In the late summer of 1999, a 27-year-old Priyanka Gandhi was in Amethi to campaign for her mother and the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi who was contesting her first Lok Sabha election. During a media interaction, a reporter asked Priyanka what she thought of the opposition attack on her mother’s foreign origins. Reaching out to the journalist, Priyanka extended her hand and asked, Do you think I have foreign blood in my veins?
That was perhaps the first sign of the politically savvy mind the Congress is relying on two decades later to revive its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends 80 members to the 543-strong Lok Sabha, more than any other state. In 2014, the Congress took just two seats in UP, both won by the members of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Sonia in Rae Bareli and Rahul in Amethi.
Priyanka’s entry into formal politics, as eastern UP in-charge, has not only breathed new life into the moribund Congress in the state, but also suddenly changed the electoral landscape of 2019. UP, which often determines who forms the government in Delhi, is likely to see a three-cornered contest with the Priyanka-led Congress emerging as the third force besides the BJP and the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. She is a game-changer, says former Union minister Jitin Prasada. There is a visible resurgence among Congress workers. The mood in the party is certainly upbeat, with many even demanding that she contest the general election from Varanasi, directly challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his own constituency.
The unprecedented enthusiasm of Congress workers for Priyanka, who till now has remained untested in electoral politics, is not entirely misplaced. In 1999, Arun NehruRajiv Gandhi’s cousin and also a member of his cabinetcontested the general election against Sonia on a BJP ticket, following a bitter parting with the Congress. Priyanka addressed just one meeting, telling the crowd with electrifying effect: How did you let a man who committed treachery with my family in this area? Someone who, despite being in the Congress, joined hands with communal forces and stabbed his brother in the back? It was the end of Arun Nehru’s political career.
Two decades later, it will be a baptism by fire for Priyanka. As in-charge of UP East, she’ll be challenging the combined might of Prime Minister Modi and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, whose bastion Gorakhpur also falls in eastern UP. There is a reason why Priyankaa graduate in psychology from Delhi’s Jesus & Mary Collegehas been given charge of this region just 100 days before the election. Eastern UP, broadly consisting of Awadh, Purvanchal and Lower Doab, has 40 Lok Sabha seats. In 2009, when the Congress won 21 seats, its highest tally since 1984, 18 came from this region. Even at its weakest in 2014, the party had a 17.8 per cent vote share in Awadh.
The region also has a large upper-caste populationmainly Brahminsa vote base the Congress is hoping to snatch from the BJP with Priyanka’s appeal. There will be an effort to highlight her Hindu identity to attract the vote of the Brahmin community, which forms 13 per cent of the population and is reportedly unhappy with the BJP for various reasonsfrom the Modi government’s decision to overturn the Supreme Court verdict diluting the provisions in the SC/ST Act to the growing influence of the Thakurs in the Yogi administration. Priyanka is likely to flag off her political innings on February 4, after taking a holy dip in the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela along with brother Rahul. These upper-caste voters are unhappy with the saffron party but may not be willing to support the SP-BSP alliance, primarily a combination of backward and Dalit votes, says a Congress Rajya Sabha MP. Backward classes make up nearly 40 per cent of UP’s population while Dalits account for 22 per cent.
An analysis by CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) of its election data shows that the Congress’s superlative performance in 2009 was a result of the vote share it gained since the 2007 state election among the Kurmis, other upper castes, Brahmins, Muslims, non-Jatav SCs and Jats. In 2014, the Congress lost upper-caste and Kurmi votes to the BJP and Muslim votes to the SP. But it remained the second choice for Brahmins and non-Thakur upper-castes. Now, Priyanka needs to win back the support of the Kurmis, Brahmins and non-Thakur upper castes.
While traders and businessmen played a key role in the BJP’s 2014 and 2017 successes, many of them are unhappy with the party because of demonetisation and the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The disconnect with farmers is another factor the Congress hopes to exploit, with Rahul making the agrarian crisis one of the core themes of his poll campaign against the Modi government. UP farmers are particularly unhappy with the Yogi government for its crackdown on slaughterhouses, as government-run ones have failed to tackle the increasing number of unproductive cows, not only adding to the farmers’ financial burden but also resulting in destruction of their crops.
Caste calculations apart, Priyanka, at 47, will also have a direct appeal among youth and women. In the 2014 election, the BJP benefitted a great deal from the support of young voters51 per cent voters in the 18-22 age group voted for the party. The importance of the women’s vote is also evident from the fact that in the past two assembly elections the female turnout has been higher than the male turnout.
