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Can Priyanka Gandhi make a difference if she joins politics?

There was anticipation last week that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will take the plunge into active politics. But, she dismissed the reports as 'baseless rumours'. Can she really revive the party’s morale and fortunes? Here is a SWOT analysis by Sushil Aaron.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2014 13:03 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times

There was anticipation last week that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will take the plunge into active politics, after senior Congress leaders openly called for her to take on a bigger role in party affairs. But Ms Vadra quickly scotched speculation, dismissing them as ‘conjecture’ and ‘baseless rumours’. Many remain unconvinced, reckoning that she will take to politics at some stage.

Read | Party wants leadership role for Priyanka, says Congress

But how will she actually do? Can Priyanka really revive the party’s morale and fortunes? What are her strengths and weaknesses?

Here is a SWOT analysis in case she takes on a full time role in the future:

Strengths: Priyanka has formidable telegenic presence that can challenge Narendra Modi’s dominance in mass media. Modi created a larger than life image through deft use of online, TV and other campaign platforms. Priyanka is no slouch in this area and held her own on the campaign trail whenever she crossed swords with Modi.

Priyanka reminds many of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, which is an asset. The latter created the template for what a female Gandhi politician should be; deploying reserve and charm when needed while demonstrating strength and decisiveness. How Priyanka projects herself is speculative at this stage, but she appears more ready than Rahul for the cut and thrust of everyday political life, is comfortable with crowds and is more adept at handling the media.

And because she is good at sound bites, we may, in the future, see Modi, Arvind Kejriwal (assuming his revival) and Priyanka as the three big figures dominating Indian airwaves. The Congress is currently missing in the theatre of high politics – Priyanka can help get the party’s visibility back, especially when Parliament is not in session.

Read | Cong workers request Priyanka to actively participate in party affairs

Weaknesses: It’s not clear what her ideological and policy convictions are besides broad generalities. Sonia Gandhi had the National Advisory Council to turn to for advice but the depth of Rahul and Priyanka’s policy engagement is yet unclear. Congress’ future may be decided in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but the will need to restore its believability in Delhi first.

To that end, the Gandhis have to engage in the public sphere more actively and can no longer be seen as cogitating on India’s future from the confines of their Akbar Road bubble. Secrecy conveyed authority at one time but now it betrays insecurity. Being seen as more engaged with policy discourses is crucial for their own credibility and learning. Both the Gandhis will need to move the conversation beyond formulaic opposition and propose serious alternative prescriptions and approaches.

Read | Poll-battered Congress struggles for revival

Opportunities: There will be plenty as Modi’s government begins to realise that governing the country is a lot more challenging than fashioning an election win. India does not lack causes for oppositions to capitalise on. But the Congress has to not only address structural challenges within, but also needs to get its constituency right. The party’s natural ally is the broader Left collective in India, which is involved with rights of minorities and marginal groups and, importantly, leads a range of social movements contesting the effects of state-driven industrialisation including displacement, human rights abuses, weak labour rights and environmental degradation.

The Congress made a strategic error by cutting links with the CPI (M). While that alliance would not have guaranteed more seats, it would have tethered the grand old party to a more coherent left of centre position and given it more bandwidth in the countryside. The Congress tends to work either in isolation or have a competitive equation with the broad Left forces, which is a counterproductive strategy when confronting Modi’s regime. Priyanka and Rahul will need to fix the Congress-Left rupture to develop a coordinated anti-BJP constellation of forces.

Threats: Robert Vadra. While there are no suggestions that she was connected to her husband’s shady land deals, this will be challenging for Priyanka to navigate. Legal proceedings can be a distraction and well-timed leaks will test her composure. Also, negotiating her equation with Rahul can be awkward – even if they are close – as loyalists will gravitate to both poles. A moment may come when the party will openly express a preference for her. That transition would need to be managed without affording opportunity to exploit cracks.

Read | Talk of bigger role in party mere rumour, says Priyanka

The main challenge for the Gandhis is tackling middle class antipathy towards the dynasty. India’s youth, comprising millions who struggle to make a living, resent being ruled by those born into privilege. Having an Italian mother complicates matters and often lends a nasty edge to a narrative that declares them as not ‘one of us’.

The Gandhis are up against that sentiment in the cities, which is a difficult firewall to overcome. But as history works in strange ways, conferring on the Gandhis their burden of inheritance while generating new democratic forces, the family is still oddly in a position to shape the future of India’s liberal democracy.

Views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Aug 11, 2014 13:35 IST