Is Priyanka Gandhi Congress Party's future? American observers weigh in

Congress Party leader Priyanka Gandhi arrives at a rally held to support party candidates during the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections at Rae Bareli on February 17, 2017. (Getty Images)

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has always been considered the natural heir to the Congress party’s legacy. However, all these years, she has stayed in the shadows of her mother, Sonia Gandhi, and her brother, Rahul Gandhi. She was last seen in 2014, campaigning for them in their constituencies at Amethi and Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh. Now the 47-year-old mother of two has been brought in the forefront, taking a full plunge into politics. Her appointment as the secretary of eastern Uttar Pradesh has raised speculations about her role in the party and her ability to change the fortunes of the Congress party in the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Reports in Indian and international media speculate whether Indira Gandhi’s granddaughter will contest from the party bastion of Rae Bareli, a seat won by her mother for five consecutive years. A report in the Daily O says that Priyanka Gandhi “might replace her mother Sonia Gandhi who has reportedly not been keeping too well.” Some reports also suggest that the appointment, made a few months ahead of national elections due in May, shows that the Congress is serious about ousting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

While Congress and its allies welcomed the decision, India Today reported that the Bharatiya Janata Party “mocked it, saying Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into active politics is an admission from the Congress party that Rahul Gandhi has failed in providing leadership.”

An article in the Washington Post also suggests that there is a section of people that believes that Priyanka Gandhi "could help bring a female perspective to the Congress leadership, given the prominence of women’s issues in Indian discourse over the past year."

In the United States, political scientists and academicians who have been closely following Indian politics, say although Priyanka Gandhi’s foray into politics is a step in the right direction, it is a bit soon to tell how it’ll weigh in on the elections.

“Priyanka Gandhi’s formal foray into the organizational set-up of the Congress is a good move,” Neeti Nair, associate professor of History at the University of Virginia, told India Abroad. “However, I don’t think it will transform the fortunes of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha elections,” she added. According to Nair, Priyanka Gandhi’s taking charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh “indicates that the Congress believes that she , and she alone, can and will prevail over the incumbent chief minister Yogi Adityanath.” Nair says that while “this is good optics, and good politics, India is larger than eastern UP.”

While it is largely believed that Priyanka Gandhi’s role in the Congress party won’t be just limited to Uttar Pradesh, one cannot deny the significance of the importance of Uttar Pradesh plays in the elections. Uttar Pradesh is home to Modi's constituency in Varanasi. Uttar Pradesh is the heartland of Hindi-speaking India, and is described by AFP as “a bellweather state” and the country's most populous with more than 200 million people. “With 80 seats in the lower house of parliament in Delhi, victory in Uttar Pradesh is a key stepping stone to forming a national government,” the AFP report said.

Christopher Candland, associate professor of Political Science and South Asian studies at Wesley College believes that Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment in the region is newsworthy.

“It is significant for Congress because there is no region that is more important to success in the general election than eastern UP,” he told India Abroad.

Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center told Bloomberg News that while it’s savvy” to deploy Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh, which sends the most lawmakers to India’s lower house, but it also represents a gamble.

Congress’ Secret Weapon

Experts believe that Priyanka Gandhi is Congress’ secret weapon. According to Candland, her involvement is “a powerful stimulus for Congress workers.” Also significant for Congress, he noted, is Priyanka Gandhi’s acceptance of the assignment which “seems to indicate a new-found willingness to enter politics, which she is unlikely to be able to limit to a single province.” Candland believes the appointment is significant for her political future as well. “It is quite likely to make her the second most popular alternative to Narendra Modi, behind her brother Rahul.” According to Kugelman, it is her personality that makes Priyanka Gandhi such a potentially powerful figure. While it “one of her greatest strengths,” Kugelman told Bloomberg News that it is “one of the greatest weaknesses of her brother, who is often perceived as dull and lacking in charisma.” He added: “This advantage, if played the right way, can be used to undercut Modi, whose sustained personal popularity has allowed him to weather recent political storms for the BJP.”

