Right foot forward

Priyanka Gandhi arrives: The Gandhi daughter's entry shows 2019 polls are a direct battle between Sonia and Modi

People compare Priyanka with Indira Gandhi for her looks. But it is in fact Sonia Gandhi who learnt much more from Indira on how to plot a comeback. Can she pull this off?

 |  Right foot forward  |  6-minute read |   12-02-2019
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So, it was the mother of all road shows, by all accounts.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s much awaited political inauguration happened in Lucknow on January 11. She joined Twitter the same morning. By the end of the day, her follower count was touching nearly a lakh (that is more than Mayawati’s) without even tweeting.

The launch on the ground and in cyberspace was perfectly synchronised. Event managers and social media managers are obviously working in tandem.

In Lucknow, the scene was euphoric and the atmosphere electric along her route from the airport to the city. One would not have expected anything less. It would be unfair to compare it with the road show of Rahul Gandhi with Akhilesh Yadav before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

road-690_021219114231.jpgMiles to go? Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi during the road show in Lucknow. (Source: Reuters)

These are different times. The context is very different.

The question that can be asked, however, is — would the response have been so overwhelming in 2014, when the country was being swept by the Modi tsunami? Or even, in 2017, if she had led the Congress’ campaign in UP as Prashant Kishor, the election whiz kid, had apparently suggested then.

Counter-factual analysis is usually pointless. Hindsight is not always 20/20 until the outcome is known for certain. So, it is best to dwell in the present. It is undeniable that Priyanka’s entry has sent a new surge of ‘josh’ in the moribund Congress organisation that Rahul Gandhi had so far succeeded at resuscitating at best.

The pro-Congress media is ecstatic.

Some of them are even more enthusiastic than Priyanka’s own men in the pink ‘Priyanka Sena’.

But how far will over-the-top reportage help Priyanka and the Congress’ immediate cause? This would be interesting to watch.

Though Rahul Gandhi has been using Rafale as his main ammunition against Modi, Priyanka was the Congress’ cutting-edge combat aircraft kept on standby. Deploying her was akin to pressing the nuclear button — that could have been done only with the blessings of the commander-in-chief, Sonia Gandhi.

But having decided to use the most potent fire power, it would be difficult to restrict its ambit to select geographies of eastern Uttar Pradesh. The repercussions of pressing Priyanka into the battle are bound to spill over to other regions of the political turf.

First, by bringing Priyanka to the fore, the Congress is once again signalling to the Opposition its presumed numero uno status in any coalition. The message is — we have greater star appeal than all of you put together.

Therefore, by extension, a vote against is Modi is a vote for Congress.

How this would go down with its potential allies is a tough question to answer.

rahul_021219113955.jpgThat's where we have to be: Priyanka Gandhi's road show was a signal to the Opposition that Congress is the numero uno in any coalition. (Source: Reuters)

The only way the Congress can assert its claim as the natural lead in any alliance is by the strength of its numbers in the next Lok Sabha. But for that it would need to substantially increase its tally in Uttar Pradesh, which can come only at the cost of Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

One can argue that Priyanka will cut only the upper caste votes of the BJP, leaving the SP and BSP constituencies untouched. Apart from requiring supernatural surgical precision to carry out such an operation, it is highly unlikely that Mayawati or Akhilesh Yadav will allow Priyanka to steal the thunder on their home turf.

Lok Sabha elections will come and go. But the bread and butter of these regional leaders will remain their home state — and they will not hand it over on a platter to such political royalty.

Another option the Congress has for augmenting its position is to use Priyanka in other states too. But that will dilute her focus in Uttar Pradesh, reducing her status again to that of a guest artist making brief appearances before elections.

While some, like Chandrababu Naidu and Stalin, may not mind her campaigning in their states, the likes of Mamata Banerjee may not appreciate it. And the bigger risk that Congress strategists will have to grapple with is chances of her overshadowing Rahul Gandhi in the bargain.

mamata-690_021219113837.jpgHow wide is that door? Mamata Banerjee may not greatly appreciate Priyanka Gandhi's entry into West Bengal. (Source: PTI)

Having tested the waters in Lucknow, it is a matter of time before Priyanka makes her foray into Varanasi.

Perhaps she will wait till the momentum builds up as the Congress cannot afford a flop show — but confronting the Gir lion, in his adopted den, is something she has to do sooner rather than later. Without doubt, the party and all its supporters, visible and those behind the scenes, will ensure that it is an even bigger spectacle than what was on display in Lucknow.

But make no mistake — there was no dearth of road shows in Varanasi in 2014 and again in 2017, when psephologists and political pundits predicted the ground had shifted away from Modi. However, on both occasions, it was the experts who were blown off their feet when the results were declared.

If Priyanka manages to turn the Congress’ fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, it will be through charisma and chemistry rather than arithmetic and analytics. And she and her backroom strategists know that. 

Hence, much will depend on how much momentum her campaign picks up in the coming days.

If she, indeed, takes to the political waters like a duck as her grandmother Indira Gandhi did, it can change the entire dynamics of the game.

Going by the utterances of some senior Congress leaders, such as Kapil Sibal and Rahul Gandhi, it would appear that they are taking it for granted that the party will form or lead the next government. This could be bravado or the Congress’ pristine arrogance seeping through.

However, that should make other aspirants for the PM’s post more wary. It is unlikely they will allow the Congress more space being overawed by Priyanka’s arrival.

So, it will have to be a very careful balancing act for the Congress, both within the party (between Rahul and Priyanka) and outside vis-à-vis potential partners.

One person who will be watching how the developments pan out is Sonia Gandhi.

The year 2019 is arguably the most important election of her life — it can be safely assumed that Sonia is planning all the moves with the help of some of her trusted retainers. People may compare Priyanka with Indira for her looks.

But it is Sonia who seems to have learnt much more from Indira on how to plot a comeback.

As a mother, a dream outcome for her would be to see Rahul as Prime Minister and Priyanka in-charge of the party.

Something only she can enforce in the event of a groundswell for Priyanka as the PM within the party and from associates.

son-690_021219113627.jpgSonia Gandhi has learnt a lot from Indira Gandhi about how to make political comebacks. (Source: Twitter)

If that happens, Sonia will vie with her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, for the top spot among the shrewdest politicians independent India has seen till date.

Should the Gandhis manage to trump all others and return with UPA 3.0, we would know dynastic politics is alive, kicking and here to stay in India.

Modi’s idea of a Congress-mukt Bharat has to wait.

Also read: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and the perils of dynasty

Writer

Sandip Ghose Sandip Ghose @sandipghose

Sandip Ghose is a writer and blogger on current affairs. Views expressed are personal and does not reflect those of his employer

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