Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been everywhere these last few weeks – meeting families of those injured in protests against the new citizenship law in Muzaffarnagar and Meerut, expressing solidarity with students of the Banaras Hindu University, and showing up at the AIIMS to meet those injured in JNU’s infamous mob attack.
The sudden spurt in her visibility comes at a time when Priyanka Gandhi is just about to complete a year in active politics – a year in which she has established her style of politics as being largely episodic, entitled, and devoid of any real accountability. Incidentally, not unlike her brother and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
At a time when India is witnessing massive unrest against the Narendra Modi government and when the opposition should be seen as seizing the moment, Priyanka Gandhi is doing the right thing by being visible, unlike her brother who is predictably missing in action. And yet, even these interventions seem more a reflection of the kind of politics she has dabbled in so far, and not an effort to lay the foundation of a sustained brand of politics.
Priyanka’s entry in January 2019 – the suddenness, the timing and her role took many by surprise – was meant to ease matters for a rudderless and sinking Congress. She was called Congress’ ‘Brahmastra’. In the year since, however, her political presence may have only added to the Congress’ liabilities.
Much like her brother, 47-year-old Priyanka Gandhi chooses to waltz into issues and situations as per whim, with little coherence or perceptible dedication. As a result, the lack of sincerity and political street-smartness has become glaring.
An erratic leader
In the last couple of weeks, Priyanka was seen at several places, except in Kota, Rajasthan, where 110 children died in the government-run JK Lon Hospital in a month, in a state ruled by the Congress.
This was Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s moment to seize, to visit Kota and make a statement that the politician in her is more interested in the cause than games of political one-upmanship. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and former CM Mayawati’s attacks on her over this made political sense and put her in a spot.
But Priyanka as a politician has been erratic and impulsive throughout. She came into the scene suddenly, even though her entry had been a matter of speculation for years. She chose an odd role – general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh – when she really had no credential or past record that would make her eligible to lead the party in a region as difficult and as crucial as east UP.
All her interventions seem episodic – be it visiting Uttar Pradesh once in a while or speaking up on selective issues. Her political outreach has been as inexplicable. For instance, her meeting Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, while he was in the hospital ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, was a bid to make a public statement, but it ended up rebuffing the Congress.
Looking back, there is no single thread, no one cohesive thought and no clear brand of politics that could define Priyanka in the past year. What she stuck to can be described as sporadic bursts of ‘I stand with you’, much like her brother – besides, of course, Twitter.
Internal mess in Congress
Priyanka, who so far had played a backroom, behind-the-scenes role in the Congress, has only added to the confusion and mess within the party with her foray into active politics. Neither of the Gandhi siblings is now the party president, and in that sense, both are at par. In Rahul’s absence during the crucial phase of anti-CAA protests, it was Priyanka who took charge.
Besides Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Congress now has two power centres in Rahul and Priyanka. Thus, the old guard versus the new guard battle is now old guard versus two kinds of new guards.
Congress insiders say in private that these parallel structures are at times in subtle conflict with each other, adding to the confusing and messy dynamics of the party.
It isn’t just party leaders or workers who would be confused. Even for the voter, this ‘who is the face, who is the future’ question is bound to be confounding, one that could ultimately impact their voting choice.
No track record
When Priyanka Gandhi entered active politics in January 2019, she had no past record to speak of. She had been a hands-on backroom manager for Rae Bareli and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh – both family bastions. The results, however, haven’t been the most encouraging.
In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, the Congress won just two of the 10 assembly seats in the Amethi and Rae Bareli Lok Sabha constituencies. Not just that, Rahul’s own grip over Amethi has been slipping. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which Priyanka very closely monitored, his victory margin saw a massive dip, finally losing it in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in which the Congress managed to win just one seat in Uttar Pradesh.
What has stood out most in Priyanka’s political journey is how, unlike most others in her family who joined politics, she hasn’t fought an election yet. Thus, while her brother Rahul Gandhi has at least electoral wins in his kitty, Priyanka does not even have that. What she does have to her advantage is being more articulate and charismatic in demeanour than Rahul Gandhi. Both, however, have a similar disposition towards the Congress – they own the party and can do as they please, when they please, how they please.
Priyanka Gandhi bears an uncanny resemblance to her grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But considering that a large number of the electorate constitutes those born after 1984, the ‘Indira Gandhi’ resonance is likely to have little impact.
There was always a ‘bring Priyanka’ cry among Congress workers each time the party did poorly electorally. But with her presence marking no visible improvement in the Congress in the last one year, the party may well have exhausted what it always thought was its ‘trump card’.