Ten adivasis were killed in the only adivasi-dominated district of Uttar Pradesh, Sonbhadra. It’s a place whose existence on the map of Uttar Pradesh is not even acknowledged on most days. Land grabbers went around, shooting with impunity.
Two days after the incident, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra decided to go there but was stopped by the police on her way. The government didn’t allow her to meet the families of the victims, detaining her, immediately making her a political martyr for the day. She’s won a top slot in the day’s news.
This is significant for several reasons.
First, Priyanka Gandhi has hit the ground running even as her party can’t decide who will lead it. Rahul Gandhi is still sulking and there’s no sign of the next Congress Working Committee meeting. This charade doesn’t really matter, Priyanka Gandhi doesn’t really matter. What matters is being among people, raising their issues and playing the part of the opposition. She is fighting, not sulking. Her Sonbhadra visit is reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s famous visit to Belchi village in Bihar, after her 1977 defeat, to meet the Dalit families whose members were killed in a massacre. The visit became a turning point in the revival of Indira Gandhi’s image, and her eventual return to power in 1980.
Second, it is rare for the Congress party, at least in the Hindi heartland, to be doing active politics on the ground when it is not election time. Usually, the Congress wakes up one day after election dates are announced. By starting early, Priyanka Gandhi is suggesting she is committing herself to Uttar Pradesh. Her debut in mass politics earlier this year was just a bad start. She is not going to disappear and then make a guest appearance in December 2021, the way her brother likes to do.
Third, by being the first big leader to reach Sonbhadra, and getting detained, she has taken ownership of the issue, making Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati look like marginal players. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are taking longer to come out of their humiliating defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections than Priyanka, who couldn’t save her brother’s seat, Amethi.
The Samajwadi Party sent a team of low-rung leaders, who also got detained. Their effort will not even be noticed, the news is all about Priyanka Gandhi. Mayawati, sitting on a high pedestal, rarely ever goes to meet victims’ families. She is not known to do agitational politics. What’s Akhilesh Yadav’s excuse? Of course, he has given perfunctory statements and the SP has forced a Rajya Sabha adjournment, but these efforts came across as mere formality. The party didn’t appear to be actually struggling to seek justice for the victims, the way Priyanka has done by getting detained in trying to meet them herself.
Fourth, Priyanka Gandhi’s Sonbhadra visit hasn’t come out of the blue. It doesn’t appear episodic like Rahul Gandhi’s travelling used to. Priyanka’s Sonbhadra visit comes after weeks of relentless tweeting about local issues in Uttar Pradesh. She used Twitter to position herself as a player in Uttar Pradesh politics. By tweeting against the Yogi government on a daily basis, she made it clear she has her eye on the ball: the 2022 Uttar Pradesh election.
Incidentally, both Priyanka Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav took foreign holidays around the same time. When Akhilesh Yadav was abroad for 15 days, he didn’t put out a single tweet. Priyanka Gandhi’s Twitter account remained active with tweets on Uttar Pradesh affairs in Hindi as if she was sitting in Lucknow. In fact, if you read local newspapers in the state over the last few weeks, it would appear that Priyanka Gandhi is a bigger opposition leader than Akhilesh Yadav or Mayawati.
Fifth, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state has made her day by detaining her and not letting her meet the families of the victims. She recently wrote a letter to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, asking the UP government to reduce her security cover because it inconveniences the public. The state unit of the BJP was all too happy to share this letter with the media. It is clear that the Yogi government is encouraging Priyanka Gandhi’s ambitions, to further divide the opposition. A four-cornered contest is all that the BJP needs to repeat 312 seats for Yogi Adityanath.
In doing so, the BJP is taking a calculated risk. It is for Priyanka Gandhi to exploit the opportunity and campaign hard enough so that she is seen as a real contender, not just a vote spoiler.
An irritated Mayawati has put out tweets saying her party workers have been helping the victims’ families in Sonbhadra from the moment the incident happened, and the Congress is only shedding crocodile tears. Right now, it is Mayawati’s press releases that comes across as crocodile tears.
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