There are countless stories about Priyanka Gandhi’s empathetic public outreach, something the Congress is counting on to revive its fortunes in UP.
New Delhi: On the campaign trail in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha election, one of the cars in Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s cavalcade hit a van.
Priyanka, who was travelling in one of the vehicles at the front, didn’t immediately know about the accident but the moment she was told, she enquired about the passengers in the van.
Having heard that a number of them were injured, she cancelled her appointments for the day and headed to the hospital to meet them.
During the same election, when she was fielding questions from the media at a rally, Priyanka was confronted by an angry retired teacher who felt she was giving undue importance to journalists over the electorate.
She immediately left the journalists and approached the elderly man to apologise to him. Barely a couple of minutes into their conversation, the man was seen laughing.
There are scores of such stories that journalists, Congress leaders and common people recount about Priyanka, 47, who entered active politics Wednesday as the party’s general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Priyanka has a reputation of being a public figure who can establish an instant rapport with people.
On the campaign trail, she has been known to tell women that though it was marriage season, they should vote. “Before you get busy, you must come to the booth in the morning and cast your votes,” she would say.
A second Indira?
It is these qualities that the Congress is now counting on to revive its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh.
Priyanka, who gave her first public speech at 16, holds a Master’s degree in Buddhist Studies, and is known for writing political speeches for her mother Sonia Gandhi.
Parallels with her grandmother, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, have been common, be it her personality, her way of interacting with people, or even her sense of style.
However, despite being a popular figure, especially in Amethi and Raebareli, Priyanka chose for years to restrict her political role to helping her brother Rahul Gandhi and mother Sonia, who, respectively, represent the two constituencies in the Lok Sabha.
In both the constituencies, her visits often draw huge crowds, comprising both party workers and the public.
It is only of late that she began actively participating in the party’s backroom strategy meetings, even though her plunge into active politics has long been a demand of a section of Congress voters and workers.
In the past, many posters have been put up in Amethi, asking her to be given key responsibility in the party.
The slogan “Priyanka lao, Congress bachao” has been heard after every defeat faced by the party over the past few years.
Even so, Priyanka would either keep mum on questions about her entry into politics, or deny them outright in interviews.
When Priyanka got emotional
One of the rare occasions when people got to see Priyanka’s emotional side came in March 2008, when she met Nalini Sriharan, one of the conspirators in the 1991 assassination of her father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, at a Tamil Nadu jail — the meeting, she claimed, was her way of coming to terms with the “loss and violence that I have experienced”.
In response to queries about Sonia Gandhi intervening to get Sriharan’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, Priyanka had said she didn’t believe in anger, hatred and violence, and couldn’t allow these things to “overpower my life”.
Sriharan, who has spent decades in prison for the assassination, wrote about the meeting in her book Rajiv Murder: Hidden Truths and Priyanka-Nalini Meeting.
According to her, Priyanka asked her “Why did you do it?” and broke down, before lending her a patient hearing.
Priyanka is also known to speak her mind. In April last year, during a candlelight march organised by the party to protest against the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, she lost her cool with the crowd and mediapersons for pushing each other.
“Nobody will push each other,” she said. “You should know the reason for which you are here. If you cannot behave, go home. Now, all of you will silently walk till there (India Gate).”
In April 2014, she had lashed out at Narendra Modi, then the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial nominee, when he said that the Congress was faithful to “an RSVP model — Rahul, Sonia, Vadra and Priyanka”.
“You are not teaching in a school,” Priyanka had said. “You are addressing the nation… When you address the people, tell them what you will do for them. Don’t teach them the English alphabet like RSVP, ABCD.”
Her political debut has party members looking forward to the joint challenge the “brother-sister” duo will pose for the BJP.
“Priyanka shares a close bond with Rahul and has always stood by him through thick and thin,” said a senior party functionary from Uttar Pradesh. “Whether it is during public rallies, interviews, or even after the Congress faced a major setback in 2014, she has always been at his side. The fact that both will lead Uttar Pradesh is going to be a game-changer.”