Priyanka Gandhi ended years of “will she, won’t she” suspense to finally take up the challenging task of reviving Congress fortunes in the barren turf of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
The formal announcement of her appointment as general secretary (in-charge of east UP) by her brother Rahul Gandhi, caught senior Congress leaders unawares and set off heated speculation
of the trigger behind her long awaited formal plunge into politics and the possible impact in UP, which had looked like a straight fight between BJP and the SP-BSP combine.
The role of poll management of a politically volatile region where caste and religion often shape voting preferences and which also includes PM Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi and UP CM Yogi Adityanath’s home turf of Gorakhpur, seemed intended to project a serious bid to emerge as the third pole in the state.
Rahul Gandhi’s reaction indicated as much when the Congress chief said the party will play on the “front foot” in UP even as he sought to convey that the decision is not a hostile move against SP and BSP. He made it clear that giving Priyanka charge of eastern UP and Jyotiraditya Scindia that of west UP are not temporary moves. “Now, Congress will have its own CM in UP,” he said.
The appointments are a novel experiment by Congress to split UP into two regions, with separate monitors. There is now a likelihood of two state chiefs. The development immediately spurred ongoing speculation whether Priyanka will replace mother Sonia at Rae Bareli or perhaps contest separately from Sultanpur though Rahul left the issue open, saying it will be his sister’s call.
An early read of the fallout of a credible Congress challenge—if it develops—seemed to be that a genuine three cornered contest should aid BJP that was faced with regional biggies SP and BSP joining hands. Congress, like SP and BSP, will compete for Muslim votes. At the same time, a Priyanka-aided revival of Congress would appeal to Brahmins which could hurt saffron prospects. It is also possible that upper castes unhappy with saffron politics, but chary of SP-BSP, now have a third option, one that will weaken BJP’s main challengers.
That this will be baptism by fire for Priyanka, currently in the US and expected to take charge of her assignment in first week of February, is evident from the fact that Congress has declined in its one-time stronghold with 80 Lok Sabha seats post-Mandal and Mandir politics, touching a nadir in 2014. While it could win only two seats in the last LS polls, it won just seven in the 403-member assembly in 2017.
Pitching Priyanka into the UP “dangal”, where regional power houses BSP and SP have left Congress out of an anti-BJP alliance, seems a serious gamble. It shows a willingness to go full throttle, its fallout for the “secular” camp unity notwithstanding. The stakes of moving Priyanka to centrestage are too high for the move to be a feint, it was felt. If the challenge gathers steam, Congress may be able to work out an informal deal with SP-BSP for “friendly” fights in some seats.
For her political debut, the choice of eastern UP is interesting. The sprawling pocket has strong presence of Brahmins and Muslims — demographics that Congress hopes would drift to its fold in a favourable campaign. It appears the party’s best hope in the otherwise bleak landscape.
His decision also marked Rahul’s apparent squeamishness over being seen as a “dynast”: a tag which was so much at odds with his professed aim to democratise Congress, and signalled a resolve to brazen out the probe facing Priyanka’s controversial spouse Robert. The appointment comes when the probes seemed to be closing in on Vadra’s alleged role in scams. She has previously said she will not be “cowed down” by the BJP government and will bank on a charismatic presence that attracts media attention.
At the same time, party insiders conceded, there is a possibility of a dual centre of power emerging over time even though Rahul and Priyanka are seen to enjoy an extraordinary synergy, with the sister seen as a confidante and supporter of her older brother. At the same time, she will be more than just a general secretary and formalise the influence she has wielded from behind the scene. Her debut can also be read as an assertion of her claim to her political legacy. A political role for Priyanka has often been discussed.
As Sonia Gandhi began to mull succession in UPA-2, there was pressure that the legatee be her daughter who bore resemblance to Congress mascot Indira Gandhi and was seen to have her political spark.
After Sonia made it clear that Rahul will hold the baton, the 2014 rout and continuing slide over four years created uncertainty, with repeated demands from sections that Priyanka be brought in. Former AICC general secretary in-charge of organisation, Janardan Dwivedi, had already touched off a furore by claiming that father Rajiv Gandhi had confided in him that Priyanka was a “natural”.
Though Sonia managed to stub the renewed clamour, Priyanka’s entry amid Congress decline would inevitably have drawn comparisons with Rahul, and resulted in confusion in the ranks.
Also, with Congress sensing revival, insiders felt introducing an “X-factor” would add to the momentum nationally and could make a crucial difference. There is a strong possibility that Congress may press her into campaigning in states where it has a direct face off with BJP.
But one thing is clear: Success or failure, there is no going back for her after formally joining politics following nearly a decade of equivocation.