-by Oliver D’Souza
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra doesn’t come with much political experience as she has only sporadically campaigned for her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul in their Amethi and Raebareli constituencies. In recent years, she has also been involved a little in party affairs behind the scenes, helping her brother who heads the Congress. That’s about as far her political resume goes.
Yet, immediately after her formal induction into the Congress, the BJP has been severely attacking and belittling her. They have attacked her for everything from being a sweet face to a dynast and have even called her bi-polar. At the same time, immediately after the announcement of Priyanka being appointed as Congress General Secretary in Eastern UP, her husband, Robert Vadra, is facing severe targeting by government agencies in an obvious attempt to undermine Priyanka. Such response is not of a BJP that sees no threat in her. Rather, considering the multiple and diverse BJP voices that have spoken against her even before she officially took up the position, the response is akin to the one that corresponds to a cat being set among pigeons.
Several senior BJP leaders have tried to downplay the possible impact of Priyanka’s arrival in Indian politics saying that she is only a ‘beautiful face’, a ‘chocalaty face’. What the antagonists are not letting out is that it is the captivating aura that surrounds that face which really bothers them. This aura comes from being part of an illustrious political family and the exposure, confidence and knowledge that comes with it, from refreshing freshness seen in someone who never showed any interest in politics for the sake of power even though it was always an option, and from someone who has personlaity traits common with a iron-handed Prime Minister popular during her day.
Going by Priyanka’s Lucknow rally, the aura around her is indeed a crowd puller with national prospects. Thousands of BJP, Congress, SP, and BSP supporters comprising the general public were jostling to get a glimpse of her in the 25-km long road show in Lucknow.
As one former BJP Lok Sabha member earlier told the Telegraph, “She will definitely create ripples.” Asked whether this churn was caused by Priyanka Gandhi’s charisma or Narendra Modi’s diminishing appeal, he kept silent. Grilled further, he chuckled to himself and murmured: “Janam samjha karo.”
The daily goes on to say that Rajya Sabha member Amar Singh described her as “mature” and “charismatic” and declared her impact on voters could be dramatic.
The ability to pull crowds is not an end in itself as the crowds have to be converted into followers and votes. Writing in the DailyO, Gautam Benegal, citing a video clip of Priyanka’s speech at Tioli, Amethi, in 2012, says , “If one sees the clip, one observes her style of oratory is very different from the hyperbole and fiery bombast that passes for ‘strong leadership’ we have become used to. It is conversational, persuasive, sometimes chiding, laced with humor — and establishes an instant connect with the audience. She invites participation and interaction from the crowd and they do not disappoint.” Congress thereafter won the Tioli seat, netting over 61000 votes.
On the other hand, to buttress their claim of her inefficacy in converting crowds into voters, the BJP often points out to the Congress losses in 2017 assembly elections in UP but the fact is that as reported by Livemint, she made just one trip to Raebareli during 2017 UP assembly elections.
More importantly, as demonstrated in Tiloi in 2012, where she actively campaigned, Priyanka has the powerful ability to connect to the people and engage them on their terms in a down to earth, realistic manner. Add to this the personal aura she carries and the fact that she reminds everybody of Indira Gandhi (who was largely loved by the rural poor), and you have not only a crowd puller, but also a vote catcher.
As a vote catcher, Priyanka Gandhi becomes particular potent when combined with Rahul Gandhi. Political pairs are nothing new and there have been several. This includes President Franklin D and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK and his brother Robert, Eva and Juan Perez, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, Jian Qing and Mao Tse Tung and Hillary and Bill Clinton. The most famous and effective political pairs of these are JFK and his brother Robert and Fidel Castro and his brother Raul.
In an interview, Larry Tye, author of “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon” says “The term the ‘Kennedy brothers’ … …meant something quite magical. It didn’t just mean a co-presidency, it meant two guys with very different strengths who gave the country this opportunity to see not just brothers working together, but collaboration in the best way of trying to solve our problems.” Working with his brother Robert, JFK went on to become one of the most celebrated presidents of the US.
Likewise, Larry Gomez writing in USA Today says, Fidel Castro, was always the public face of the revolution… … he was the charismatic leader … Raúl Castro, quiet and reserved, was happy to take a back seat … But the younger Castro was always operating just off stage, fighting alongside Fidel to overthrow Cuba’s government, negotiating directly with Soviet leaders, and running the country’s armed forces for five decades before becoming president.”