Despite the enthusiasm among Congress workers, Rahul is not too hopeful of a significant electoral dividend in the coming election. That’s the reason why he keeps insisting that Priyanka’s appointment is not a short-term strategy but the beginning of a grand revival plan that will be tested in the 2022 UP election. The timing of her entrya month after the Congress won the assembly elections in three heartland stateswas a carefully planned one. Without a victory, Priyanka’s entry would have been seen as evidence of Rahul’s weakness. Instead, the Congress president has now won three elections, engages on social media far more than Modi, who has a larger following, and his criticism of the Rafale deal has generated some traction, as indicated by the INDIA TODAY Mood of the Nation poll. Now the Nehru-Gandhi family has the perfect opportunity to launch a third member into the organisational structure of the party from a position of strength.
Though the January 23 announcement merely formalised Priyanka’s role in the party, she had always remained the political counsellor to her mother and brother. Her public participation in politics remained limited to the family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, but she has been involveddirectly or indirectlyin several major Congress decisions. In December 2018, she was part of several closed-door meetings to help Rahul decide the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Earlier, in 2017, it was Priyanka who finally swung the Congress-SP alliance for the UP assembly poll. She knows how to connect with different individuals and irrespective of their stature and priorities present a convincing scenario to each one of them, says a political strategist. On her effective management of protocol details, a senior Congress leader says: She never summons any leader, big or small, to her home. She either drives down herself or meets them at the residence of her brother or mother.
The Priyanka card was also necessitated by the Congress decision to go solo in UP. Many grassroots Congress leaders had told Rahul that playing junior partner with 10 Lok Sabha seats in the SP-BSP alliance would be fatal for the party. That’s why the Congress stayed away from the alliance even as Rahul continued to pitch for a united opposition against the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2019 nationally. But to lead an effective campaign in UP, the party needed a strong leader. Priyanka fit the bill perfectly. What sets her apart from the other members of her family is that she doesn’t carry the baggage of the past and can reach out to even those with whom the family has fallen out. Also, unlike Rahul, she keeps in touch with most leaders through SMS or on the phone. In UP, she kept in touch with even those leaders who did not have a good rapport with Sonia and Rahul, and got them on board, says a Congress general secretary. She had no qualms in admitting that her excellent Hindi diction and vocabulary are a result of personal tutoring by Teji Bachchan, mother of the superstar Amitabh Bachchan (before the latter’s mysterious falling out with the family). In 2013, her son Raihan lit the funeral pyre of Arun Nehru, whom she’d dubbed a traitor in 1999. Insiders say her Buddhist leanings and Vipassana practice have helped her evolve not only as an individual but also as a politician who always keeps the larger picture in mind.
What makes Priyanka a formidable force is her instant and natural connect with the masses, a quality she arguably shares with Modi. She reminds many Congress supporters of her grandmother both for her charisma and the stunning likeness, something they hope to cash in on to counter Modi. Priyanka also speaks fluent Hindi, often laced with Awadhi inflections.
She is constantly compared to her brother Rahul but most analysts feel she is the more natural and outgoing of the two. However, Priyanka has always been careful not to upstage Rahul in public life and is more than willing to share her grandmother’s legacy with him. His understanding of politics is really very good, much better than he is given credit for. And that I think comes from my grandmother, she has said.
A natural understanding of politics may be one of the many advantages of being born to an illustrious political family, but Priyanka’s dynast status will also be a tool in the hands of the BJP to pit her privileged background against the humble origins of its two mascots in UP, PM Modi and CM Yogi. Social media is already abuzz with digital campaigners snarking that in the Congress, the family is the party while in the BJP, the party is the family.
