If the Congress campaign suddenly seems to have shifted to a more combative mode, it has one woman to thank and her name is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
After a month of a wishy-washy, hand-wringing, limp-salad of a campaign, the Priyanka roadshow has begun and, no surprise, it’s taken a woman to show the boys how to fight.
Priyanka’s pitch is limited to Rae Bareli and Amethi. She moved swiftly to scotch rumours that the party had wanted her to stand against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, in Varanasi. No one would stop her from contesting if she had wanted to, she said. But no, she didn’t.
Yet, the media frenzy has begun. Hours after the Congress picked MLA Ajay Rai to stand against Modi, Priyanka met Rai to give him a ‘pep talk’ — and her mobile number. Earlier, her remarks about her cousin, Varun — he has ‘strayed from the right path’ — invited a response from Varun’s mum: “Voters will decide who has strayed”. It was an innocuous enough exchange that the media termed, with typical hyperbole, a ‘war of words’.
Speculation about Priyanka’s political intentions has dogged her ever since her mother, Sonia Gandhi entered active politics in 1998. In 1999, Priyanka campaigned in Rae Bareli for family friend Satish Sharma against her uncle, the BJP’s Arun Nehru. Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai recounts running into her during Sonia’s 1999 Amethi campaign. She was “made for television”, he wrote in a 2012 column. “We were, well, bowled over.”
I saw Priyanka campaign in the 2009 election and she is a natural. Dressed in understated handloom saris, she had no inhibition in hugging old people and babies. In her speeches, in an easy Hindi, she rarely raised her voice, smiling and nodding her head at her audience, as if sharing a private joke.
That Priyanka is in evidence this year too. Still telegenic, still charismatic, still a news magnet. In a made-by-TV political era, Priyanka’s appeal is easy to understand. Her unaffected style is easy on the eye (and, more crucially, ear). Moreover, Indians love an enigma and Priyanka remains guarded about her private life, revealing only tiny nuggets — she bakes, she has studied Buddhism and so on. “I like my ordinary life,” she told Sheela Reddy of Outlook in 2009. Who is this person who has turned her back to fame? We don’t know, but we’re fascinated by it. And finally, there is no nice way to say this, but compared to the geeky earnestness of her brother, Priyanka is a star.
In the decade or so since he’s chosen to be in public life, Rahul has played the reluctant politician. If there is a leadership vacuum into which Modi is neatly stepping, then the Congress has only itself to blame. Rahul has, until this campaign, fobbed off interviews, (can you be in public life and not speak to the Press?), refused to take on public roles (a ministry-ship might have sexed up his resume) and revealed little about how he thinks.
The difference between 2009 and 2014 lies in Priyanka’s chink, her husband Robert Vadra. Perhaps, aware of this, she took the offensive, saying the ‘personal’ attack on him by Modi has hurt her terribly. Of course she is wrong. An allegedly dodgy land deal cannot be a personal matter. But in addressing the issue head-on, she has wrested a strategic advantage.
The Congress has spent much of this campaign allowing Modi to lead its tempo. Already allies are talking about possible alternatives to head the NDA as the Congress stares at the next few years in opposition. It took just one question from Priyanka — what about Snoopgate — to send the BJP bleating about ‘personal’ attacks and for one brief moment, the roles were reversed.
Priyanka’s belated entry will not stop a likely UPA defeat, but you have to credit her with putting up a fight. And as for that perennial question: Will she? Well, we’ll have to wait for the next election to find out.