Rohit Chopra, associate professor of Communications at Santa Clara University has the same thought process. Calling Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment a good move, he told India Abroad that “the right wing seems to be rattled.” Chopra harked back to last year’s midterm polls where BJP suffered a huge loss to the Congress in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. “One the one hand there is extreme anxiety,” he said, “while on the other hand there’s nothing.”

Chopra said Modi won the 2014 elections playing the development card,” which, according to him, “every prime minister, starting from Jawaharlal Nehru has played.” Add to that the effective social media campaign, and Modi’s victory was evident, he said. But at the same time, he believes that a lot of highly educated people “fell to bizarre claims by Modi,” and have since become wise. He said that while there will be many “antics from the right,” to malign Priyanka Gandhi, her family and the Congress party, he thinks that “the same electorate that brought Modi into power last year, could this year bring Priyanka Gandhi in the forefront.” But that said, Chopra noted that “unless something dramatic happens between now and April, which puts BJP in a vulnerable position, there is a strong bastion of support for Narendra Modi.”

Comparisons to her Grandmother

Although election is a secular exercise Chopra said there is a lot of symbolism that seems to work during elections. Chopra is alluding to Priyanka Gandhi’s constant comparisons with her grandmother Indira Gandhi, India’s only female prime minister. Chopra feels that closer to the elections, one might see Priyanka Gandhi dress up like Indira Gandhi. “I’m sure there’s a section of Hindus that can believe that Priyanka Gandhi is an reincarnation of Indira Gandhi, although not literally,” he said. “Ours is a young country,” he said, adding, “the past always appears rosy than it is.”

Nair disagrees with Chopra on this matter. What is important for Priyanka Gandhi is to prove that she’s a team player, Nair said. “Charisma can take you only this far,” she said. The Indian electorate has become very mature over the years, she said, and will look for campaign promises. “The Indian electorate will not be taken for a ride.”

Challenges Ahead

Nair says that the Congress leadership’s real challenge at this juncture is how to engage with the Mahagatbandhan. “We don’t have evidence of Priyanka Gandhi’s success as a diplomat and deal-maker, and that’s what is of paramount importance is this moment,” Nair said. “If she can appreciate that Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee bring many, many more years of experience in politics, and engage with them in to produce a coalition that is meaningful, then her foray into the formal organizational arena will, in fact, transform the character and result of the Lok Sabha elections.”

Experts also warn that there is a tough road ahead, and the initial euphoria will eventually die down. Ayesha Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University told India Abroad the overall response to Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics and her appointment is favorable. However, she said that people are cautious and “want to see how it pans out in actual political terms.”

A few polls conducted last year indicate what Jalal said. Bloomberg News, quoting an India Today poll conducted last year, that asked who’s the best alternative to Modi among opposition leaders, Rahul Gandhi was picked by 46 percent of respondents while only six percent chose his sister. But even at six percent, Priyanka Gandhi scored higher than other opposition leaders like Mayawati and Chandrababu Naidu, the Bloomberg News report said. 

A Firstpost National Trust Survey about the upcoming elections showed that a whopping 52.8 percent still prefer Modi as the prime minister. He was followed by Rahul Gandhi (27 percent). In addition, 67 percent of the respondents placed their trust in Modi as against Rahul Gandhi. Around 35,000 people across urban and rural wards covering 320 parliamentary constituencies in 23 states were surveyed.

Apart from how Priyanka Gandhi succeeds in her popularity among the electorate and gaining confidence with them, media reports also suggest that BJP could re-ignite the allegations and charges government agencies have filed against her businessman husband, Robert Vadra. In an article in the Washington Post, Barkha Dutt wrote that since there has been no “concrete forward movement” in Vadra’s cases, “any move the government makes now, in the last month of its term, will only appear vindictive and make Gandhi the victim.” According to Dutt, “the other ammunition in the BJP’s arsenal is the swipe about the Gandhi siblings being a dynasty who inherited power, in contrast to the self-made rise of Modi.”

Although Priyanka Gandhi has yet to test the waters, it is evident that her presence has created a lot of buzz and has definitely rattled the ruling party. As her husband Robert Varda said in a 2011 interview with the Washington Post: “Rahul’s time is now. Priyanka’s time will come.” And there’s no doubt that time is now. How far it’ll take her and her party, however, remains to be seen.

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