Days after Priyanka Gandhi's formal induction in the Indian National Congress, her supporters are already rooting for her to take the electoral plunge.
While many are demanding she contest the Lok Sabha election from the high-profile Varanasi seat, directly challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi, odds are that if UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi's health does not improve in the coming weeks, she might have to take up her mother's traditional seat, Rae Bareli. Considered a pocket borough of the Gandhi family, Rae Bareli was also Indira's preferred seat as she fought numerous elections from this eastern Uttar Pradesh constituency. Given the similarities people draw between Indira and Priyanka, and her familiarity with the constituency, it might just be the prudent choice to make, if indeed she is planning to make her electoral debut.
However, just like her entry in politics, her electoral debut may come in its own time.
Priyanka's entry into politics have been around the corner for a long time, even if she ruled out the possibility time and again. As recently as on 16 December, 2017, when Rahul finally took over as Congress president, Priyanka told journalists that Sonia will very much retain her traditional constituency. "There is no question of me contesting from Rae Bareli….. my mother will contest from there."
But what is undeniable is her steady interest in politics. Priyanka had been accompanying her parents, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia to Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies since early childhood. Her parents were only too aware of her strong political leanings. Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi confirmed that Rajiv had told him about Priyanka's interest in politics as far back as in 1990. It is for this reason that in all these years she has chosen to keep in touch with the people of these two constituencies, even when she was not actively involved in the party's campaign in any other part of the country. The poorest of poor residents of these constituencies have access to Priyanka's house all through the year, a practice that is followed by both Rahul and Sonia as well. In fact, in 2012, she used to hold a regular weekly durbar in Delhi for the people from Rae Bareli and Amethi.
During the campaign for 2004 election, it was obvious that Priyanka knew practically every nook and corner of these two constituencies. As she travelled through different segments of the two constituencies, she would stop and chat with the people, ask them about their problems and promise to help wherever she could. It was her first full-fledged campaign, but she went about like a seasoned campaigner.
At the Jama Masjid crossing in Amethi, she surprised many Congress workers by stopping at a BJP supporter’s sweet shop. "Bhaiya, kya khilayenge aap? What will you offer me to eat?" she asked the man smiling and then graciously accepted the jalebis he offered her. After finishing the sweets, she spoke to him about his family and asked about his well-being, ending the interaction with a simple request: "This time please vote for the Congress." Those were the days when BJP was led by stalwarts like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, when the present day animosity between Congress and BJP was only restricted to political rallies.
Perhaps it is because of her composed demeanour and the ease with which she connects with people that Congress old-timers compare her to Indira.
Furthermore, in Uttar Pradesh, her biggest advantage is that she speaks fluent Hindi extempore, while liberally sprinkling her speeches and conversations with Awadhi. At Baghipur village, she surprised voters by asking them to vote for "Rajiv Bhaiya ki mehraroo aur meri maa Sonia ji (Rajiv’s wife and my mother Sonai.)"
She later told reporters, who were curious to know where did she pick up the language of the masses, that she learnt it from Amitabh Bachchan’s mother, Teji Bachchan, who was a close friend of the Gandhis.
Another quality she possesses is her sharp and candid speeches. In 1999, when she was campaigning for Satish Sharma, who was contesting elections from Rae Bareli against BJP candidate Arun Nehru, she lambasted the latter in her election rally. "I have a complaint against you," she told the voters. "A man who committed treachery while he was in my father's ministry. He stabbed a brother in the back — answer me — how did you let such a man in here? How did he dare come here?" She added: "I spoke to my mother before coming here. She told me not to speak ill of anyone. But I am young; who shall I speak my mind to if not to you?"
Her words created such an impact that Arun lost that election even when no member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan was contesting against him.
Her campaigning skills were also at display when she was canvassing for Sonia in 1999. Her mother was contesting from Bellary against BJP's Sushma Swaraj. Priyanka clambered onto a jeep, dressed in a white and yellow kanjivaram sari, right after landing in Bellary. Campaigning beside her mother, she managed to leave her mark.
When a reporter had then asked her about her plans to join active politics, she replied, "You’ll have to wait a long, long time for that."
What made her change her mind?
The Gandhis are extremely tight-lipped and seldom speak their mind before others. RK Dhawan, one of Indira's most trusted aides once told this reporter, "The Gandhis never reveal their minds to an outsider. Never."
They also remain a very close knit family. From the start, Priyanka did not want to emerge as a power centre in competition with Rahul. The two are very close and share a warm bonding. In fact, after losing their grandmother and father in quick succession, all three of them work as a team. They are each other's confidantes and closest aides. Sonia's failing health has brought the brother and sister only closer.
Priyanka also realises only too well that her family is fighting with their backs to the wall. The BJP-led government, with the Modi-Amit Shah duo, is keen to have a Congress-mukt, Gandhi-mukt nation. As Modi warned during his Rajasthan Assembly campaign, that he had brought the Congress family's razdaar ( confidante),Christian Michel, to India only with the intention to unmask them. He said that Michel could finally be extradited because of the persistence and courage shown by the chowkidar (a moniker often used for Modi). The BJP government has also re-opened I-T cases against both Sonia and Rahul, while also following up on a slew of corruption allegations against Priyanka’s husband, Robert Vadra.
The general mood in the two Congress bastions has never been in favour of the BJP; even when BJP swept the rest of Uttar Pradesh and Congress was decimated, the Gandhis managed to retain these two seats. Furthermore, ever since some key projects like the Shaktiman Mega Food Park, the Hindustan Mill project in Amethi and the launch of the first Central University for Women in Rae Bareli were cancelled, the people have been angry with the BJP. The general perception is that these were all politically motivated decisions.
The Gandhi family has always had two members in active politics with the younger generation taking over a full-fledged role in their 30s and 40s. Indira became president of the party at age 42; Sanjay won Amethi at 34 and Rajiv joined the party at 37. At 33, Rahul made his political debut while Priyanka has entered big time at the age of 47. True, she is a tad bit delayed in entering politics, but the added years in the background have added much to her experience.
Likewise, the senior position given to her is also because she has been working tirelessly behind the scenes and has been sitting in on key strategy sessions. Even when Sonia Gandhi made her failed attempt at forming a government, claiming before then president KR Narayanan that she had the required number of seats to form the government, it was Priyanka who was helping her from behind the scenes.
Priyanka realises only too well that she is embarking on a high-risk mission as Uttar Pradesh has proven to be one of BJP's strongest support-base in 2014 election. Many of the top BJP leaders contest election from the region. If she succeeds in improving the Congress' game here, she will help catalyse massive changes in the party's organisational structure. However, reviving this moribund organisation, which has been lying dormant since 1988 in the region, in such a short time will be no mean feat.
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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 18:20:08 IST