress high command suffers delusions of grandeur

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra on the campaign trail

When questions of such import are treated with elitist frivolity, the impression that goes to the electorate is that Congress remains a party of whimsical politics. Far from showcasing “prudence”, the Priyanka charade symbolises all the ills that plague the Grand Old Party. Congress resembles a dithering and confused unit bumbling its way into the polls against a formidable, well-oiled, election-winning machine. And its leaders — the famed ‘high command’ — appear as amateurs against professionals.

After all, it was Priyanka’s decision to create the media hype through loaded answers and teasing replies. The bogey was created last month when the newest Gandhi scion on the block shot back at an innocuous question on whether she would contest from Rae Bareli by saying “why not Varanasi?”

The suggestion created wild media speculation because it dovetailed with the media’s need to dress up an Opposition leader as a ‘challenger’ to Modi on charisma. We were told that Congress’ ‘Brahmastra’ possesses so many ‘smarts’ that Modi may quake in his boots at the prospect of facing her.

And so it caught on. Priyanka made it a habit of keeping alive the ‘tantalising’ possibility that she may take the field against the prime minister in Varanasi and kept repeating the line that “she is ready to contest if the party wants her to.” In between, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel chipped in and said that if Priyanka takes on Modi, he will be “personally very happy”.

Even as this media-driven tamasha became a daily feature, Congress president Rahul Gandhi on whom apparently rests the final decision, added his bit to the speculation by saying: “I will leave you in suspense. Suspense is not always a bad thing.”

It is legitimate to infer that Congress was creating a hype around Priyanka taking on Modi for a specific reason. Maybe that was a party strategy. If so, what could be the reason behind such a strategy? Let us look at the ground realities. Modi demolished Arvind Kejriwal — who was then a rising star in Indian politics — by around 3.37 lakh votes in 2014. Congress’ Ajai Rai, who has been asked to face Modi again this year, lost his deposit. Data suggests that even if the entire Opposition fields one common candidate, that candidate may still lose by over 2 lakh votes.

To top it all, Congress is not even a significant player in Varanasi. Its ramshackle infrastructure in Uttar Pradesh is further banished to the fringes in Varanasi constituency. Given these ground realities, what may have prompted Congress to think about such a strategy?

One possible answer could be that Priyanka, even in defeat, may have gained national attention and earned bravado as a serious player who knows that time is on her side. She could have taken a lesson from the way Sushma Swaraj took on Sonia Gandhi in Bellary, Karnataka, which has remained a Gandhi bastion since 1952.

When Sonia decided to contest from Bellary in addition to Amethi, the BJP fielded Sushma Swaraj, then a newbie in Karnataka politics with little ground support. The day Sonia’s decision was announced, the very next day BJP fielded Sushma who launched heroically into campaign on unknown terrain.

As this News18 article pointed out, “An unfazed Sushma learnt some Kannada in just 30 days and even gave public speeches in the language. Wherever she went, Sushma questioned Sonia’s ‘foreign’ origin issue. In that fiercely contested election, Sonia won by a very narrow margin of 56,000 votes. Seeing her performance, Sushma was rewarded by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with a Cabinet rank at the Centre.”

Or take the case of BJP leader Smriti Irani, who took the defeat against Rahul in Amethi in 2014 on her chin and refused to budge from the constituency that rejected her. Irani remained dedicated to Amethi for the past five years, slowly built her profile, reputation and now she is poised to pose a formidable challenge to the Congress president who is fighting from Wayanad in addition to Amethi.

Had Priyanka thrown such a spirited challenge at Modi, even a defeat would have helped her and her party. But the chickening out at the last minute helps neither her nor her party. Instead, it damages the credibility of Priyanka as a leader and exposes Congress’s unprofessional, non-serious attitude.

What’s more, the way Priyanka’s name was disassociated with Varanasi at the last minute and hapless Ajai's name was announced instead further deepens Congress’ crisis of credibility. AICC spokesperson Rajeev Shukla said the decision not to field Priyanka in Varanasi was taken by Rahul.

“I think that every decision is made with the approval of the Congress president. He decided that Priyanka should work for the organisation and strengthen the party in her jurisdiction.”

But then Congress leader Sam Pitroda, who heads the party’s overseas unit, said the exact opposite. According to him, it was Priyanka’s decision — the party general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh — not to fight from Varanasi. “The party president left the final decision to her,” Pitroda told reporters on Friday, and added “she (Priyanka) decided that she has several responsibilities. She decided that rather than concentrating on one seat, she should focus on the job she has at hand.”

What does this charade tell us about Congress? At one level, the party appears so disjointed that they cannot even speak in one voice over an important development. At another level, the sorry spectacle is reflective of the perception problem that Congress’ First Family suffers from. Rahul and Priyanka perhaps do not quite understand that this is no longer an India of the 1970s and 1980s when Gandhi brand was enough to draw votes. In the new millennium, the nation has changed but the Congress has failed to keep up with the change. It still suffers from delusions of grandeur.

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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 15:57:22 IST