New Delhi: “Priyanka ko aur Jyotiraditya ko maine Uttar Pradesh do mahine ke liye nahin bheja hai, maine Priyanka ko aur Jyotiraditya ko mission diya hai ki Uttar Pradesh mein Congress party ki jo sacchi vichardhaara hai….uske liye ladna hai. (I have not sent Priyanka and Jyotiraditya to Uttar Pradesh for merely two months, I have sent Priyanka and Jyotiraditya on a mission to fight for Congress’s true ideology in Uttar Pradesh)”.
These were Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s words while speaking to the media in Amethi on January 23, describing appointments of her sister Priyanka Gandhi and Gwalior’s erstwhile royal family scion Jyotiraditya Scindia as the AICC general secretaries of Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress president not only announced his sister’s – often touted as the more popular of the two – entry into formal politics but also asserted his supremacy in the party. The stress on ‘maine‘ clearly sent the signal that Priyanka is an aide and not a rival within his organisation – as many could have speculated ahead of the upcoming general elections.
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Following Priyanka’s induction, such was the celebratory mood in some sections of the media that it was difficult to believe that until recently, the Congress had a difficult time battling the charge of being a party of dynasts, with the Gandhis at the top of that hierarchy.
By giving Priyanka the important role of consolidating the Congress in eastern UP the Congress – one of the most backward regions of India’s most populous state – it seems Rahul Gandhi has reconciled with the party’s history of regrouping only under the Gandhis.
He has his eyes set clearly on the general elections. The Rahul-Priyanka duo is now being seen as a strong answer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unchallenged leadership in the BJP.
However, by tightening the Gandhi family’s grip on the Congress on January 23, Rahul has come a long way.
Emphasising internal elections
When he was anointed as the general secretary of the party in 2007, he created a furore by emphasising on internal elections in the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI).
Such was his enthusiasm to cement a formal democratic structure in the party that it left many senior leaders rattled. That experiment failed, although he saw through the elections in the IYC and NSUI.
But he stuck on to his position. As the party president, he went against the convention in the Congress plenary held in March 2018. He left the stage empty, refused to let senior leaders take a place on it to signal that any dedicated party member could become a leader. In his speech, he announced himself as a leader who valued workmanship in the party and not lineage. He appeared to be offering a long-term vision for the party and revive it as an organisation which seemed to have forgotten its nationalist history.
However, it appears now that Rahul has a taste of realpolitik after securing the first electoral successes under his leadership. After the Congress won the assembly elections in three major Hindi heartland states, the stakes have become much higher for him. He is now under much greater pressure to perform.
Perhaps, these considerations pushed him to induct Priyanka into the party. By doing so, however, he has evaded accountability on the charge of being a dynast entirely. He appears to have valued the significance of optics in the current era of politics.
Although Priyanka has a great popular appeal, she has little experience in politics. She has only intermittently steered campaigns for her mother Sonia Gandhi and Rahul in their respective constituencies. Yet, Rahul chose her over any senior UP-based leader like Sriprakash Jaiswal or P.L. Punia to lead the campaign in the complicated terrain of eastern UP.
Clear-headed and making the right noises
Critics may ask if the Congress is not a dynasty-driven party, why Priyanka was directly appointed as general secretary, one of the most significant positions in the AICC.
But Rahul looks clear-headed. He has made the right noise by foregrounding his sister – who many look up to as a potential leader – in UP politics. In fact, he may spin the charge the other way by highlighting his family’s contributions to Indian polity.
After the regional parties Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal deserted the Congress to form an alliance, the grand old party is being seen as a distance third player in UP. With Priyanka’s induction likely to make for great optics in the months to come, Rahul’s well-timed move has ensured that the Congress remains at the forefront. The move will unnerve the SP and BSP as much as the BJP.
Not surprisingly, the Congress president projected the appointments of Priyanka and Scindia as a sure-footed strategy.
“Mera main point hai ki hum back foot par nahin khelne wale hai. Hum na Gujarat mein back foot par khelenge, na UP mein, kahin bhi hum back foot par nahin khelenge. Hum rajniti janata ke liye karte hai, vikas ke liye karte hai ar jahan bhi awsar milega, hum front foot par khelnge. (My main point is that we will not play on back foot. We will neither play on back foot in Gujarat nor in UP, not anywhere else. We are in politics for the people, for development. Wherever we get an opportunity, we will be on the front foot,” Rahul told the media when asked about Priyanka’s induction.
Accusations of being a dynast will lurk around in his corner till the elections. However, Rahul is showing all the signs of an experienced leader. He has been aggressive against the BJP – especially on the Rafale deal and unemployment debate – and a deft strategist with his potential allies, as appointing two of his most-trusted aides in UP indicate.
Two birds, one stone
As political analyst V. Krishna Ananth wrote, Priyanka’s entry in UP may help the Congress in preventing an upper castes consolidation in favour of the BJP. At the same time, both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav – who appeared to take Rahul lightly – will have to face a new challenge. Relations between the BSP-SP combine and Congress have been less than cordial since their alliance did not come through in the recent assembly elections.
At the moment, the Congress lacks strong regional leaders. It is currently a top-heavy organisation and the accountability of defeats and victories lie completely with the AICC. This is a problem which will come back to haunt the party in future.
Rahul was making an effort to empower some of the leaders who he thought had a political future. In Chhattisgarh, he has created a collective leadership in Bhupesh Baghel, T.S. Singh Deo and Tamradhwaj Sahu. But in MP and Rajasthan, he also showed the capacity to give in to the demands of Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath.
Rahul Gandhi, until now, projected himself as a conscientious and diligent leader. After Priyanka’s induction into the party, he will also be seen as a pragmatic one.