On Tuesday, Priyanka Gandhi took the first step in what is likely to be a long and arduous battle to try and restore the Congress back to primacy in Indian politics. Till a day before the rally, she was unsure about whether or not to make her maiden speech at the party rally in Gandhinagar — but she decided to give it a go on the day of the rally. It may have been her first formal speech, but in the short seven minutes, she gave a glimpse of the fact that she possesses a canny political mind.
She deftly sought to move the narrative to issues that resonate with the common citizen — jobs or the lack of it, farmers' distress, Modi’s failed promises of delivering Rs 15 lakh to the poor, women’s security, and the need for the country not to forget its basic values of coexistence and inclusiveness. These are the issues that receded to the background in the wake of the Balakot air-strikes.
Priyanka also sought to take the sting out of the BJP’s attempt to twist the definition of national security — by reminding the people that the true meaning of patriotism was “awareness to ask the right questions and demand answers.”
Her diffidence notwithstanding, her speech in Gandhinagar was good — considering that it was her first such attempt. Unlike her mother, and even her brother, she is comfortable speaking in Hindi. Her speeches will get better with time, acquire greater fluency and rhetorical flourishes.
But Priyanka’s bigger challenge is changing the fortunes of her party — both in UP and at the national level. In eastern UP alone, she faces an enormous challenge.
In the 2014 General Elections, the BJP got 42% of the votes, and 27 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats from the region.
In the 2017 assembly elections, the Congress vote share was a measly five per cent out of the 142 assembly seats — and it managed to win only one seat. At the national level, the Congress party won only 44 seats in the 2104 General Elections and came second in over 240 seats.
But that should be poor consolation because, barring a handful of seats, in the rest, the margin of defeat was over 10%.
Can Priyanka lead the way? Is she the beacon that the Congress has been hoping for? (Photo: Reuters)
Priyanka Gandhi took her time to make up her mind before taking the plunge. Though she was under pressure from the cadre to join the party — right from the time she first started managing her mother’s campaign in Amethi — Priyanka established that she was not going to bow to pressure.
In an interview for India Today in 1999, when I asked her about the possibility of joining politics, she said “I can’t decide, let’s wait and see. So far, I’ve resisted the pressure. I’ve seen both — the good and bad — from close quarters.”
It took her 20 years thence to make up her mind — but now that she has decided to take the plunge, there is no going back for her.
Though eastern UP will remain her priority, she is expected to campaign for her party candidates outside the state as well. In UP, she faces a formidable challenge, not just from the BJP, but the SP-BSP combine. The coming together of the two regional parties — and the social forces they represent — is viewed by many as the most likely reason to prevent the BJP from sweeping the state, like it did in 2014.
Priyanka Gandhi and the Congress are in an unenviable position in UP.
The dilemma before the Congress is whether it should prioritise preventing the BJP from winning, or should it focus on resuscitating the party?
Analysts say that Congress aggressively contesting in all the seats in UP could end up dividing the anti-BJP vote. Conversely, if it fails to put up a good show in the upcoming elections, it will continue to be a peripheral player in UP, and being squeezed out by the regional players.
UP, in many ways, is Priyanka Gandhi’s baptism by fire.
Two months is perhaps too short a time for her to affect a turnaround. There are those who believe that she will have a much greater impact in the assembly elections of 2022.
That's when the party will know whether she is the 'Brahmastra' that it has believed in all along.