In both these cases, each sibling complemented and contributed to the other; combining both their individual talents and capacities gave them unprecedented political strength and success. It would be fool-hardy to not assume that the BJP and the RSS are not aware of the potential of the Rahul-Priyanka partnership.
On one hand, Rahul, who has matured enormously thanks to the BJP incessantly goading him by calling him ‘pappu’, comes across as a sincere, honest and decent person as compared to BJP’s mascot Modi, who is seen as a divisive, abusive force and also increasingly as incompetent and dictatorial. On the other, Priyanka complements Rahul with her communication skills, and with her aura. With the Congress on the upswing since the Gujarat assembly elections, forming a coalition government in Karnataka and evicting the BJP from Hindi heartland states of MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the partnership could mean serious trouble for the BJP, which has been steadily losing support from the 31% per cent vote base it had in 2014.
Also, as Ashok Swain says in DailyO, unlike other instances, as in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, where siblings are vying for political legacy of their parents, the BJP-RSS combine which is notorious for creating division, cannot hope to break the partnership. Priyanka has categorically stated that she is there to help her brother, not to replace him or to sideline him. The brother and sister partnership is a political combination that represents a stiff competition to the might of the BJP-RSS combine.
When it comes to the women constituency, let’s face the facts. Right now, most of the women fronted by the BJP evoke very little positive response from the women in the country. One only needs to browse through social media to discover this. With over 400 million internet users and 300 million smart phone owners, their relatives and extended relatives who don’t have either internet or smart phones get to know what’s going on in the world through them. Social media currently provides a good idea of not only public perception of the BJP’s front women but also the rest of the Indian political scenario as well.
Basically, the BJP has three women faces which it puts out regularly. One is Nirmala Seetharaman, the Defence Minister, who, as an unelected Minister, has no clue about electoral politics and all that it takes to get votes and win an election. The spite demonstrated by her while indulging in anti-Congress rhetoric, her ill-temper and lying, rather than attract votes turns people, including women, away from the party. She is no asset to the BJP in electoral politics.
The other is unelected Minister Smriti Irani, who for all her political posturing has said she is in the BJP only as long as Modi is there, acceding that she has no merit on her own. Whatever votes she gets is courtesy RSS. In fact, the BJP itself has had enough of her. As reported by The Hindu quoting a top BJP functionary, “The government was fed up with constant controversies generated by her,” and “the government felt embarrassed at every controversy she created.” She has regularly been shunted out of ministries, beginning with the very important HRD ministry, ending up with smaller ones, exposing both her incompetence as well as the BJP’s poor choice of Ministerial candidates. All of this impacts the female voter, especially the literate and educated ones.
The third woman that is the face of the BJP is Sushma Swaraj, who has done a fairly decent job but has put herself out of the picture by opting out of electoral electoral politics altogether. She has major health issues to focus on including a transplanted kidney.
The other front women of the BJP are those appearing as spokespersons on TV channels, supporting communalism, lies and misogyny. They have their share of haters, especially among women voters.
Contrasting the failed front women of the BJP is Priyanka, who begins with a clean slate, comes across as empathetic to causes of women and easily connects with them. Add to this her inherent aura and the Congress now has a woman who could have nation-wide appeal among women, especially at a time when women are fighting for equality and empowerment in all aspects, even as the BJP is busy patronizing patriarchy.
As part of the BJP campaign against her, RSS supported BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramaniam Swamy called Priyanka bi-polar and unpredictable. Besides the fact that that she is not bi-polar, in saying so what Swamy has admitted that there is no saying what this new entrant to the Congress will do.
One of the first things that Priyanka said in her first appearance as an official member of the Congress is that she would end divisive politics and root out the RSS ideology operational in UP. In saying so, undoubtedly alarming the RSS and its affiliated outfits, she has straight away gone for the jugular. The real mover of things is not the BJP, but the RSS. It is the RSS who brought the BJP into power, after decades of communal and caste machinations. The entire Hindutva oriented political, economic, social and religious activity of the BJP is the implementation of the agenda of the RSS, exploiting religion to the hilt.
