April 18, 2019
A look at a complicated legacy and a possible game changer in India’s political scene.
Earnest political activists and regular folk alike will tell you the media fascination with Priyanka Gandhi, 47, is about exotica and dynasty.
But when it comes to the latest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family to enter politics, they may even be right.
But there’s no denying the mass appeal, albeit diminishing over the past decade, of India’s most true-blue political dynasty.
Jawahar Lal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi all served as Prime Ministers of India.
Rajiv’s widow Sonia Gandhi was the longest-serving president of the Congress Party till she handed over the baton to her son, Rahul Gandhi.
And his younger sister, Priyanka, whom he inducted into the party as general secretary in January this year, epitomises the dynasty in all its courage and foibles, sacrifices and sense of entitlement.
Crucially, for a country and society that sets great store by family, she has never stepped back from backing her kin when push has come to shove.
For close to two decades before she formally entered politics, she had been managing her mother’s and brother’s campaigns in their parliamentary constituencies in the state of Uttar Pradesh which sends a massive 80 lawmakers to the Indian Parliament (out of a total of 543).
Routinely described as family fiefdoms, Congress activists in the constituencies flocked to her even when she held no formal position in the party and was not even in active politics.
But then she was doing her bit for the family.
That she bears a striking resemblance – and accentuates it by the way she carries herself and her mannerisms – with her grandmother Indira Gandhi, who is still venerated by many 35 years after her assassination, helps. A lot.
As does the fact that unlike her Italian-born mother’s stilted Hindi and her elder brother’s less-than-perfect command over the most widely spoken language in India, Priyanka is word perfect. Complete with local idiom and cultural context.
She wasn’t, however, always so at ease in a public role.
Those who have known and interacted with her as a young woman growing up in New Delhi while attending a prominent public school and later college in Delhi University describe her as a reserved, even painfully shy girl.
That she would have led a highly protected life given her traumatic childhood – her grandmother was assassinated when she was 11, her father when she was in her 18th year – is natural.
The close familial bonds of the current generation of Nehru-Gandhis have, in that sense, been forged amid great tragedy.
Her complete commitment to family also came through when her businessman husband Robert Vadra, whom she met when at university and married soon after, was made the target of what she insists is a ‘political vendetta’.
Unkind gossip in Delhi high society had said of the match that she had married the first boy she met.
But not only is she standing by her man, as it were, but is being absolutely in-your-face about it.
Vadra has been accused by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of using his access to the Congress’ first family during 2004-14 when it was in power to get sweetheart deals from various state governments that grew his hospitality and real estate business exponentially.
He is currently being questioned as what could be described as a person of interest in multiple graft cases by economic offences investigating agencies.
Priyanka, though, has defended him vociferously and has taken to dropping him off and picking him from the offices of the investigative agencies whenever he has been summoned for questioning.
Her political nous was on display as she taunted the current regime for running a ‘slander campaign’ against her husband without formally charging him.
Then there was her epic brush-off of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2014 election campaign, which many felt perfectly symbolised both her intense familial pride and hubris.
Modi, in the middle of a nasty campaign by all sides, had in a conciliatory gesture during a television interview said: “Priyanka is like my daughter.”
Bristling, she made it a point to retort: “I am Rajiv Gandhi’s daughter.”
Now, as India’s ongoing seven-phase election enters a decisive moment, there is a lot of talk that Priyanka may be fielded as the Congress candidate against Modi from his Varanasi seat in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
If that happens, it may not be enough to defeat him but it will certainly restrict his ability campaign elsewhere on the assumption that his seat is sown-up.
That kind of sums up Priyanka’s impact on the Indian political scene.
She has realised that it will be an uphill battle for the Congress, which slumped to its worst-ever tally of 44 seats in Parliament in the 2014 election.
But Priyanka’s charisma and connect, especially with women and rural voters, will gain for the party much-needed traction in the face of a well-oiled BJP party machine.
She may also help the Congress set the narrative to an extent, which has over the past five years been dominated by Modi-led BJP.
How many seats she will help the Congress win remains uncertain but its rank-and-file is clearly enthused by her formal entry into politics.
So, Priyanka has for now slipped quite effortlessly into the role of star campaigner for the party.
She has also done enough over the past four months to let the Indian people know she is in it for the long haul, supporting her elder brother’s attempts to breathe life into a moribund party organisation in large parts of the country.
He is after, after all, family.