Though political rivals have spared her personal attacks so far, her formal entry into politics has opened the floodgates. BJP MP Subramanian Swamy was at his vicious best when he announced, She has a disorder of bipolarity. She beats up people. Her ailment does not make her fit to lead a public life. The public should know when she is likely to lose mental balance. BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya said that the dearth of strong leaders had made the Congress pull out chocolatey faces. Bihar minister Vinod Narayan Jha said votes could not be won on the basis of beautiful faces. He also pointed out that she was the wife of Robert Vadra, accused in several corruption cases. That baggage may indeed weigh down Priyanka. Her businessman husband, a friend from schooldays whom Priyanka married in a Hindu ceremony at her mother’s home on 10, Janpath, in 1997, faces probes by the CBI and ED in nearly two dozen cases related to land acquisition and money laundering. The couple, who stay at 35, Lodhi Estate, Delhi, have a son (Raihan, 18) and a daughter (Miraya, 16). Vadra’s father Rajendra ran a brassware export business in the west UP town of Moradabad. Robert, his brother Richard and sister Michelle spent most of their childhood in Delhi, where his mother Maureen taught in a school. The family has seen hard times and personal tragedies, such as when Michelle was killed in a road accident in 2001, or when Richard committed suicide in 2003 or when Rajendra was found hanging at a guesthouse in Delhi in 2009. The Congress has always maintained that the allegations against Vadra are a case of political vendetta by the BJP. And that despite BJP governments at the Centre and in several states, they have been unable to prove a single charge against Vadra in these five years.
Going by her past record, however, it will be difficult to win against Priyanka in a political slugfest. She has shown her ability to give as good as she gets. In 2014, when Modi claimed that the Congress had gotten old, Priyanka quipped in a rally: Do I look old to you? Later that year, in another election campaign in Rae Bareli, she countered Modi’s RSVPRahul, Sonia, Vadra and Priyanka, and ABCD, Adarsh scam, Bofors scam, coal scam and damaad ka ghotala (scam of the son-in-law)digs with: You’re not teaching in a primary school, you’re addressing the nation. Don’t teach people the English alphabet like RSVP or ABCD.
If not the English alphabet, Modi and BJP will certainly focus hard on the caste arithmetic that helped the party sweep the state in 2014 and 2017. The massive successes were a result of well-planned social engineering at multiple levelscoalitions of upper castes (Brahmins and Thakurs) and support from non-Yadav OBC groups, non-Jatav Dalits and farmers. One of the BJP’s poll strategies will be a continuation of this caste management. The party recognises the resentment among upper castes and believes their announcement of 10 per cent reservation for economically backward upper castes will alter the mood on the ground. The BJP also hopes to coalesce all castes under a larger Hindu umbrella by raising the decibel level on the Ram temple issue. The RSS has been upping the ante on the issue since last year and has also been active on the ground, appointing prabharis in each of the 71 seats the BJP won for feedback on the performance of the local MP.
However, one factor that could cripple the BJP’s electoral management is the disconnect between the Yogi government and the party. Around 600 government posts are lying vacant as the CM and the party apparatus cannot agree on candidates. Yogi doesn’t know the district level leaders well and spends more time in his home constituency, Gorakhpur, than in the state capital Lucknow. His supporters, on the other hand, claim that he is not getting enough support from the party structure, which is virtually run by Sunil Bansal, the state general secretary (organisation).
BJP president Amit Shah has also been planning to rope in members of the old guard such as Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh and West Bengal governor Kesrinath Tripathi to iron out differences in the state organisation. Union health minister J.P. Nadda has been appointed Lok Sabha election in-charge. Gujarat BJP veteran Gordhan Zadaphia has been made party in-charge in UP, given his proximity to Hindutva force.
Even as the BJP is yet to firm up its final strategy to counter Priyanka, the SP-BSP alliance may rethink its strategy. This alliance of two arch-rivals is a repeat of the exercise that was able to stop a belligerent BJP from forming a government in 1993 in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. At that time, the OBCs, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, and the Dalits, led by Kanshi Ram, came together. This time the alliance looks formidable on paper, as it’s likely to win 58 Lok Sabha seats, according to the INDIA TODAY MOTN survey.
However, Priyanka’s entry may split the Muslim vote, so far in favour of the SP-BSP combine. Muslims, who form 19 per cent of the population, want to support the SP but are uncertain about the BSP because the Mayawati-led party does not have a strong Muslim leadership. After the 2017 state election, the BSP’s Muslim face and its former general secretary Nasimuddin Siddiqui joined the Congress. In the past one-and-a-half years, more than 50 prominent Muslim BSP leaders have joined Congress ranks. The SP’s Muslim face and Rampur MLA Azam Khan has already asked the Congress not to cut into the alliance’s votes.
But Priyanka’s presence may also bring the non-Jatav Dalit vote, which went to the BJP in the past two elections, back to the Congress, and helping the alliance eventually. The party has an elaborate plan to highlight the incidents of atrocities against Dalits across the country in the past four years. The party brass is in talks with Dalit leaders such as Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, founder of the Bhim Army.
