Written by William Gould.

In  Lucknow, shortly after the announcement on 23 January 2019 that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would become General Secretary of the Congress in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, party workers held up posters reading ‘Indira is back’. The Twitter-sphere filled with reactions comparing the younger Gandhi to India’s ‘Iron Lady’, often juxtaposing images of the two women.

Without a doubt, one of the most striking aspects of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s appearance in politics is the common reference to her similarity with her grandmother. Indeed, referencing back to the icons of the ‘Freedom Movement’ or the Nehruvian era has become commonplace in contemporary India, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to reshape the historical iconography of Indian politics by appropriating figures such as Patel, and demonising India’s first Prime Minister on social media.

Congress also makes use of its own dynastic histories. Priyanka has repurposed similar populist approaches to those employed by Indira.  In a vein that echoed the 1980 come-back of her grandmother, she wrote on Congress’s Shakti App: ‘I have hope in my heart that together we will start a new kind of politics, a politics in which all of you will be stakeholders – my young friends, my sisters and even the weakest person, all their voices will be heard.’ Indira Gandhi’s rhetoric of garibihatao (eliminate poverty) and her matriarchal symbolism immediately spring to mind.

It is very difficult to predict what effect Priyanka Gandhi’s appearance will have in the upcoming 2019 general elections. The associations with Indira Gandhi and the dynasty more broadly could play either way.

Born in 1972 and the youngest of the clan, Priyanka, by her own admission, ‘imbibed politics at the dinner table’.  Although she eschewed politics for most of the 1990s, it became very clear by the end of that decade that she had a talent for political organisation and oratory power.  She campaigned extensively for her brother Rahul and mother Sonia in elections in Amethi and Rae Bareli – the constituencies of Rajiv and Indira Gandhi – but refused to take a formal political role for herself. An avid reader of Hindi literature, she wrote many of her mother’s early political speeches. However, she never attempted to overshadow Rahul, despite an almost unanimous view – shared and exploited by the BJP – that she was the more talented of the siblings.

Arguably, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s new role represents good timing for the party, after Congress humbled the BJP in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in December 2018.  Her appearance – which according to her brother Rahul sent the BJP into a whirl of panic – is designed to make things difficult for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh (UP), with Modi ensconced in Varanasi and Yogi Adityanath’s base in Gorakhpur. If these two Hindu-right leaders can be tied up in UP, the rest of the country might be deprived of their campaigning.

The approach in UP is, as always, pivotal. With a population of 200 million, UP returns 80 seats to the 545-seat Lok Sabha, which is the highest number for any state.  Both the material and the political roads to Delhi are through UP. And Congress sorely needs to improve its 8 per cent vote share there.

However, for many the sudden appearance of Priyanka is too little, too late, and it smacks of political weakness. Sambit Patra of the BJP suggested that her appearance was an admission of failure by demonstrating a lack of trust in Rahul Gandhi. Modi critiqued the continued dynasticism of the party: for Congress, he said, a family was the party, unlike the BJP, for which the party was the family.

For a long time Priyanka has been the more popular of the Gandhi siblings, thanks to her talent on the podium and her deliberate contravention of India’s patriarchies. Witty and provocative, she is an outspoken critic of BJP paternalism. When in April 2009 in Amethi Modi described the Congress as ‘a 125-year-old budhia (lady)’, Priyanka shot back, asking whether she looked old to him. Rather than select this budhia, Modi suggested, people should vote for the ‘30-year-young BJP’.  Referring directly to Modi and senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, Gandhi then immediately retorted: ‘If elderly people feel young it is good for their health’.

In 1999, Priyanka Gandhi famously brought down her uncle, Arun Nehru, a BJP nominee with a ferocious and highly effective personal attack: ‘I have a complaint’, she told voters. ‘A man who was a traitor in my father’s cabinet, who stabbed him in the back, answer me, how did you let this man in here? How did he have the guts to come here?’

On 23 January, when Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was appointed General Secretary of Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Twitterati pointed out the likeness with her grandmother Indira Gandhi. Image source: India Today.

The appeal of Priyanka goes beyond charisma.  It is also driven by political finance – or the lack of it. The BJP’s comprehensive victory in 2014 was partly down to fundraising advantages.  The party raised 574 crore INR (82 million USD) against Congress’s 343 crore INR (49 million USD), and compared to the incumbents, Congress does not enjoy a large advertising budget.  So one means by which Congress can ensure TV coverage of any particular political event is to send in Priyanka.

The popular excitement surrounding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, however, should not be exaggerated. The role picked for her by the Congress is immense. As the party’s proactive campaigner on social media, she will have to take on the formidable and skilled BJP, with well-organised troll factories, spin doctors and online workers.

Also problematic are the ongoing accusations of corruption levelled at Gandhi’s husband Robert Vadra.  The Moradabad real-estate businessman, fitness fanatic and nightclub beau was scrutinised by Arvind Kejriwal for his alleged interest-free 65 crore INR loan and land bargains in return for political favours.  Naturally, the BJP has taken full advantage of these long-standing allegations.

More serious still is Congress’s exclusion from the anti-BJP grand alliance  (mahagathbandhan) formed between the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Recently, Priyanka has tried to appeal to Dalit voters with her targeted visit to Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad in a Meerut hospital. But charm offensives cannot replace the power politics and complex horse-trading around caste alliances in the massive state of Uttar Pradesh.

Demonetisation, attacks on Muslims, rural discontent and now graduate unemployment have all taken the shine off Modi’s administration.  There is a great deal of optimism within the Congress party too following the victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Overall, it is very difficult to predict what effect Priyanka Gandhi’s appearance will have in the upcoming 2019 general elections.  The associations with Indira Gandhi and the dynasty more broadly could play either way and, certainly, Rahul Gandhi has not been very effective in carrying that mantle.  Unfortunately for the Congress and other parties, there is no other dominant figure to challenge Modi on individual leadership terms.

However, it is clear that the ‘Indira is back’ rhetoric plays well to a political culture that has recently embraced populism and authoritarianism, in which images of Congress’s own populist authoritarian – Indira Gandhi – are comfortably pasted all over the capital.  Priyanka also has a convincing record in advocating women’s empowerment and security. The big question is whether, following the extraordinary result of 2014, the Indian public will be impressed by Priyanka Gandhi’s re-working of some of Congress’s older secularist messages.

William Gould is a Professor of Indian History in the School of History at the University of Leeds. He tweets  @willgupshup  

Image Credit: Deccan Herald/Flickr

*The author bears full responsibility for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this article.


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