In 1999, we experienced a 'television moment'. We were covering Sonia Gandhi's Amethi campaign when we happened to meet her daughter, Priyanka. For the next several hours, Priyanka took us on a whirlwind tour across the constituency. There were fewer camera crews then, so there wasn't a mad scramble for sound bites. Priyanka was made for television: attractive, charming and spontaneous. She even had lunch with us under a banyan tree, spoke at length on her family legacy, and clearly revelled in the public glare. It was probably her first ever TV interaction, but she didn't miss a beat. We were, well, bowled over.
Thirteen years later, little seems to have changed. She still offers an infectious smile, wears colourful designer khadi saris, relates with great warmth to the crowds, and willingly speaks to the camera. The travelling media (now more a circus) still hangs onto her every word, totally enchanted by her striking presence. And the question asked is no different to what we kept asking all those years ago: when is Priyanka joining politics? Her answer too is similar: back then, she said she was only campaigning for her mother, now she says her involvement is limited to helping her brother, Rahul. And yet, we persist, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, one day she will, like the eternally bashful bride, finally say, 'yes!'.
What does this Priyanka mania suggest? Firstly, it reveals the desperate shortage of telegenic personalities in public life. Faced with a tired and geriatric political class, many of whom are well past their sell-by date, Priyanka clearly stands out. The fact that she is rarely seen, emerging only at election time perhaps enhances her mystique. She is elusive for much of the year, occasionally being seen at a fashion show or Page 3 event. Elections is when she is catapulted from Page 3 to Page 1 news.
There is also, whether we will willingly admit it or not, an abiding interest in home-spun dynasties (or should we say 'royalty'). The fact that Priyanka does have a marked resemblance to her grandmother, both in style and attire, is enough to draw parallels with the past. Indira Gandhi may have been a politically polarising figure, but is also perhaps the most- recognisable politician of post-Independence India. A survey done on the occasion of the 60th year of Indian Independence only confirmed, especially in rural areas, that the one leader most Indians could readily identify was Indira amma.
There is also the brother-sister comparison. While Rahul Gandhi's political style is seen as a mix of NGO activism and corporate management, Priyanka appears the more touchy-feely kind of individual that the aam aadmi can easily relate to. Certainly, Congress workers who seem to find Rahul distant and unapproachable, appear to identify with Priyanka's 'people-friendly' approach. The media, too, which finds it difficult to interact with Rahul, draws comforting contrasts with Priyanka's accessibility.
And yet, the desire to see Priyanka enter public life fails to recognise certain realities of contemporary politics. Yes, Priyanka is charismatic, but the traditional definitions of charisma are also changing. A Nitish Kumar, for example, may lack a Lalu Prasad's communication skills. But for many Biharis, a soft-spoken Kumar today embodies a new-age role model politician who places diligence above flamboyance. A decade ago, a Sheila Dikshit, with her crumpled saris and bedraggled hair, might have seemed ill-suited to an era of television politics. Yet, she has now become Delhi's favourite 'Dadi amma', a grandmother-like figure we feel affectionate towards. Charisma is now tested at the altar of good governance where commitment to administrative rigour matters more than histrionics.
Moreover, the political landscape of Uttar Pradesh, in particular, has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Old-timers may look at Priyanka and wistfully recall the Indira phenomenon, but the fact is that a majority of UP has grown up in a post-Indira, post-Congress generation. The goodwill for an Indira and the Gandhi-Nehru parivar must be measured against the reality of the new social forces that have swept across the state in the last 20 years. Even in the Amethi-Rae Bareli-Sultanpur belt — considered the last family bastion in the state — the Congress won only seven of the 15 Vidhan Sabha seats in the 2007 elections. The political zamindari culture of UP is ending, there can be no sense of entitlement any longer simply on surnames.
In the hankering for Priyanka, there is also a suggestion that Rahul is not upto it. That Rahul has chosen not to open up to the media perhaps makes him even more vulnerable to critics who see him as a 'Babua' who is still to evolve into political manhood. And yet, the fact is, Rahul Gandhi in the last few months has taken the risk of plunging himself into the akhara of UP politics, addressing more than 130 rallies in the last three months alone. It suggests a certain evolution into a mass politician who is no longer cottonwooled and hiding behind the forbidding gates of power. By contrast, Priyanka has barely dipped her toes into UP's rough political waters: clever soundbites are not enough to offer a realistic challenge to the likes of Mayawati and Mulayam.
Maybe that's how Priyanka wants it to be. In all these years, have we ever considered that maybe she doesn't want to be a 24x7 politician? That maybe all she really wants is to be a good mother with interests outside politics? A few months ago, she worked on a fine coffee table book on tigers. Who knows, maybe she wants to be a wildlife photographer instead of a politician. Or is it that we just can't accept the fact that there may be someone in India's first political family who sees a life for herself outside politics?
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.