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Monday, Dec 09, 2019

OPINION | Priyanka Gandhi breaks law of Indian dynastic politics, writes Shekhar Gupta

Instead of moving quietly into Rae Bareli and claiming the goodwill her mother and grandmother have built over five decades, Priyanka Gandhi has taken over the party’s campaign in the most challenging political geography for it in all of India.

columns Updated: Jan 24, 2019 07:55 IST
Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar Gupta
Priyanka Gandhi was appointed  general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh (East).
Priyanka Gandhi was appointed general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh (East).(PTI)

Usually, there isn’t much of a story to prominent politicians’ children joining politics. It’s an inevitability. Over the last four decades of dynasty-fication, Indian leaders have converted their constituencies into “riasats” (estates) and anointed themselves the new maharajas.

Succession, then, follows naturally. So why the excitement over Priyanka Gandhi now? She is only doing what she had always been expected to. What’s the story in the inevitable except the timing?

Now think harder.

There is also another, equally important “usual” to dynasty politics. Any offspring is given a convenient and safe launch-pad in the political principality’s pocket borough and then nurtured along to take over. From Indira Gandhi beginning comfortably with Rajya Sabha to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in Rae Bareli-Amethi, to Jyotiraditya Scindia in Gwalior-Guna, Deepender Hooda in Rohtak, Supriya Sule in Baramati to Ashok Chavan, Milind Deora and practically anybody new-gen within the United Progressive Alliance has been gifted a soft launch.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) can’t feel smug either.

The Yadav families in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have their own princely enclaves, respectively. All the new kids, of Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, Maneka Gandhi, Prem Kumar Dhumal, Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde, Purno Sangma, Ram Vilas Paswan and even others such as Piyush Goyal owe their political birth to some kind of “assisted” delivery.

No new dynast, whether child, child-in-law or widow that I can remember, has yet been denied an easy pass. You can’t afford to see your child and successor lose. Risks are for the foot-soldiers, or political wet-nurses.

This is the law of Indian dynastic politics Priyanka Gandhi has broken. Instead of moving quietly into Rae Bareli (even if she were to take it later) and claiming the goodwill her mother and grandmother have built over five decades, she has taken over the party’s campaign in the most challenging political geography for it in all of India. Congress has been dead for long in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Even its mummies or fossils are hard to find.

Further, it is the home of Yogi Adityanath, includes Narendra Modi’s much-pampered Varanasi. Even under Gandhi, how likely is Congress party’s revival here? The truthful answer: nearly zero. This underlines what is different about Gandhi’s formal entry into politics. Her choice of the challenge, and the timing underline a go-for-broke audacity rare among our risk-averse dynasties.

We don’t know enough about her to say what impact her entry would have on the party. Will she be the first among the equals, which is 13 general secretaries of the party, or president Rahul Gandhi’s de facto no. 2, as tradition would demand? Or, can she surprise everybody by focusing on her charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh while Jyotiraditya Scindia picks up the pieces in the polarised west?

Here is what we know about her. She, more than Rahul, has rootedness, focus and a sense of destiny. You can dismiss it as merely the chip on a mere royalty’s shoulder, if you so wish. But play that short clip as she walked out of the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting in the summer of 2004 after her mother announced she wasn’t accepting the post of prime minister. Gandhi said, paraphrased, that sacrifice, physical risk and the burden of governing India, was the family’s responsibility.

It was spoken with a curious mix of pain, helplessness and also pride bordering on dynastic entitlement if not vanity. She is more her reluctant-politician father’s child than the grandmother she physically so resembles. She has spent years in deep Buddhist training and meditation to rid herself of the pain and anger of his cruel assassination, and ambition for power. This had enabled her to duck a greedy party’s pressures and prayers and keep clear of politics.

We don’t know what changed it now. But now that she is there, she is not the type to step into anybody’s warm shoes or chappals. She’s in it for a fight. It can revive her party, or leave her stranded in the “dal-dal” (sounds better in Hindi than the English quicksands) of eastern UP politics and finish the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty with no other to fall back on. For her personally, the move is comparable with Indira Gandhi breaking up the Congress in 1969, 50 years ago. To that extent it is out of her fighter grandmother’s book, not her hesitant father’s.

That’s why we say that Priyanka’s is a go-for-broke plunge.


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