More importantly, it is not mere rhetoric that Priyanka is indulging when she talks against RSS ideology which promotes communalism, divisiveness and inequality based on caste and religion. At a personal level, besides being a Hindu Brahmin, Priyanka also practices Buddhism and is additionally influenced by Christian tenets. This basically makes her a syncretic woman in her religous beliefs who per force of multiple religious influences, cannot entertain hatred, divisiveness and inequality
On the contrary, if Priyanka becomes a success and the Congress gains power at any time on its own, with Rahul too speaking the same language, it is certain that there will be an extensive effort by the Rahul-Priyanka partnership to dismantle the communal machinery created by the RSS and to weed out RSS elements infiltrated into the government and its institutions. She could eventually be far more consequential for the RSS than her grandmother, who as PM merely banned the outfit and jailed its leaders (1975-77) and then repealed the ban. Since then, after another ban in 1992, which was again later repealed. RSS has made considerable efforts to get to where it is at now and the last thing they would want is to see it all dismantled. When BJP leaders speak against her to undermine her, it is actually the RSS speaking as almost all of the concerned BJP leaders are die-hard RSS cadres. The RSS has not forgotten Indira Gandhi.
There was a reason why Rahul Gandhi exhibited his janeu last year during the heat of the elections in the Hindi heartland. As Amresh Misra, himself a Brahmin and President of UP based Kisan Kranti Dal and Mangal Pandey Sena has pointed out in a social media post, the Brahmin vote is moving away from the BJP in UP, especially after Yogi Adityanath becoming CM.
UP is not the only state where Brahmins are moving towards the Congress. Vikas Pathak, writing in The Hindu during the MP assembly elections in 2018 says “Conversations with upper caste voters in urban areas reveal a broad pattern: they predict — without revealing their voting intentions — a kaante ki takkar (a close fight) between the Congress and the BJP. There are also those who are openly critical of the BJP and wish to see change, flagging a likely splintering of votes from upper castes — a bloc that had largely been pro-BJP.”
That the upper caste vote is indeed migrating towards the Congress has also been confirmed by the 10% reservation for upper castes announced by PM Modi. But considering its timing, and the fact that it is fraught with legal uncertainties and translates into next to nothing on the ground, the reservation is unlikely to get the upper castes excited. Other than the BJP, the RSS and other oragnizations affiliated to them, so far, not a single independent upper caste organization has welcomed the move.
That the Brahmin vote is important in UP, which sends the largest number of MPs to parliament, arises from the fact that, besides amounting to 11% of the state’s population, Brahmins in UP are also influencers. As Vaidehi writes in an editorial in the Afternnon “Mayawati’s successful wooing of Brahmins had ensured her not just a sizeable share of their votes – the community leaders had used their position in society to influence other castes too, to back the BSP. If the Congress, therefore, succeeds in convincing Brahmins that it is worth backing, then, Muslims – who constitute about 15 per cent of the population in UP – may throw their weight behind it.”
Besides Rahul touting his janeu to woo the upper castes, Priyanaka, a charismatic Brahmin herself arriving in the fray acts as an additional impetus for the upper castes to switch to the Congress. The Brahmin vote was largely of the Congress for a very, very long time, with the Congress acquiring power on the basis of the combined Brahmin, Dalit and minority vote.
Perhaps what has rattled the RSS-BJP combine most is the manner in which Priyanka handled the fresh targeting of Robert Vadra by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) ED. The BJP expected to put her and the Congress on the back foot by raking up various property and financial allegations against her husband Robert Vadra and instituting Enforcement Directorate investigations against him. Priyanka responded by not only defending her husband but by actually accompanying him to the ED offices where he was questioned.
The message from this is very clear: Priyanka is not going to be bullied and allow herself and her husband to become political fodder or to pay for the sins of past congressmen, and that she is combative, unafraid of confrontation even on touchy issues.
More importantly, she has straightaway turned it into a political issue by using the timing of the targeting of her husband to accuse the BJP of using state machinery to harass political opponents and has projected herself and her husband as victims. This is not the conduct of a political novice that the BJP-RSS is trying to portray her as.
For now, Priyanka has been officially appointed to UP Congress, and her arrival may not overnight drastically change things in favor of the Congress in UP. However, the Congress has the momentum following the Gujarat, Karnataka, MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh assembly elections, forming governments in 4 of these states and almost beating the BJP even in Gujarat. Priyanka’s arrival will in the least give the Congress momentum a further fillip in UP and elsewhere. In time, after a lot more water has flown under the bridge, she could also become the popular second face of Congress nationwide. A lot, however, depends on actual delivery by Priyanka. She may possess all it takes to turn revive the Congress under her brother, but she will have to spend enormous time among the people and put in a lot of effort. The threat that the Rahul-Priyanka poses to the RSS-BJP is in the long-term than the short one.