Rahul understands the damage it may cause the alliance but the Congress brass also realises that this may prompt an SP-BSP rethink on offering the party more seats in a rejigged coalition agreement. Rahul has already sent a veiled message: We’ll work in sync with Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati wherever possible. At the same time, it’s important for us to create space for the Congress ideology. Congress insiders claim the leaders of the three parties are likely to sit down informally for constituency-wise assessment in order to put up friendly fights wherever needed to minimise damage.
The challenge for the SP-BSP is not just to arrest the division of Muslim, Dalit and OBC votes but also to expand its social base and connect the other marginalised groups as equal partners. The SP right now is concentrated among the Yadavs9 per cent of the populationand the BSP among the Jatavs12 per cent of the population. The effort to expand this base was visible during the bypolls. In Gorakhpur and Phulpur, the SP had Nishad and Kurmi candidates, communities which were earlier seen to be locked with the BJP. But finding the winning caste combination for 80 seats, never an easy task, will be complicated by Priyanka’s entry.
Even for Priyanka, the task remains mammoth: to revive a party that has slipped from a 51 per cent vote share in 1984 to 7 per cent 30 years on. In 1999, asked when she would join politics, she had said: You’ll have to wait a long, long time. Now that she has finally taken the plunge, she doesn’t have the luxury of time to deliver a winning result.
Here comes the new Mrs G
Her entry has energised a listless Congress organisation in UP.
Her public speaking skills, connect with workers and voters and striking resemblance to grandmother Indira Gandhi are draws
Has to wean upper-caste votesparticularly Brahminfrom the BJP, woo non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs
Is in-charge of Brahmin-dominated eastern UP, where the Congress has traditionally fared better; can challenge Modi-Yogi directly
Will appeal to youth and women
Sibling revelry: En route to filing rahul’s nomination from Amethi in 2014.
The Priyanka file
date of birth: January 12, 1972
Education: Studied at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi till the assassination of her grandmother Indira Gandhi, after which she and Rahul were home tutored. Graduated in Psychology from Jesus and Mary College, DU
Married: Childhood friend Robert Vadra (now 50), on February 18, 1997, in a Hindu ceremony
Residence: Stays at 35, Lodhi Estate, Delhi. and has two childrenson Raihan (18) and daughter Miraya (16). Priyanka also has a house at Chharabra, 14 km from Shimla. The 3.5 bigha plot is located at a height of more than 8,000 feet
Early influences: As a teen, was influenced by her grandmother and wanted to become a politician. Has taken her three decades to take the plunge. Has always been political counsellor to mother Sonia and brother Rahul and looks after their constituencies. Undertook her first political campaign in 1997, at age 27, for her mother
Private Moments: Regularly visits one room in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, where the clothes, shoes and other items her father used are kept, and cleans them. In the one hour she spends in that room, nobody is allowed inside
Forgiving soul: Visited Vellore jail on March 19, 2008, to meet Nalini Sriharan, arrested in 1991 for her role in Rajiv’s assassination. It was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss I’ve experienced, she later said
Religious inclination: Believes in Buddhist philosophy and practices Vipassana
Doting mum: Never misses her children’s PTAs. Loves making cupcakes for them
Will Priyanka hurt Bua and Bhatija?
The SP worries she’ll take away Muslim votes, but believes the Congress will damage the BJP more
If she pulls in non-Jatav Dalit votes, which had moved to the BJP, she’ll indirectly help the BSP
May also help the SP-BSP by wooing non-Yadav OBCs such as Kurmis away from the BJP
Her entry may prompt the SP-BSP to rejig the poll alliance, though Mayawati is yet to relent
Party insiders say leaders of the three parties are likely to informally agree on constituency-wise assessment to put up friendly fights, wherever needed, to minimise damage
Joint mission: Akhilesh greets Mayawati on her birthday on January 15 this year.
How’s the Josh in BJP?
The BJP brass agrees, in private that Priyanka may take away upper caste votes; the party recognises resentment among upper castes and hopes 10 per cent reservation for the economically backward among upper castes will alleviate it
Plans to finesse the caste arithmetic of the past two polls, coalitions of upper castes (Brahmins and Thakurs) and support from non-Yadav OBC groups, non-Jatav Dalits and farmers
Plans to bring all castes under Hindu umbrella by raising tempo on building the Ram temple
The supremos: The BJP’s aces in UP, Modi, Yogi and Amit Shah.
with Uday Mahurkar and Ashish Misra
India Today | Cover Story