Speculation about Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry in politics had been rife even before Congress president Rahul Gandhi announced her appointment as AICC general secretary (East Uttar Pradesh). Since then, the question uppermost in everyone’s mind has been: Will she be able to arrest the Congress party’s down-the-hill roll and set the stage for its revival? Answers vary. But one thing is certain. If at all she has to make a difference, the start has to be from UP, the state that was once the Congress’s impregnable bastion but where the party has been reduced to the status of a bit player.
The manner in which Priyanka orchestrated her first foray in UP as the AICC general secretary has stunned her calumniators and overwhelmed her well-wishers. She has turned the rules of the game by taking on the bull by the horns from the word go. While most politicians would be wary about their Achilles heel, she has decided to brandish her name plate—Gandhi Vadra. Just before launching her campaign, she accompanied her husband to ED offices for questioning. The day she made her debut, Robert Vadra called on the people to keep her safe against the prevailing vindictive atmosphere describing her as ‘a perfect wife’, ‘the best friend’ and ‘the best mother’.
With this new-found aggression, Priyanka has put the Narendra Modi government in a bit of a pickle. Though BJP leaders were unsparing about Vadra and went to town about their relentless campaign on corruption, no matter how big the errant was, they would not like to add ammunition to the Opposition rhetoric of unleashing political vendetta. Whatever the short and long term impact of her entry in open politics, she has the potential of becoming a game changer.
There is nothing new about politics for Priyanka. She was born into a political environment and has shown her spark in the past. Like in 1999 when she publicly asked voters of Raebareli Lok Sabha constituency, where the BJP had put up the late Rajiv Gandhi’s one-time confidant, Arun Nehru: Will you vote for a person who stabbed my brother and father in the back? These words proved disastrous for Arun Nehru. He came fourth in that election.
The question that will now be asked is whether as a general secretary, Priyanka will be able to revive that magic. The answer to this is not clear. In fact, given the ground situation, showing tangible result in the Lok Sabha elections just a few months away would seem to be an uphill task. The prospects look difficult, but politics is a game of possibilities. After the victory in three Assembly polls in December, the Congress has definitely been re-energised. But it will have to work hard to regain lost ground in the Hindi belt.
Notwithstanding the instant hype surrounding Priyanka’s entry, given the current strength and organisation of the Congress in UP, it is doubtful whether the party will emerge as a third pole or principal challenger to the BJP. There is a body of opinion suggesting that such a third pole would corner the BJP further by eating into a chunk of its upper caste vote bank.
In the context of general elections, there can be three possible objectives that the Congress as the largest Opposition force can set before itself. First, dislodging the present government; second, rebuilding its organisation and increasing its independent strength; and, third, exploring the possibility of a Congress Prime Minister after the elections. These three objectives may not necessarily be mutually exclusive, but the current position of the party and regional variations in the correlation of political forces entail that it should prioritise between these objectives. It would naturally claim that its principal objective is the first one.
It may choose to call it ‘playing on the front foot’, but it actually shows its feet being dragged towards fulfilling different objectives simultaneously. By virtue of being the largest non-BJP party, in all likelihood, the leadership role could well come to the Congress. However, such a role has to be earned by recognising the claims of other political forces and setting aside individual goals. Going by its actions in the largest state of the Union, the Congress still has to do much tight rope walking.