Priyanka's strength is she is not Rahul; but is that enough for Cong?

For a party clutching at straws to give itself a reason for existence after the drubbing it got last May, Priyanka Gandhi may be just that straw.

The Economic Times says (4 August) that the Congress party is set to give Priyanka Gandhi a larger role after the next round of assembly elections in October-November. The newspaper speculates that she may either be given an organisational role as general secretary or put in charge of the party in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress lost all seats barring the two held by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul — the latter with a much diminished margin.

 Priyankas strength is she is not Rahul; but is that enough for Cong?

Priyanka Gandhi in a file photo. Reuters

A degree of political savviness, camera-friendly good looks, and some degree of combativeness make her by the best Gandhi now available on the market. But is the best Gandhi the best thing for the Congress party right now? Charisma and Indira Gandhi-like looks may well lift Congressmen’s sagging spirits, but it is a moot point whether it will lift the party’s fortunes.

What Congressmen seem to want and what Congress really needs are two different things. For Congressmen, Priyanka Gandhi’s real plus is that she is not Rahul Gandhi, who is widely seen as lacking both political ambition and leadership qualities. But not being someone else is hardly a qualification for leading India’s oldest, and, till recently, biggest national party to the future.

Lest we forget, Rahul Gandhi did not fail because he lacked charisma. What Priyanka has, he has too, complete with dimpled cheeks. He failed for two reasons: he simply didn’t seem inclined to play a full-time political role when India needs 24x7 leaders. Moreover, he did not have any solution to the central problem of the Congress party’s long-term decline. Holding primaries for some seats and talking airily about women’s empowerment and “escape velocities” for Dalits are not what the Congress needs right now.

To figure out whether Priyanka can succeed where Rahul failed, it is necessary to understand where Indian politics is heading – and whether a party led by her would have any of the strengths needed to meet India’s needs.

First, India has turned decidedly federal over the last two decades. The rise of strong state-based parties calls for a federated party structure. The BJP has risen to power precisely by creating such a federated structure. The party has strong chief ministers in all the states it is ruling, and Narendra Modi himself is a former state leader. The Congress party has no state-level leader worth the name. The ones it had have all left to form their own parties (Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Jagan Mohan Reddy, et al).

Neither Sonia nor Rahul showed any inclination to build the party’s leadership in states. Will Priyanka change this? If the Gandhi family’s power base depends on having weak state rulers, this is unlikely to change. The only structure which will work for the Congress, assuming it wants a dynasty at the top, is a kind of constitutional monarchy – where the Gandhis are on top, like British royalty, but with less real power. They will be called in only to mediate disputes. Is Priyanka ready to have such a federated structure, where party leaders in states may not kowtow to the family?

Second, Indian society is changing rapidly. It is both fragmenting dramatically and coalescing into a larger whole at the same time. The old vote blocs defined by caste, religion, language and ethnicity have started splintering as people redefine themselves more as individuals and groups with common interests (defined by class, gender, for example). While this is truer of urban areas than rural ones, the media revolution is erasing the old culture and knowledge gap between rural and urban populations. Aspirations are coalescing across regions and states, even as old voting blocs are losing relevance. We saw this in the recent elections, where Modi got votes from across the caste spectrum, and the trend will continue in the future.

Nothing that Priyanka Gandhi has said in the recent elections, when she was visible in Amethi, and nothing anybody in the Gandhi family has ever told us before, has given us any indication that they understand these changes.

Third, the fragmentation is even stronger in the states – though less evident. Barring Himachal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the Congress and the BJP go head to head, almost all other states now have third alternatives. This means there will be more instability in states than before. The BJP is a rising force in the east and the south, and new regional parties are taking centre stage in the rest. The Aam Aadmi Party could rise again, as it shows signs of a revival in Delhi.

Dynasty has no answer to the issue of fragmentation of the polity on sub-regional and class lines.

Fourth, India is a very young country, with 60 percent of the population being under 30. This population is hugely aspirational and vociferously demanding change – jobs, growth, equality, governance, among other things. As leaders in their 40s, both Rahul and Priyanka should have had an easy connect with young India, but what we saw in the last election was a stronger affinity of the young for the 63-year-old Modi.

The last Gandhi family member who vibed well with the young was Indira Gandhi, and that was some 50 years ago – but she too failed to deliver. Three years after winning a thumping victory in 1971, her government was under siege. Rajiv Gandhi found himself in the same quandary three years after winning an even bigger mandate in 1984.

The youth of India are unlikely to accept patronising attitudes – but this is what we saw from both Sonia and Rahul. Neither of them showed any inclination to take hands-on responsibility beyond directing government funds for political schemes. They preferred to work with a remote. India does not need a leader who stays in the background and leads from the rear.

Is Priyanka going to change all that? One of her political opponents called her a “barsati mendak” (a frog that surfaces only in monsoons), and that is precisely the problem.

Fifth, Congress needs a vision that goes beyond redistribution of taxpayer money and “secularism.” The party has positioned itself as pro-poor, which is fine. But so has every other party, including the new BJP that Modi leads. So it is no longer possible for the Gandhis to pose as the only people concerned about the poor.

The Congress party’s old strength was a solid minority vote bank. But this vote bank is going bust. It could not prevent the rise of the BJP this year in Uttar Pradesh,and many Muslims are wondering if they must set up their own parties in order to bargain better with the parties that form governments in states or centre. In many states, Muslims have formed their own regional parties (Assam, Telangana, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh) and hope to gain traction. Where there are strong regional parties, they have migrated away from the Congress.

Logically, the formation of Muslim parties will cause a counter-polarisation and this is what happened in 2014. Muslims may not buy the old secularism, and now see themselves not only as a religious vote bloc, but as Indians who seek the same things as other Indians = education, jobs, growth. This means they will no longer see the Congress alone as representing their interests. But nothing in the Priyanka or Gandhi family rhetoric acknowledges this change. They still talk about secularism on the old terms.

Sixth, India is now one-third urban. The middle class – howsoever defined – is India’s fastest growing class. The class can broadly be defined not in income terms, but as an amorphous group that has risen above crushing poverty over the last two decades. The rise of this class means old-style feudal attitudes will die a slow death, and the old vote brokers have lost their powers. The Gandhis relied a lot on these vote brokers and the power of patronage – which is now ending.

Priyanka cannot be an answer to this trend against feudal thinking. In fact, she would epitomise the opposite. In terms of ending feudalism, Rahul has actually better credentials as he genuinely did not seem keen on power or claiming his inheritance. Priyanka would, in fact, take the Congress firmly towards a more feudal set-up.

Seventh, all politics now happens inside a fish-bowl. Media is exploding. No politician will be beyond scrutiny. The triumph of Narendra Modi was a triumph of great communication using all media at this command. Neither Sonia nor Rahul nor Priyanka has any great personal communication strengths. While Indira Gandhi managed quite well without strong speaking abilities, and so did Rajiv, they ruled in an under-communicated world where feudal power was enough to hold an audience. In the brave new world, our leaders have to communicate with the masses – and not talk down to them.

In the last election Priyanka appeared to score points primarily because the media was following her around like Mary’s lamb. There were no tough questions asked, there was no critical analysis of her pronouncements, and everything she said seemed like a good “sound byte”.

If she came out in the open as the Congress party’s face of the future, all she would have going for her is the face. Priyanka is hardly what the doctor ordered for a sick Congress party.

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2014 21:32:30 IST