Two years ago, Narendra Modi would have imagined a very different 2019 election campaign for himself.
He would have expected his dominance on the national stage to continue till this year. That Amit Shah’s machine politics and the RSS’s granular grasp of India’s demography would inexorably drive him to a second term in power. The cloying and pliable section of the media would be egging him on, the opposition would be in disarray and corporate figures would not be having the nerve to envisage a government without him and plan accordingly.
Every element of that rosy scenario has now come unstuck for Modi. The opposition is organising and swiftly tapping into the disaffection with his government. Rahul Gandhi has come into his own over the last year and has got the better of Modi in just about every measure of political combat. He has won three major state elections, his social media engagement levels are way ahead of Modi despite the latter’s larger following and his criticism of the Rafale deal has generated some traction.
More importantly, Rahul Gandhi has set the pace in political rhetoric through speeches, one-liners and tweets. Modi is, meanwhile, grasping for a story to tell – jobs have not materialised, rural India is seething and the country is exhausted with the slash and burn mode of governance that has come to typify BJP rule.
And now Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has stepped into politics, further complicating matters for Modi. With just 100 days to go till the elections, choreography matters. Priyanka will, alongside Rahul, suck up some oxygen of publicity and attention that Modi has come to take for granted.
Worse, she comes in at a time when he’s already overexposed and bereft of new tricks. He and the BJP have tried everything to establish dominance: an upper caste quota, demonetisation, the imposition of GST and Aadhaar, surgical strikes, selfies with celebrities, attacks on Muslims, media, activists and students. His ability to surprise anymore is either gone or is severely limited. The opposition is uniting, there’s no money in the treasury to buy off voters, conflict with Pakistan is not imminent – and will be expensive. Modi’s act remains the same; India is moving on.
All that is left to fight for is political combat itself, which the BJP is good at through its polarising tactics. Priyanka potentially adds a new dynamic to this. While the BJP continues with its unsavoury, hateful rhetoric, Rahul will try and extend in the public’s mind the decency gap that he has established between himself and the Modi-Shah duo, while Priyanka, in theory, gets into the more dramatic cut and thrust of politics. The Gandhis will now hunt in pairs in a media environment that is no longer entirely in Modi’s control.
There will also be a measure of burden sharing. Rahul Gandhi has virtually been handling everything himself – rebuilding his brand, generating momentum for criticism of the Rafale deal and responding to criticism from Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman, Sambit Patra and Smriti Irani. No other Congress heavyweight or regional party leader has confronted Modi with the regularity or impact that Rahul has – or been the singular focus of their backlash. Priyanka has now stepped in to take on Modi, Shah and the others in the high-profile battlegrounds of eastern UP. All this will make for great theatre for the middle class and galvanise the Congress party more broadly.
The BJP will hope that the novelty of the news passes quickly so it can normalise Priyanka and represent her as just another Indian politician with a dynastic name. This won’t be easy. A hundred days are not enough. Besides, she has presence, communicates well in both English and Hindi and, being skeptical of the media, will likely deal with it on her terms.
It’s worth noting how astutely Rahul and the Congress set up her entry into politics. The party waited for Rahul’s political identity to develop, to consolidate his habit of cultivating audiences at home and abroad, for him to win three state elections on his own – so there is no hint that Priyanka made the difference (nor rumours emerge of brother-sister factions in the party). They also waited for the BSP-SP alliance and mahagathbandhan rally in Kolkata to conclude.
Announcing her plunge before the rally would have the effect of undermining its significance while doing so later serves the purposes of disclosing Congress’s ambition to both the corporate world and the rest of the opposition – a handy thing to do as they contemplate a hung parliament.
Priyanka Gandhi’s foray into politics seems principally about the atmospherics of the election to follow and the ability of that theatre to regain the support of groups that the Congress has lost in recent years. The Congress needs to tread warily in this endeavour. A broad section of groups in many states are now lining up against the BJP; Rahul and Priyanka have the task of tapping into that sentiment without alienating allies or handing the BJP easy wins in triangular contests.
Sushil Aaron is a commentator on India’s politics and international affairs. He tweets @SushilAaron