Priyanka Gandhi's political plunge, at last, will most likely unleash a cacophony of voices. On one hand are the Congress supporters and political pundits who always felt that Priyanka was the right Gandhi to take over the family heirloom and that her entry into active politics was long overdue, there are those who will remind the Congress party the baggage the Congress heiress comes with.
Priyanka has always held the appearance of a more natural leader than her brother, something very few would disagree with. But with a more high-profile role, comes higher public glare.
Trust Bharatiya Janata Party that the many corruption allegations against Priyanka's entrepreneur husband Robert Vadra will precede her reputation as the more articulate, forceful and charismatic politician in the Congress' first family.
Priyanka has been tasked with managing the politically important terrain of eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is the toughest region to crack as Congress has been reduced to just two out of the 80 seats. Once a Congress stronghold, the region is now arguably a BJP bastion with prime constituencies like Varanasi and Gorakhpur that elected top BJP leaders like Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath. Priyanka directly managing affairs in the state will also mean that she is in direct line of fire from the edgiest of BJP speakers.
Prime Minister Modi has already made it a point to attack Vadra in the run-up to 2014 Lok Sabha election and later on when in power too. In 2015, Modi made a veiled attack on Vadra in San Jose for corruption; Sonia and Rahul are constant villains featuring in BJP leaders' speeches. However, Priyanka has been largely shielded from personal attacks, barring a few unsavoury comments here and there.
The many allegations on Robert Vadra
Vadra is facing land grab charges and his hospitality firm Skylight Hospitality Pvt Ltd is accused of money laundering by the Enforcement Directorate. The ED alleges that Vadra is involved in the purchase of 275 bighas of land in Bikaner's Kolayat to embezzle funds. The agency's investigation indicates that the land had been purchased in the name of the driver of the mediator Mahesh Nagre using a cheque given by Vadra. The central probe agency had registered a criminal case in connection with the land deal in 2015, taking cognisance of a clutch of FIRs and chargesheets filed by the Rajasthan Police after the local tehsildar of Bikaner complained about alleged forgery in the allotment of land in the area, considered sensitive due to its proximity to the India-Pakistan border.
Then there is the Manesar land deal, where Vadra minted a nifty profit on the sale of a plot of land he acquired only one year before he sold it in 2009. Selling the land was no crime in itself, but what ruffled feathers was the fact that this particular piece of land saw a 300 percent appreciation in its value within the 12 months Vadra bought and sold it off. BJP leaders allege Vadra used unscrupulous means to sell off the land at an inflated price to DLF, which he bought on undervalued prices in the first place.
In 2012, Arvind Kejriwal, then an anti-corruption crusader, had also alleged that Vadra purchased at least 31 properties mostly in New Delhi worth more than Rs 300 crore for which money has come from “unsecured interest-free loans from DLF Ltd".
In 2013, Rao Inderjit Singh, a three-time Congress MP, four-time MLA and a former minister, alleged misappropriation of funds by Vadra and publicly demanded a detailed investigation into the 21,000-acre of land licensed for various uses in Haryana in the past eight years, including three acres that were part of the aforementioned Vadra-DLF deal. Speaking to The Hindu, Singh had said, "An independent all-encompassing inquiry will widen the net, haul in big fish and ensure punishment for the guilty. I will take names when I have the evidence. And will use the evidence at a time of my choosing." Singh claimed that some 500-600 new and unknown builders are involved in cheating both the farmer and the end-user on prices.
Can Priyanka survive politics without disowning Vadra?
Priyanka's entry into politics will inadvertently ensure that the graft charges against her husband become a talking point further fuelled by her political opponents. However, is there a way she can shield her public image against the muck aimed at her husband's business dealings? Political analysts think its unlikely.
"Robert Vadra's alleged land dealings and corruption charges against him will adversely impact Priyanka's political career. There is national anger and disgust over his misdeeds and corruption and protecting him can certainly harm Priyanka's own political ambitions. Certainly, Priyanka will be a loser politically if she defends him as the Congress party itself is enmeshed in this mess," says Asha Sarangi, associate professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi while speaking to Business Standard.
Author Tuhin A Sinha, who has now joined the BJP, opined that it will be impossible for the Gandhi family to target the BJP on corruption while maintaining a steady silence on Vadra's alleged land dealings. In a blog penned in May 2014 for News18, months after joining the political party, Sinha states, "Has Vadra been quietly disowned by the Gandhis? If that is the case, it is good for the Congress because, quite frankly, Priyanka Gandhi simply cannot enter politics without publicly disowning her husband. In as much as the Gandhis might play it down, Robert Vadra is a bigger embarrassment to them than Asif Zardari ever was to Benazir Bhutto or Feroz Gandhi was to Indira. Therefore, the way I see the situation today, Priyanka will have to rid herself of Robert Vadra in order to kickstart her political career. If that happens, one might find greater similarities between her and Indira Gandhi than just their looks."
Moreover, journalist Mathew Samuel noted in his article that at least until 2016 — when the piece was written — Sonia herself was against Priyanka's entry into politics except the rare brush with electoral campaigning here and there. Samuel quoted a top Congress source to report that Sonia has requested Congressmen "to allow Rahul to remain as the upcoming face of Congress till the time she is not bed-ridden". He said that Sonia has told her daughter that she can join politics to help revive the Congress party once Sonia is not capable to do it herself. Till then Sonia wants Rahul to be in-charge."
Two years later, the revelations of Samuel's Congress source do not sound completely off the mark. Sonia has, as a matter of fact, restricted her public appearances to a bare minimum and has relinquished all but one responsibility — that of UPA chairperson — to Rahul. At such a time, Priyanka's entry into politics seems only opportune given the massive challenge of countering BJP's election machinery ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
However, this alone would not put to rest the rumours that controversies surrounding Vadra compelled Priyanka to curtail her role in active politics until now. But with Sonia indisposed and a massive challenge ahead of Rahul, the Congress will need its strongest hands and most identifiable leaders to take the baton ahead.
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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 15:46:15 IST