It’s yet another window of opportunity for Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. She is now incarcerated in a Sitapur police lines guest house in a temporary jail, having been arrested and prevented from going to Lakhimpur Kheri where, on Sunday, brutal violence took over farmers’ protests leading to eight deaths.
For Gandhi family watchers, every time Priyanka hits the dirt tracks, images are conjured up of Indira Gandhi’s journey to Belchi in July 1977, and pundits wonder whether finally, at long last, that turning point moment has come for the younger Gandhi sibling.
What happened at Belchi in 1977? Indira Gandhi, trounced by the Janata Party in general elections that year, regained the political momentum in Belchi. When news came in that several dalits had been savagely murdered by upper castes in Belchi village in Bihar, Indira undertook a perilous journey to the remote village, through storm and pouring rain first by car, then jeep, then tractor and finally riding bare-backed on an elephant and crossing a swollen river. She arrived in Belchi at night to cradle the bereaved families. It was a sudden political arrival and revival.
On the way back when Indira stopped at Rae Bareli, she was given a rapturous welcome in her constituency from where she had been thrown out just a few months earlier. And she scripted her great comeback.
So is Lakhimpur Kheri Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s Belchi moment? No it is most certainly not.
The truth is, India in 2021 is not India in 1977 and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is not Indira Gandhi. Far from it. Don’t forget in 1977, Indira Gandhi had been prime minister for a decade. Despite imposing the Emergency, she wore the halo of the Bangladesh war, and had fought a hard fight in politics for years. In 1977 Indira Gandhi was a formidable politician and personality cult.
Contrast with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who for the first decade and a half of her entry into politics remained confined to the family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli. She would dip her toes into the electoral river during polls, dressed in colourful handloom saris, and then vanish from view.
Two years ago, just ahead of the 2019 polls, she was pitchforked into Uttar Pradesh as general secretary in charge of eastern UP, a post specifically carved for her despite being a greenhorn. (the post of general secretary is usually reserved for highly experienced politicians). In her tenure, Congress lost abysmally, and won only one seat in Uttar Pradesh—Rae Bareli_ and even lost the family citadel of Amethi. And yet after the polls, Priyanka was made general secretary in charge of the entire state of UP. In sharp contrast to Indira, Priyanka does not have any stellar election winning record whatsoever.
But fast forward now to after the 2019 polls to the last two years. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is more visible on the ground in Uttar Pradesh than ever before. Her high profile UP expeditions began in 2019 when she went on a boat yatra during the poll campaign. In August 2019 she journeyed to Sonbhadra to meet families of tribals killed in a violent land dispute. There too she was briefly detained. Last year she rushed to Hathras, where a Dalit victim had been summarily cremated, and condoled with the bereaved family. And now in 2021 there she was in Lakhimpur Kheri with the TV cameras following her every footstep.
Priyanka is excellent television and ideally suited for the media box office. She is highly photogenic and striking to look at. She is expertly bilingual, speaking fluent, formal Hindi in addition to English and communicates easily with the press. She’s a Pied Piper for TV crews who track her moves with more enthusiasm than Rahul Gandhi’s. She also exudes a womanly empathy for the downtrodden, a quality rarely seen in the hard-bitten UP netas fixated on caste and community.
But being a TRP-grabbing media star is hardly enough in UP’s ruthlessly competitive politics. After all BSP supremo Mayawati rarely appears on TV and won a thumping victory in 2007, and neither Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav nor his son Akhilesh can be called charismatic yet have notched up several wins in UP. The ruling BJP too has built up a formidable ground network that remains its biggest asset even beyond the obvious appeal of its Hindutva mascots, Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath.
By contrast, there’s a yawning mismatch between Priyanka’s media traction and the Congress’s collapsing organization on the ground. The Congress is desperately starved of resources, does not boast of a popular local leader nor does it attract strong caste and community loyalties. In the forthcoming polls, predictions are that Congress will struggle to reach double digits.
But there is one clear option that Priyanka Gandhi now has to put Congress firmly in the UP electoral game, or at least the political conversation. She must move full time to Lucknow and become Congress’s chief ministerial candidate. This is the only way hopelessly demoralized Congress cadres can become galvanized, and the only way voters can be convinced that Congress is fighting to win and wrest power, and not just to “raise issues.”
Lateral entrants like Priyanka need to make the one big bold move and actually put themselves on the line. They can’t just be political inheritors.
To be fair, Sonia Gandhi took up this challenge in 1999 and 2004, when she led the Congress into the poll battle and went through a trial by fire. The leader must be a leader: not just put up an Ajay Kumar Lallu as a UP CM face, but instead show voters that it is she who is here for the long fight.
She may lose this first round, but at 49, what does she have to lose? Instead she has everything to gain and a chance to show UP voters that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a serious UP politician and not just a ‘shoot and scoot’ media phenomenon.
Priyanka as UP Chief Minister was a plan first suggested by election strategist Prashant Kishor ahead of the 2017 polls, but it never took off, Kishor instead hastily crafting the “UP ke ladke” campaign around the Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav alliance which fell flat. But now, post Lakhimpur Kheri, there is another opportunity for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. She has the chance to show that Congress actually has stakes in the UP battle, if she herself steps into the battlefield as the chief ministerial candidate. It’s what Indira Gandhi would have done.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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