Priyanka Gandhi poses sternest test for Narendra Modi, might force cracks in social coalition forged since 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expectedly dismissed Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's appointment as AICC General Secretary for Uttar Pradesh (East) with a veiled barb. He said while for some, the "family was the party", for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the "party was the family or parivar". He could not have responded differently because in battle, acknowledging that the adversary has made a smart move is a self-defeating tactic.

Although his public response was no different from that of an average party karyakarta or publicist (spokesperson Sambit Patra said the same thing) Modi's personal assessment can be the same only at great cost to his ambition of coming back into office.

In the run up to his bid for another term, Priyanka's formal entry into politics is the sternest test till date for Modi, both in the short-run and in the long-term. The smart politician that he is, Modi will know that the completion of what former aide, Prashant Kishor, dubbed as "one of the most awaited entries in Indian politics" adds to his litany of headaches.

File photo of Priyanka Gandhi, flanked on both sides by senior Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mallikarjun Kharge. Reuters

File photo of Priyanka Gandhi, flanked on both sides by senior Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mallikarjun Kharge. Reuters

Since August 2017 when chinks in Modi's armoury became visible and disenchantment with the regime and he personally began rising, the prime minister has been in search of a national narrative. His hunt has been for a story to tell people which matches the tale he spun in 2014.

Modi and his associates were aware that chances of returning to office would be undermined if he was drawn into an aggregation of state polls against different leaders and dissimilar alliances with local issues playing a major role in shaping electoral choices.

As a result, part of the job of floating and sustaining the idea of a hold-all Mahagathbandhan was taken up Modi and his cohorts. At every public meeting or media interaction, BJP leaders would always ask the invisible opposition — "who is your prime ministerial candidate?"

Presidentialising the election was Modi's way of contesting the election on a national narrative — that of an able, decisive leader who has run a corruption-free efficient government which although a shade short on deliveries, has kept integrity intact and above all, the idea of New India remains in the making.

The argument that while he brought all these attributes and qualities to the table, the challenger brings nothing but an imposed dynasty and intra-party bickering over the spoils.

Stability was Modi's mantra even though record shows that India has not done poorly on most fronts under coalitions or minority governments. In contrast, woes of people have mounted under leaders governing post massive mandates — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Modi being prime instances.

The Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party decision to keep out the Congress followed by absence of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi at the show of strength rally in Kolkata organised by Mamata Banerjee suggested that the electoral contest was indeed moving towards disaggregation and with that possibility looming large, Modi's frustration rose.

With Priyanka's entry into politics, Modi finally has a nationwide narrative even though she is formally restricted to half of Uttar Pradesh. However, this national tale is not Modi's but instead has the Indira Amma's granddaughter (she is not Sonia Gandhi's daughter in public imagination) as the chief protagonist.

For a man used to playing the lead role in every political conflict, this is not a happy development for Modi. While it is premature to say that Priyanka has stolen the thunder, there is no denying that the BJP is beginning to play catch-up at least as far as UP is concerned.

It is also too early to speculate if the anti-BJP alliance in Uttar Pradesh will finally include the Congress or not and if subsequent to such an understanding, Priyanka will evolve into the star campaigner of the 2019 polls across India. There are logical arguments to make a case for both possibilities but the moot point is that Priyanka remains the focal point in the two — either limited to Uttar Pradesh's 40 odd seats that lies east of Lucknow or as the opposition brahmastra across India.

Modi's worry is that Priyanka, the political campaigner, has no caste. Just as Modi took out caste from the equation in 2014, she has the capacity to reach out to every caste group, especially those who have not been traditional BJP loyalties. In contrast, she is likely to hurt the BSP and SP to a lesser degree because social constituencies of the two have backed the parties for generations. This is not the case with BJP whose traditional loyalty is restricted to the Bania-trader base.

Besides hurting the BJP by forcing cracks in the social coalition forged in the Modi era, Priyanka's entry in the immediate context will energise the cadre. History tells us that one of the reasons behind the BJP's astonishing performance in UP after it touched rock bottom, was due to the revival of enthusiasm of the party's foot-soldiers by Modi's entry.

Similarly, with Priyanka's charisma self-evident in public response to her previous public engagements, the BJP — and even BSP-SP combine will suddenly be up against a Congress network which either did not exist or was dormant till the other day.

However, Modi's biggest worry is if Priyanka, too, plays the temple card and in fact, takes it one step beyond Rahul Gandhi. Modi would be hard pressed for a response if the Congress under Priyanka's chooses to make — much to dismay of the party's liberal backers once again — an affirmative statement for constructing the Ram temple and promise looking at means to disentangle the legal imbroglio. Already small brass of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has made noises of not being averse to the Congress if it pledges to deliver the temple.

With such a threat on the anvil it is possible that Modi may be tempted to look at ways to take the Ayodhya story forward even if the Supreme Court remains unfazed and proceeds with the case at the pace the Judges deem fit. Modi cannot but double-down what he has played all these past months even after this development. The choice before him is to attempt a 250-plus tally or else he may well be staring at a 150-minus final score.

Consequently, the BJP being the sole democrat in a contest with parties rooted in feudal culture will be a recurring theme. To his list of alliterations, Modi is sure to add, figuratively, Double B - Bhai-Behen, and Bua-Bhatija. As someone who has worked with him in the past said, Modi has, in Poker language, no option but to be all-in.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 14:52:43 IST

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