On January 23, Congress president Rahul Gandhi appointed his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the party’s general secretary, making her in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
With this formal declaration of the most awaited entry into politics, opinion pieces appeared in dozens on various news platforms. A majority of analysts agreed that Priyanka’s entry would be a game-changer. Most failed to notice that till now, Priyanka Gandhi has not made any political intervention to hint at her supposedly mature political understanding of the problems facing the country or her party.
Another piece of news that failed to draw attention was the India Today-Karvy Insights survey, which predicted that the Congress will get only 4 seats out of the 80 in UP. The SP-BSP(and RLD) coalition will get around 58 seats and the BJP-Apna Dal combine, 18, the survey said.
Though the survey was conducted before Priyanka entered the fray, it did reflect that in a heightened polarisation between the BJP and the SP-BSP alliance, the Congress’s solitary fight is extremely likely to sweep it off its feet.
The SP-BSP and the RLD alliance will ensure consolidation of a number of dominant OBC castes and Dalits, along with Muslims. These communities comprise a majority of UP’s population. These facts have totally been lost on those who think that Congress can manage a comeback just on the basis of charisma.
But this is not the first time the media and political analysts have missed the ground level dynamics when it comes to the Gandhi family’s perceived magic. During the 2012 UP state elections as well, the media’s gaze was fixed on Rahul Gandhi and the incumbent CM Mayawati. Meanwhile, Akhilesh Yadav silently turned the tables.
Priyanka’s controlled exposure to politics
It was during this election that Priyanka Gandhi was given a controlled exposure to politics. She was made the de-facto in-charge for the campaign in all assembly seats of Rae Bareli and Amethi. Though she had previously assisted her mother during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, this was a more formal task.
The Congress’s 2012 campaign revolved around Rahul Gandhi’s strategy of reliance on “youth plus dynastic charisma plus poor politics”. It also stressed on populist ‘poverty chat’, highlighting the condition of poor people and repeated appeals to the youth. However, the speeches translated into an unnecessary aggressive posturing, self-righteous approach and ‘kab jagoge logon’ (when will you wake up people?).
Instead of giving a ‘personal touch’ or improving the strategy, Priyanka Gandhi simply followed in the footsteps of her brother with enthusiasm. Addressing a Congress rally, she told the people, “Mere bachche achche school main padhte hain, unke pas sab suvidha hai, apke pas kya hai?” (My children study in good schools, enjoy all facilities. But what do you have?) She followed this up by scolding the people. “Agar aapke bachchon ka bhavishya is haalat main kharab hai to aap ise badalte kyun nahin?” (If the future of your children is in these dark conditions, then why don’t you change them?)
Some state-based political commentators did point out the ridiculous aggression and arrogance in the statements of both the Gandhis (and other UP Congress leaders) during the election campaign. In 2007, the Congress won four of the five seats in Amethi. In February 2012, Priyanka Vadra was quoted as saying she promised her mother a perfect 10 in the two parliamentary constituencies (Rae Bareli also has five assembly constituencies). Her party could not win even one seat in Amethi that time.
If we go by history, we can clearly see that both Priyanka Gandhi and her charisma have failed to deliver, even in the pocket boroughs of the Gandhi family.
The culture of gatekeepers
In the aftermath of the 2012 elections, some sections of the district Congress cited the “diminishing appeal of Priyanka” as a factor for the party’s defeat. Another complaint was that the workers could not approach or meet the Gandhis due to a “gatekeeper culture”. These gatekeepers comprise a small coterie of ‘loyalists’ who aggressively guard access to the Gandhis and in process, command extreme influence, even without any electoral support or political acumen. This culture, now prevalent in almost all parties, began under Indira Gandhi. Her personal assistant R.K. Dhawan, who started his career as a typist, was the gatekeeper. As he gained experience and Mrs Gandhi’s trust, Dhawan’s power grew such that he could prevent even high ranking Congress leaders and ministers from meeting Indira Gandhi. In Rae Bareli, political agent Yashpal Kapoor served the same function, albeit at the constituency level.
This gatekeeper culture persisted even after Indira Gandhi’s regume. When Sonia Gandhi joined politics, she followed her mother-in-law’s footsteps. In national politics, Ahmed Patel was her gatekeeper. In Raebareli, it was a Punjabi Brahmin, Kisori Lal Sharma. As these gatekeepers enviously try to guard and exercise the source of their power i.e. exclusive, unrestricted access to the leader and capability to control who gets an appointment, they deprive their leader of direct contact with the electorate. In 2012, the ‘gatekeepership’ of Kishori Lal Sharma was also blamed for the party’s dooming electoral fortunes.
Along with other limitations, Priyanka Gandhi too suffers from this culture. According to sources, Kanishka Singh is currently her gatekeeper. Kanishka started his career as a close aide of Rahul Gandhi and controlled access to him until the 2014 general elections. The electoral debacle and complaints regarding Kanishka’s ‘misuse’ of this position saw him lose favour with Rahul, who developed a separate coterie. Kanishka’s association with Priyanka began. If he is playing the same role with her, the quality of advice that Priyanka is receiving is doubtful.
The baggage of her (husband’s) last name
Another problem she is likely to face is the baggage of her husband Robert Vadra, who has always been controversial. At one instance, when Priyanka was campaigning during the 2012 elections accompanied by her husband, an old woman approached her to give a letter. When Robert took the letter from her to pass it on to Priyaka, the lady snatched it back, saying she cannot trust ‘others’. Clearly, Priyanka is liked and trusted, but her husband is not.
In this context, a conspiracy theory doing the rounds alleges that Priyanka has been given the charge to cut her to size. Some believe that the Gandhi siblings are not as cordial as they are portrayed, with Rahul unwilling to let his “more ambitious” sister succeed in politics. Giving her the formal responsibility in a state where the Congress’s fortunes are already doomed would ensure that she does not deliver in her first official assignment. Thus, the high hopes people had are diminished. Though this is just a conspiracy theory, it did raise one important point: that Priyanka Gandhi is unlikely to succeed in her first assignment.
In the eyes of some analysts, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi represent hope. But in the current scenario, it is clear that the latter is likely to face a couple of defeats before being able to make a mark, not unlike her brother. In Indian politics, charisma has worked wonders. But on any given day, it is the ground level equations, consolidation of communities matter more. The Congress seems to be lacking on this count, at least in UP.
Rajan Pandey is an independent journalist and author of Battleground UP: Politics in the Land of Ram.