In January 1998, when Sonia Gandhi was making her political debut, her daughter Priyanka Gandhi accompanied her to a public rally in Tamil Nadu. Sonia Gandhi, wearing a green and maroon saree, looked nervous and hesitant. Priyanka Gandhi, on the other hand, looked confident, effusive and comfortable with the crowd even though the woman, wearing red and orange saree, spoke just one sentence: “Ellorum Congressikku vote podungal” (All of you vote for the Congress).
The next election, in 1999, she delivered a political bombshell in Rae Bareli as she campaigned for Captain Satish Sharma, who had shifted to this constituency to let Sonia Gandhi contest from Amethi. Sharma represented Amethi following Rajiv Gandhi’s death in May 1991. In one public rally, Priyanka Gandhi demolished her uncle, Arun Nehru, a BJP candidate. She said, “Mere pita ke mantri mandal mein rehte hue jisne gaddari ki, bhai ki peeth mein chhura mara, jawab dijiye, aise aadmi ko aapne yahan ghusne kaise diya? Unki yahan aane ki himmat kaise hui (A man who was a traitor in my father’s cabinet, who stabbed him in the back, answer me, how did you let this man in here? How did he have the guts to come here)?”
Priyanka Gandhi was only 27 but she blunted Arun Nehru political campaign – so much so that he was pushed to the fourth spot.
The political acumen that the young Priyanka Gandhi displayed in these two events was not missed on party veterans, some of whom privately predicted: “Congress will not have leadership problems for the next fifty years. Sonia will lead the party for at least 20 years and then we will have Priyanka.”
Twenty years later, these words seem to prove prophetic as Priyanka Gandhi took political plunge after her brother and Congress president Rahul Gandhi appointed her general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh (UP) East, the area from where BJP’s two star campaigners, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, come.
Priyanka Gandhi has been reluctant to enter politics. In an interview, she told journalist Barkha Dutt that she was “almost a recluse”. “I’m very happy living my life the way I am. I think there are certain aspects of politics which I’m just not suited to,” she said.
But initial reluctance to take the political plunge can hardly be held against her. Her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was also a reluctant and diffident politician. Even after she was sworn in as the prime minister in 1966 after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, she was so shaky and nervous in Parliament that socialist stalwart Ram Manohar Lohia called her ‘goongi gudiya’ (the dumb doll) and Opposition leader cornered her.
But later she went on become India’s most authoritarian leader best remembered for creation of Bangladesh and imposition of Emergency which suspended basic human rights.
Priyanka’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi have also been reluctant to join politics. Rajiv Gandhi became India’s youngest prime minister at 40, Sonia Gandhi steered the party to two back to back victories in 2004 and 2009. Rahul Gandhi hasn’t displayed any mettle since 2004 when he got into Parliament for the first time as MP from Amethi, and has only been ridiculed and mocked for being a part-time politician and a non-serious leader – until he stepped into his mother’s shoes and donned the mantle of Congress president in December 2017.
In one year, he wrested three crucial Hindi heartland states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh – that account for 65 Lok Sabha seats, and appeared to be in serious contention in Gujarat, Modi’s backyard.
The 2019 general election for Lok Sabha will be the litmus test for the brother-sister duo.
For many years, Priyanka Gandhi confined herself to Rae Bareli and Amethi, campaigning for her mother and brother. The Gandhi family has represented Rae Bareli for many terms since the first Lok Sabha election when Feroze Gandhi was elected MP from here. Indira Gandhi was Rae Bareli twice (1967 and 1971) and Sonia Gandhi has been Rae Bareli MP for three terms since 2004. In 2014, when Modi tsunami corned 71 seats out of 80 in UP, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were the only two Congress MPs in India’s most populous state.
Priyanka Gandhi has stepped into the big world of politics when the big elections are barely three months away and when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) seems to be closing in on her husband, Robert Vadra. On the day, she assumed office at Congress’s 24, Akbar Road, she had dropped him off to ED office for questioning in a suspected money laundering case. On the day, she landed in her political turf, UP, and made a grand entry through a 30-km long road show, she flew to Jaipur to be with him the next day. Robert Vadra was in Jaipur ED office to respond to questions related to Bikaner land deals.
In these circumstances, will the 47-year-old woman, who bears a strong resemblance to Indira Gandhi, be able to take on Modi and Yogi in eastern UP? Will she be able to help his brother emerge as a potential prime minister as leader of the anti-Modi coalition? These are questions that bother even the veteran Congress workers who are feeling rejuvenated by her entry.
Technocrat-turned-politician Sam Pitroda feels Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will complement Rahul Gandhi’s efforts in winning over young voters and the brother-sister combine will be a game changer for the party.
“She will complement her brother’s efforts. She will join him in getting young people excited, especially women. They are both young, they represent a large young team in the party, they are modern, they are tech-savvy with a healthy respect for history and new vision for the future,” he told PTI in an interview from Chicago.
Priyanka’s entry followed the Bajujan Samaj Party-Samawadi Party alliance edging out the Congress for the Lok Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh.
She has to help her brother fulfill his dream of bringing the Congress party back in the reckoning, if not in 2019, then in the 2022 UP Assembly election. In a public address in Lucknow recently, Rahul Gandhi said he wants the Congress to form the next government in the state. The party has been in the wilderness in UP since 1989 when it was in government. The rise of the BSP and the SP ensured that the Congress remained out of power, even when it was ruling the country under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
The party’s best showing in UP was in 2009 LS election when Congress won 21 seats. Most of these are now under Priyanka Gandhi’s watch after Congress president divided seats between her and the other general secretary, Jyotiraditya Scindia. Privately, Congress leaders say they will be happy to focus on only 25 seats in the state.
There’s no clarity on whether Priyanka Gandhi will canvass outside UP but all state units have already started demanding her presence. If she contests from Rae Bareli – provided Sonia Gandhi steps back owing to her health – she may not have time for other states.
For now, the josh in the Congress camp is high. Whether it will remain high after the results of 2019 LS elections are announced will decide the future course of the brother-sister duo.