The Gandhi power-struggle: Can Priyanka rescue a sinking Congress ship?

‘Wonder poll-strategist’ Prashant Kishor, who is reputed to have helped PM Modi in winning the 2014 general elections and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar in defeating Modi in the assembly elections last year, has reportedly recommended that either Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi or his sister Priyanka Gandhi should be projected as the chief ministerial candidate in the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly elections next year. Kishor, a man with ‘Midas touch’, has been appointed by the Congress party to revive its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, the key to the game of unseating Modi from power in 2019.

I have my serious doubts whether Rahul will agree to Kishor’s suggestion. Already projected as Modi’s alternative at the national level, Rahul going to Uttar Pradesh as the chief minister will be perceived as a big come-down in the broad political parlance in the country. But Kishor's strategy could be proven masterful if Priyanka agrees with him.

Thousands of Congress persons, sycophants of the Gandhi family, journalists and academicians in Delhi will be glad if Priyanka listens to her inner voice and joins active politics, sooner rather than later, to stop the march of 'communal forces' led by Narendra Modi. They are certain that once Priyanka takes the command of the Congress, Modi, let alone other non Congress leaders, will be simply finished politically. They have discovered in her 'the killer instinct' that Indira Gandhi had. “See her gait. See her political clarity. See her confidence. See how she has already silenced Narendra Modi so many times. Had she come a little earlier and contested election, the Congress party would have got nearly 300 seats on its own in this election. She is a sure winner,” a veteran journalist, who claims himself to be a staunch secularist, once told me. And I find he is not alone in thinking so.

Is Priyanka, then, Indira Gandhi in the making? Let's evaluate her pros. Like Indira Gandhi, she has got the name of Gandhi-Nehru family, India’s premier political dynasty. And if her campaigning for her mother Sonia Gandhi in Raebareli and brother Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in the last 15 years has been any indication, she has exploited her family legacy to the fullest. That means that she has already got the affection and acceptability of those who are in awe of the Gandhi-Nehru family.
Secondly, unlike her mother and brother, she is more articulate in Hindi. Thirdly, like her grandmother, she is aggressive and a convention-breaker. Priyanka broke the convention of not attacking a family member of different political persuasions. She had lambasted Varun Gandhi, her first cousin, for fighting on a BJP ticket, though the separated cousins had scrupulously avoided one another in political battles. Neither Varun nor his mother Maneka Gandhi has ever campaigned against either Rahul or Sonia - and the same has been true of Rahul and Sonia. Indira Gandhi, it may be noted, also had serious problems with her first cousins, children of late Vijaylaxmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister.

A file photo of Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Reuters

A file photo of Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Reuters

But are these similarities with Indira Gandhi enough for Priyanka to succeed in politics? Now let me cite her limitations. First, though nothing is late in life, the fact remains that by 44 – that is Priyanka’s age – Indira had already earned a name in politics. She had even become the party president (1959). Priyanka’s politics, on the other hand, has been limited to campaigning every five years in the constituencies of her mother and brother. That means that after every 57th month she appears only in the constituencies of her mother and brother to meet the people. I am not counting the assembly elections in between because despite being the pocket boroughs of the Gandhi family, Raebareli and Amethi usually elect non-Congress candidates to Uttar Pradesh assembly.

In other words, if Priyanka draws crowd in Amethi and Raebareli, it is not because of her political acceptability but because of her family charm. People in these two constituencies are among the poorest in the state. If they vote for the Gandhi family, it is essentially because of a feudal mindset which believes the family is ‘God-send’ and cannot be questioned.

Secondly, even though Indira was the Congress president when Nehru was the Prime Minister, the fact remains that the arrangement was not a popular one, particularly after the undemocratic dismissal of the Communist-led government in Kerala under the alleged pressures of Indira. This arrangement did not last long. In fact, Indira had to wait till her father’s death to enter even the union council of ministers. She became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet after her father’s death in 1964. In other words, Indira’s real political career began after her father’s death. Same was the case with her son Rajiv Gandhi, though Rajiv had been co-opted into politics by Indira after Sanjay Gandhi’s death. His real decisive political innings began as the Prime Minister after the unexpected assassination of his mother in 1984.

Thirdly, in the case of Priyanka Gandhi, both her mother and brother are very much present in the scene and it is they who matter the most in the party and the government. Therefore, if she enters active politics now, there will be two tricky situations. For one, it will mean that both Sonia and Rahul have failed to live up to the expectations of the party-men and supporters, thereby compelling Priyanka to do the rescue act. It will also mean that the Congress has no future in the hands of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Will Priyanka be comfortable with such a perception, which is bound to grow with each passing day? Will Priyanka admit that her mother and brother are flop shows in politics?

The other situation is the one which will witness three members of the Gandhi family running the Congress simultaneously, each concentrating on a given area as agreed among the three. It will be an unprecedented situation in the history of India’s premier political party. As it is, neither the party nor the country has accepted the active involvement of two family members of the Gandhi-Nehru family in the Congress at a time. As has been pointed out, Indira Gandhi’s party presidentship was not a happy arrangement. During the days of emergency (1975-77), the dual-rule of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi proved to be disastrous for both the Congress and the country.

Similarly, the Congressmen, of late, are terribly confused over the often conflicting signals emanating from the offices of Sonia and Rahul. In fact, many believe that the seemingly bad time that the Congress is undergoing these days is because of the conflicting signals from the mother and the son. After all, the Congresspeople have always worked best when there is only one centre of power. I therefore shudder to think how they will work when Priyanka enters active politics.

Having said all this, let us now visualise how people of India as whole will view Priyanka’s entry. No doubt, the Gandhi-Nehru family has still many supporters, and it is not the only family or dynasty that one witnesses in Indian politics, both at the national and regional levels. As far as Priyanka’s family is concerned, since two of its leading members have been assassinated, she always can exploit their martyr status. But is that enough to succeed in politics of modern India, where the ever growing young voters want substance or concrete results rather than symbolism? I think, here, Priyanka has the biggest drawback.

The country doesn't know her intellectual prowess or her organising capabilities yet. She might have drawn crowds in Uttar Pradesh, but that is no indication that she will succeed outside, particularly when she will be confronting the myriad corruption charges against her husband whom she is defending now as 'a wife' (and hence drawing sympathy). Once in the battle field, sympathy votes or support will not last long.

All said, the family background can give an initial push, but not beyond a point. One can win an election once by taking the family name, but not the subsequent one if you do not deliver. After all,as powerful as she was Indira Gandhi had been voted out of power. And so was Rajiv Gandhi. Priyanka won't be different. But then for being defeated in the re-election, she has to first win the election. And that she can. So thinks Prashant Kishor.

Updated Date: May 02, 2016 21:51 PM

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