Being Priyanka Gandhi
Sometime in 1999, Priyanka Gandhi had told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “I am very clear in my mind. Politics is not a strong pull, the people are. And I can do things for them without being in politics. I have said it a thousand times, I am not interested in joining politics…”, The daughter of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has kept her promise over the last 15 years not to emulate either her mother Sonia Gandhi or grandmother, another former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Only recently did she indicate to a journalist that her decision not to join politics was something not necessarily resolute. “My decision to contest or not is personal. I will only change when I feel from within that I should.”
Left to thousands of Congress persons, sycophants of the Gandhi family and countless journalists and academicians in Delhi, it will be good for the country if Priyanka listens to her inner voice and joins active politics, sooner rather than later, to stop the march of “communal forces” led by Narendra Modi. They are certain that once Priyanka takes the command of the Congress, Modi, let alone other non-Congress leaders, will be simply finished politically. They have discovered in her “the killer instinct” that Indira Gandhi had. “See her gait. See her political clarity. See her confidence. See how she has already silenced Narendra Modi. Had she come a little earlier and contested election, the Congress party would have got nearly 300 seats on its own in this election. She is a sure winner”, a veteran journalist, who claims himself to be a staunch secularist, told me the other day. And I find he is not alone in thinking this.
Is Priyanka, then, another Indira Gandhi in making? Let us see her plus points. Like Indira Gandhi, she has got the name of Nehru-Gandhi family, India’s premier political dynasty. And if her campaigning for her mother Sonia Gandhi in Raebareli and for brother Rahul Gandhi in Amethi over the last 15 years is any indication, she has exploited her family legacy to the maximum. That means that she has got the affection of and acceptability among people who are in awe of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Secondly, unlike her mother and brother but like her grandmother, she is more articulate, particularly in Hindi language. Thirdly, like her grandmother, she is aggressive and a convention-breaker. It is Priyanka who broke the convention of not attacking a family member of different political persuasion. She just lambasted Varun Gandhi, her first cousin, for fighting on a BJP ticket, though all these years, the separated cousins had scrupulously avoided one another in the political battles. Neither Varun nor his mother Maneka Gandhi has campaigned against either Rahul or Sonia— and the same has been true of Rahul and Sonia vis a vis Varun and Maneka—though all the two daughters-in-law and grandchildren of Indira Gandhi have been elected to Lok Sabha earlier. Indira Gandhi, it may be noted, had also serious problems with her first cousins, children of late Vijaylaxmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister.
But are these similarities with Indira Gandhi enough for Priyanka to succeed in politics? Now let me cite her limitations. First, though nothing is late in life, the fact remains that by 42—that is Priyanka’s age—Indira had already earned a name in politics. She had even become the Party president (1959). Priyanka’s politics, on the other hand, has been limited to campaigning every five years in the constituencies of her mother and brother. That means that after every 57th month she appears only in the constituencies of her mother and brother to meet the people. I am not counting the Assembly elections in between because despite being the pocket boroughs of the Gandhi family, Raebareli and Amethi usually elect non-Congress candidates to Uttar Pradesh Assembly. In other words, if Priyanka draws crowd in Amethi and Raebareli, it is not because of her political acceptability but because of her family charm. People in these two constituencies are among the poorest in the state. If they vote for the Gandhi family, it is essentially because of a feudal mindset that continues to see the family not only as “God-send” but one that cannot be questioned.
Secondly, even though Indira was the Congress president when Nehru was the Prime Minister, the fact remains that the arrangement was not a popular one, particularly after the undemocratic dismissal of the Communist-led government in Kerala under the alleged pressures of Mrs. Gandhi. This arrangement did not last long. In fact, Indira had to wait till her father’s death to enter even the union council of ministers. She became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet after her father’s death in 1964. In other words, Indira’s real political career began after her father’s death. Same was the case with her father Rajiv Gandhi, Though Rajiv had been co-opted into politics by Indira after Sanjay Gandhi’s death, his real decisive political innings began as the Prime Minister after the unexpected assassination of his mother in 1984.
Thirdly, in the case of Priyanka Gandhi, both her mother and brother are very much there in the scene and it is they who matter the most not only in the party but also in the government. Therefore, if she enters active politics now, there will be two ticklish situations. For one, it will mean that both Sonia and Rahul have failed to live up to the expectations of the party-men and supporters, thereby compelling Priyanka to do the rescue-act. It will mean that the Congress has no future in the hands of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Will Priyanka be comfortable with such a perception, which is bound to grow with each passing day? Will Priyanka admit that her mother and brother are flops in politics?
The other situation is the one which will witness three members of the Gandhi family running the Congress simultaneously, each concentrating on a given area as agreed among the three. It will be an unprecedented situation in the history of India’s premier political party. As it is, neither the party nor the country at large has accepted the active involvement of two family members of the Gandhi-Nehru family in the Congress system at a time. As has been pointed out, Indira Gandhi’s party presidentship was not an unhappy arrangement. During the days of emergency (1975-77), the dual-rule of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi proved to be disastrous for both the Congress and the country. Similarly, the Congressmen, of late, are terribly confused over the often conflicting signals emanating from the offices of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. In fact, many are of the view that the seemingly bad time that the Congress is undergoing these days is because of the conflicting signals from the mother and the son. After all, the Congresspersons have always worked the best when there is only one centre of power. I therefore shudder to think how they will work under three centres of power when Priyanka enters active politics.
Having said all this, let us now visualise how people of India as whole will view Priyanka’ entry. No doubt, the Gandhi-Nehru family has still many supporters, and it is not the only family or dynasty that one witnesses in Indian politics, both at the national and regional levels. As far as Priyanka’s family is concerned, since two of its leading members have been assassinated, she always can exploit their martyr status. But is that enough to succeed in politics of modern India, where the ever growing young voters want substance or concrete results rather than symbolism? I think, here, Priyanka has the biggest drawback. The country does not know as yet her intellectual prowess or the organising capabilities. As an impressive lady, she might have drawn crowds in her family political boroughs in Uttar Pradesh. But that is no indication that she will succeed outside, particularly when she will be confronting the myriad corruption charges against her husband whom she is defending now as “a wife” (and hence drawing sympathy). Once in the battle field, sympathy votes or support will not last long.
All told, the family background can give an initial push, but not beyond a point. One can win an election once by taking the family name, but not the subsequent one if you do not deliver. After all, in India, as powerful a politician as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been voted out of power. And so was Rajiv Gandhi. Priyanka will not be different.
By Prakash Nanda