The discovery of Priyanka Gandhi began in 1999 with your humble columnist. We were filming a day in the life of a politician, and almost stumbled on Priyanka, partly because the ‘real’ politician in the family, Sonia Gandhi, was inaccessible. With some support from the party’s then Uttar Pradesh in-charge, Sushilkumar Shinde, we convinced Priyanka to give us time. Frankly, we needn’t have worried. She was a naturally charismatic, made-for-television individual.
She hadn’t given an interview till then, but you wouldn’t have guessed that as she took us on a campaign tour of Amethi, and spoke about her family, politics and more. She was good-looking, youthful, bilingual, wore ethnic chic cotton saris, had a distinct resemblance to Indira and was at ease with the camera.
Ten years later, Priyanka is once again at her charming best, offering a smile and instant soundbites. If in 1999, she was handling her mother’s campaign, this time she has taken up the dual responsibility of Amethi and Rae Bareli for her brother and mother respectively. In 1999, Sonia’s foreign origin was the dominant issue, and Priyanka responded to the charges with a firmness that would have made her grandmother proud. Now, its Rahul’s future and the controversy over the ‘other Gandhi’, Varun, that has made the headlines. Once again, it’s Priyanka who has come up with the sharpest one-liners. She’s spoken with grace on her father’s assassination, even saying she has forgiven the killers.
Maybe its our near-fatal obsession with dynasty, but in the cynical world of the Mayawatis and the Jayalalithaas, Priyanka comes across as someone who speaks from both — the head and the heart, a rare quality in public life.
The only problem: Priyanka Gandhi isn’t quite a neta, nor is she really in public life. She isn’t contesting elections, she’s rarely seen or heard outside election time, and she never seems to step out of the family bastions of Amethi-Rae Bareli. Her decision to opt out is probably out of personal choice, but it also exposes the limitations of the Gandhi family, and indeed, the Congress, in the most politically crucial state.
Just press the pause button on a Priyanka speech, and the reality of UP’s landscape hits you hard. Priyanka’s grace, mannerisms, even saris, haven’t changed in ten years: what also hasn’t changed is the fact that the Congress remains confined to a tiny stretch in the Hindi heartland. In 1999, the Congress won ten seats in UP and polled a little less than 15 per cent of the total vote. In 2004, the Congress won just nine seats and polled a dismal 12 per cent of the vote. In the 2007 Assembly elections, the party won just 22 seats, and polled barely 10 per cent of the vote.
Unfortunately, for the Congress, 2009 doesn’t promise to be any different. Fighting the polls on its own, and not as Mulayam and Amar Singh’s ‘B’ team may have been a brave attempt aimed at restoring dwindling self-esteem, but it doesn’t yet offer the hope of more votes or seats. The Congress candidates in UP represent a strange mix: Samajwadi Party rebels like Raj Babbar, Beni Prasad Verma and Saleem Sherwani, tired leaders like Rita Bahuguna and ‘outsiders’ like cricketer-turned-neta Mohammed Azharuddin. The party may yet win eight to ten seats, but it hardly suggests any recovery on the ground in a state with 80 precious Lok Sabha seats.
The decline can be traced to the manner in which ‘Mandal’ and ‘mandir’ politics in the early 90s polarised UP like no other state. Others believe that Narasimha Rao’s decision to tie up with the BSP in the 1996 Assembly elections was the kiss of death, an acknowledgment that the Congress must play second fiddle to a rising caste army. While the failure to compete with aggressive caste and community identities aggravated the Congress crisis, the more permanent problem lies in the singular inability of its leadership to galvanise its rank and file organisationally.
In the 2007 assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi had shown some signs of making UP his ‘karmabhoomi’, doing roadshows and addressing rallies. But the fervour somehow didn’t last. It’s almost as if Mayawati’s remarkable victory in those elections forced a despairing Rahul and the Congress party into near-total submission. Sure, there have been the odd, much-publicised trips to Dalit homes in Bundelkhand, but it’s obvious that it needs more than just tokenism to challenge
Mayawati’s stranglehold over her core Dalit base.
It’s not as if this is an insurmountable task. There have been enough indications in recent months that the Dalit-Brahmin alliance that Mayawati stitched together in 2007 is beginning to weaken, that the support to criminals and the concentration of power in a handful of individuals is taking its toll. Mulayam Singh’s alliance with Kalyan Singh has also alienated his core base of Muslims, leaving them feeling vulnerable. Had the Congress rebuilt its organisation over the last five years, it might have had some hope of capitalising on the changing equations. That it’s the BJP, and not the Congress, which appears to have gained in the first two rounds in UP confirms the failure of the party to be seen as a ‘winnable’ alternative in the state.
To blame Rahul alone for failing to lead the Congress revival in UP maybe unfair: a general is often only as good as the team he leads, and the Congress team in UP has been woeful. To his credit, in election 2009, Rahul has shown himself to be a sincere and hardworking politician, qualities that may endear him to a new generation India.
But to be truly counted as a ‘national’ leader, Rahul needs to establish himself on his home turf that extends beyond Amethi. That will require staying the course through the tough times that lie ahead. And if Priyanka wants to also pitch in, then she will have to see politics as a serious commitment, not a family-centric flirtation.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network)