Congress Needs a Charismatic Figure - And a Big Idea
Before every election, Priyanka Gandhi, who turns 42 on Sunday, steps out of the seclusion of her family life and visits the two pocket boroughs of the Nehru-Gandhi family - Rae Bareli and Amethi - to oversee the Congress's organizational preparations.
This time, however, she has apparently taken a more than usual interest in the party's affairs. Although Congressmen have been disinclined to speak about her latest initiatives, she is known to have met senior partymen with a spokesman claiming that she had been doing so on a regular basis.
Whether or not she will play a bigger role than what she has been doing till now will only be known if and when she attends the forthcoming All India Congress Committee meeting. But there is little doubt that to a large number of Congress supporters, the need for her to come to the forefront has never been greater in view of the present seemingly dismal prospects of the party.
It has long been felt that she may have been a better bet for the organization than either her mother or her brother. The few occasions when Priyanka appeared before the crowds, she received spontaneous ovation.
The evident reason is that she invariably evokes the memory of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, with the same upright posture, the striking good looks, the open, uninhibited smile and an uncanny empathy with the audience. In contrast, Sonia Gandhi not only appears to be formal, but her lack of command over Hindi is a major drawback in a country where extempore speeches are the norm.
Rahul Gandhi is more fluent, but he gives the impression of talking down to the people because of his patrician bearing. The impression he used to give till recently of not being interested in politics came through in his public appearances. It is only now after the party's defeats in four states that he has become more forthcoming in his approach.
Considering that the Congress has always depended on charismatic personalities - Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi - to woo the electorate, it is surprising that the party and the first family decided to keep Priyanka mostly in the background.
It may be that the Congress did not feel the need to utilize her services till now because of her youthfulness. Besides, in the 2004 general election, it was Sonia Gandhi who carried the day for the party. Both Rahul and Priyanka, who were then in their early 30s, were mostly in the background. In 2009, the Congress's easy ride to power obviated the need for either of them to come to the fore.
It's different, however, in 2014. Even the party's admirers will not deny that the Congress is in dire straits and that there is a need for an orator who can visibly enthuse the audience. There is little doubt that Priyanka can be that person.
It is even possible that in tandem with her mother and brother, she can carry on a campaign which can be more effective than what the Congress has been able to undertake so far. Arguably, the revival of the memory of the Nehru-Gandhi family among the minorities, dalits and tribals in the countryside can be of help to the Congress even if the dynastic factor is mocked in the cities.
In any event, the Congress in its present weakened conditions can do with all the assistance that it can get. It defies logic, therefore, why it should waste a valuable asset like Priyanka.
At the same time, her minus points cannot be overlooked. Foremost among them is the dicey reputation of her husband, Robert Vadra. It goes without saying that the Congress's opponents will vociferously rake up the issue of his supposedly dubious land deals if Priyanka becomes a serious campaigner.
The other drawback which she shares with the party as a whole is the absence of a vision. Unlike Narendra Modi whose development agenda is directed at the upwardly mobile middle class, the Congress has been confused about its programmes.
Before its defeats in the north and central Indian states, the party was championing the purported cause of the poor by talking about sops and subsidies. After the drubbing, however, when the Congress realized that an aspirational India is not interested in paternalistic governance, the party switched to highlighting economic growth, as Rahul Gandhi did while addressing the corporate sector. But it was not fully convincing because it was a partial about-turn.
The Congress, therefore, requires not only a charismatic figure like Priyanka, but also a Big Idea which it want to pursue as Nehru did with his vision of industrialization - "dams are the temples of modern India" - or Rajiv Gandhi did with his promise of taking the country into the 21st century by launching the electronic revolution.
Fate has been unkind to the Congress because several of its promising young leaders died early - Rajiv Gandhi, Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. But for the members of the so-called dynasty, none of the other leaders - young or middle-aged - has been able to fill the vacuum. The trio of mother, son and daughter can fill the breach to some extent.