Congress looks for a savior in
Priyanka By Neeta Lal
Ahead of the elections for the 16th Lok
Sabha (lower house) looming in 2014, the
beleaguered Indian National Congress party -
racked by infighting and ideological disarray - is
thinking up urgent remedial measures to retain its
fast-eroding hold over the Indian electorate.
Part of that exercise will now involve an
augmented role in the party for Gandhi scion and
hitherto reluctant politician Priyanka Vadra
Gandhi, United Progressive Alliance (UPA)
chairwoman Sonia Gandhi's daughter and Congress
general secretary Rahul's younger sibling.
The First Family's decision to leverage
Priyanka's vote-catching ability, and galvanize a
demoralized party in the politically crucial state
of Uttar Pradesh, is loaded with significance. The
has so far been an
unwilling contender, conceding in an interview in
1999 to the British Broadcasting Corp, "I have
said it a thousand times, I am not interested in
joining politics ... I am very clear in my mind.
Politics is not a strong pull, the people are. And
I can do things for them without being in
Married to New Delhi-based
businessman Robert Vadra (who nurtures political
ambitions of his own), Priyanka, 40, has two young
children. She has always cited "family
commitments" as the reason for her inability to
take up politics full-time. As a result, her role
in party affairs has so far been restricted to
visiting the Gandhi pocket boroughs of Amethi and
Rae Bareili in northern Uttar Pradesh (UP) on poll
But now that dynamic is set to
change. Priyanka has been tasked with "revamping"
the Congress units in Rae Bareli, the Lok Sabha
constituency represented by her mother and party
president Sonia. The young politico has already
started working on a Rae Bareli "revival plan"
formulated in synergy with Congress workers,
office bearers and voters of the constituency, say
sources. A two-pronged strategy - to re-establish
contact with ground-level workers and identify
developmental issues related to the constituency -
will form the cornerstones of the plan.
Priyanka has also asked local leaders to
give input and recommend changes to fortify the
party bases in the region. Based upon these
inputs, a "development report" will be prepared.
The leader has set a three-month deadline for the
task, and is holding weekly public meetings in
Delhi with party leaders from the constituency, to
Typically for the
Congress - indeed the entire Gandhi clan - there
is no official word on Priyanka's intensified
engagement in Rae Bareli. Congress Committee
office bearers are insisting that she has always
been hands-on in UP and that "there's nothing new"
in the move. "Priyanka has always been supportive
and helpful for her mother and brother in their
constituencies," party spokesman Rashid Alvi
However, because of this veil of
secrecy around her assignment, speculation is rife
that the Gandhi scion is herself being groomed to
take over the mantle from Sonia, and contest the
2014 elections from Rae Bareli. The reasons aren't
hard to see. With Sonia battling sustained health
problems, and mounting problems at the central
government and within the ruling UPA coalition
demanding her constant attention, Priyanka may
well be sharing her mother's workload. Moreover,
with her brother Rahul yet to make a mark on the
national political grid, she is also a good choice
to take on political opponents in the election
The Gandhi charisma
notwithstanding, experts say the going won't be
easy for Priyanka in the badlands of Uttar
Pradesh, the country's largest state (population
200 million) and politically most crucial. The
state sends 80 members of Parliament (the highest
of all Indian states) to the 552-member Lok Sabha.
Besides, an increasingly
corruption-fatigued and vigilant Indian electorate
- which doesn't think twice before joining ranks
with anti-corruption crusaders like Anna Hazare
and Baba Ramdev - is demanding good governance. It
doesn't care if that governance is by a Gandhi
scion or a nondescript politician. "The days of
political entitlement are over," says a local
farmer from Rae Bareli. "Whether you're a Gandhi
or a Gupta, you have to be accountable to the
people and be efficient in your work. People will
not vote for you otherwise."
whose experience includes handling Sonia's
campaign in Rae Bareli and Rahul's in Amethi in
the past few elections, also faced piquant
questions during her campaigning at the March UP
Assembly elections. Party workers as well as the
public questioned her last-minute arrival in the
constituency, demanding where she had disappeared
to after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
people's disenchantment was directly reflected in
Rae Bareli's abysmal electoral results. The
Congress could not win a single seat out of the
four it contested here.
Rahul - projected as the Congress' star campaigner
in the assembly elections - could only help
marginally push up the party's tally in UP from 22
in 2009 to 28 in the 403-member state assembly.
Ultimately, in all the three Gandhi bastions of
Rae Bareli, Amethi and Sultanpur, the party won
only two of the 15 seats.
Congress debacle in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly
election, and Rahul's distinctly underwhelming
political performance in general, the party has
been clamoring for Priyanka to jump into the fray.
Will the move help resuscitate the party?
The jury is still out on this one. Congress
members concede that the girl possesses the star
quality of her late grandmother and erstwhile
prime minister Indira Gandhi and may just be able
to tip the scales in her party's favor. "She is
the true inheritor of her grandmother's and her
father Rajiv Gandhi's legacy. A landslide Congress
win is guaranteed if Priyanka decides to contest
from here," says a local farmer who has worked as
a Congress volunteer for decades.
critics concede that Priyanka will make for a
formidable opponent. "She has an amazing
organizational prowess, is pragmatic and has a
commonsensical approach to things. In the 2004
general elections, she was her mother's campaign
manager while this year she helped orchestrate
Rahul's campaign," informs a worker for the
opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
also her mother's confidant and chief adviser on
political matters, say insiders. "Her candor and
charm will bring more youth and women under the
Congress banner," says Fatima Bi, a local
housewife. "She is a popular figure in the
constituency and draws enormous crowds."
The Congress could certainly do with those
attributes at the moment. The Grand Old Party is
facing the worst crisis in its 135-year-old
history. The erosion of people's trust in the
Congress-led UPA government headed by Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh is a major cause for
worry. The economic crisis and the ensuing food
inflation have broken the back of the common man,
ironically the Congress' largest vote bank. In
fact, growth in gross domestic product plunging to
a nine-year low of about 5% from 9% is a direct
outcome of the meltdown of political credibility.
At a public meeting during the March
assembly elections in UP, Priyanka told the
teeming crowds who had assembled to hear her speak
that the erstwhile ruling Bahujan Samaj Party
helmed by Mayawati "betrayed you in the name of
caste and religion. Where is the development
here?" And the crowd roared back: "Aap aao,
kaam karo (You get elected and work here)!"
The ball is now in Priyanka's court.
Neeta Lal is a widely published
writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed
national and international print and Internet
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