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Could Priyanka's success become Rahul's problem?

Over the last three weeks, after she began speaking out, Priyanka has dominated the front pages and captivated the television screen. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi has vanished into an inside story or the speed news section. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: May 13, 2014 23:01 IST
Karan Thapar

Has Priyanka Gandhi overshadowed her brother and stolen the limelight? There are few in the media who wouldn’t say yes. There are few outside who would say no. This was, I suspect, deliberate. And it was necessary.

Over the last three weeks, after she began speaking out, Priyanka has dominated the front pages and captivated the television screen. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi has vanished into an inside story or the speed news section. Whilst we’re constantly told what she’s doing, his campaign is virtually ignored.

The press claims Priyanka reminds them of Indira Gandhi. Most people accept that. When she walks bare foot on hot sand they recognise her grit and determination. When she speaks her eyes sparkle. She doesn’t hesitate to show anger but her laughter is equally spontaneous. Consequently, Priyanka attracts attention. Rahul leaves people indifferent if not cold.

Here’s a telling example. Rahul’s Times Now interview was an unmitigated disaster. Whatever interviews he’s done thereafter have sunk without trace. In contrast, Priyanka’s soundbites, which last a minute or two, set the agenda and push the BJP onto the defensive. She knows how to wound and strike. Rahul doesn’t.

Politics, they say, is the art of communication. The key is to convince people you have the answers. Priyanka is a natural-born communicator. People listen to her. Rahul struggles but can’t find the right words. Few remember what he’s said.

So it’s not surprising two questions have started to dominate TV discussions: Is Priyanka a more effective campaigner? Has the Congress made a mistake not giving her a bigger role? Whatever the answers, the fact that these questions are asked has undermined Rahul’s status and stature.

The Congress sees Rahul as Sonia Gandhi’s successor and the next president of the party. The press and popular opinion believe Priyanka would be better. This is the point at which Priyanka’s popularity and success could become a problem, even if her party and family are yet to accept it.

I have no doubt Priyanka deliberately and consciously enhanced her role. She did it because Rahul was unable to counter Modi on his own. And it happened with the encouragement of her mother, sibling and close advisors. It was, in other words, strategy. Not fortuitous accident.

However, if the Congress loses badly, as the polls suggest it will, the rank and file are bound to demand an increased and extended role for Priyanka. They could see the choice confronting them in stark and telling terms: to continue under Rahul and head steadily for oblivion or embrace Priyanka as their new leader and give themselves a second chance.

It’s probably too late to turn the tide in this election. But Priyanka’s performance has, unintendedly, suggested an alternative for the future when — and I’m not saying if — the Congress crashes to defeat.

Priyanka stepped in to provide a safety net, break the free fall and ensure the final result was not as bad as some feared. She’s done it so successfully that many might prefer her as a permanent alternative rather than an emergency measure.

No doubt Priyanka will want to return to being a wife and mother but it may not be as easy as she thinks. Not just the Congress but its supporters have seen how critical she is to reviving its fortunes. Won’t they demand she takes on the more difficult task if the elections batter the party?

I think we’re going to see a lot more of Priyanka and I, for one, welcome it.

The views expressed by the author are personal

Read:Congress will get the numbers: Rahul