With less than 3 months to go for Lok Sabha polls, the entry of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has boosted the morale of party activists.
Rahul Gandhi’s move to appoint his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the party’s general secretary in charge of east Uttar Pradesh has enthused his party workers in the electorally crucial state which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha.
As a columnist put it, Ms Vadra’s entry is the latest in a string of, what are considered, “right” decisions by Mr Gandhi as the party chief.
There’s little doubt that many Congress friends, loyalists and rank and file see a new momentum after her entry. But the big question is how will Ms Vadra’s formal presence change things in Uttar Pradesh where an alliance of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) has been firmed up, shunning the Congress?
Will she, therefore, be an asset or a liability? Did the Congress leave it too late when it let the BSP-SP to ignore its capabilities to strike a deal on their own?
Even if Ms Vadra does bring in the votes, does the Congress have the wherewithal in terms of booth-level mobilisation of voters to harvest the votes?
More importantly, is the BJP really nervous, as made out by sections of the media because of her entry?
Let us consider what the loyalists feel about her. They assert that she has charisma and resembles grandmother Indira Gandhi, which means she could turn the battle to become a Modi versus Priyanka fight in 2019 — without upsetting her brother Mr Gandhi’s status as the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress or of the Opposition.
Some Congress leaders bill her foray as a “game changer.”
They forget such sentiments were expressed when Ms Vadra made her debut on a public platform along with her mother Sonia Gandhi when the latter took over as Congress chief in 1998. Both the mother and daughter had addressed a rally near Chennai after paying homage at a memorial at Sriperambudur where Rajiv Gandhi was felled by a human bomb in 1991.
Differing with their colleagues who are gung-ho about Ms Vadra, some senior Congress veterans say if she was an ace up Mr Gandhi’s sleeve, why was her entry delayed for a such long time.
Does she not need time to go about her work?
Are three months before the Lok Sabha polls enough to make an impact even in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which is her area of organisational responsibility?
Should Ms Vadra be made to restrict herself to a part of Uttar Pradesh when she could have been launched with aplomb at a national level?
Mr Gandhi has himself acknowledged that Ms Vadra’s entry was long in the works — a decision that took years, not days. “I had been talking to her about this for years,” the Congress president said during an interaction in Odisha.
“The decision was taken some years back and not just 10 days ago. I have been talking to her about this for years but earlier she would say that her children were too young, and she had to be with them. Now that her children are at a different stage in life, with one in university;
Ms Vadra’s decided to join politics.”
If one goes by the version told in Congress circles, Mrs Gandhi decided on the timing of Ms Vadra’s entry though it was Mr Gandhi who announced her appointment as party general secretary on January 23.
Mrs Gandhi wanted her son to first establish himself and then be seen as inducting his sister rather than the mother “imposing” her on the party.
Mr Gandhi took over as Congress president on December 16, 2017 — two days after the Gujarat Assembly polls were completed.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was AICC general secretary in charge of the state, had, in fact, suggested that Ms Vadra be made the general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh during the last state elections in 2017. But Mrs Gandhi told her son that he must wait till he got settled as Congress president before assigning any role to his sister.
Mrs Gandhi, however, told her daughter to work informally for her brother, which she did. Ms Vadra took the initiative for the Congress’ alliance with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh by talking to Dimple Yadav, the wife of Akhilesh Yadav.
She took charge of the Congress’ plenary session in Delhi in March 2018, which formally endorsed Ms Vadra as the party chief. She decided on several things, including stage arrangements, bringing youth leaders to the front and sending seniors to the back.
After the session, Ms Vadra told her brother Mr Gandhi that she was ready for any formal role. But Mrs Gandhi told her to wait.
Beyond the timing factor, however, there was an inevitability about her debut. It is fallback on a single family around which the party has sustained itself.
First, it was Nehru-Indira (father-daughter) in the 1960s, then Indira-Sanjay (mother-younger son) in the 1970s, and Indira-Rajiv (mother-older son) in the 1980s. Being the first non-Gandhi family member, P.V. Narasimha Rao ran the Congress and its government till 1996 when the party lost in the parliamentary elections.
But by 1998 when the Congress backed coalitions led by Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, it seemed to come apart and had to run to Mrs Gandhi for salvage operation. A Gandhi family loyalist like Sitaram Kesri could not hold it together.
Mrs Gandhi stepped in to save the Congress because it faced the danger of disintegration. Without her family in direct charge, her family’s pre-eminence too was in danger, argue some Congress critics.
Once in command, Mrs Gandhi managed to keep the Congress intact till the Lok Sabha polls in 2004 when the Vajpayee government lost power. Then came the “golden era” of Sonia-Rahul (mother-son) for 10 years till the Congress lost miserably to the new star of the BJP — Narendra Modi — in 2014.
The party’s loss of power was largely due to unprecedented scams and corruption that left its image badly tarnished.
Since then, the Sonia-Rahul combine has found itself to be inadequate to meet the challenges posed by a Modi-led BJP though the poll success in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan gave some reasons to cheer.
Cut to 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the party’s first family has chosen to go for a combination of three Gandhis — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka.
The Gandhi family saw a sharp decline on Mr Modi’s charisma and a rise in Mr Gandhi’s as a good opportunity to bring in Ms Vadra with the view that she should be a force-multiplier, say insiders.
Snubbed by the SP and BSP, the Congress had to show that it was capable of taking up the challenge in UP and had to give a “shock and awe” treatment to the rank and file.
This may be Ms Vadra’s first official party work. But, for many years, she has been overseeing election management in Rae Bareli and Amethi, the two Lok Sabha constituencies represented by her mother and Rahul respectively. She has chosen the one region most tough for the Congress, eastern Uttar Pradesh, where she directly takes on both Mr Modi and UP Chief Minister Adityanath Yogi.
An aggressive campaign by Ms Vadra could possibly mean that the Congress won’t risk splitting the Muslim and Dalit votes and challenge the BSP-SP in cornering seats.
But beyond the electoral politics, it cannot be ignored that Ms Vadra’s foray into direct politics comes at a time when her husband, Robert Vadra, is facing new notices from the Enforcement Directorate in connection with alleged money-laundering and land scam. A notice has also been sent to his mother, Maureen. Ms Vadra’s mother Sonia and brother Rahul are already on bail in the National Herald case.