Is the Priyanka factor Congress’s only hope?
The Congress’s strategist for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, Prashant Kishor, has stumbled upon a solution to revive the party’s fortunes in a State over which the party had lorded for nearly four decades, and where it began to slide from the 1990s to reach the present position where it is not even considered a serious player. And the solution is to draft Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into full-time electoral politics. This is not a novel idea. Every time the Congress has suffered reverses – and this has been more a rule than an exception especially in the last two years – sections of party leaders have raised their voice in favour of the move.
It is true that every time a fresh face from the Nehru-Gandhi family plunged into politics, he or she succeeded in energising the party and raising new hopes. Rajiv Gandhi did it in end-1984. It again happened when a by-now less reluctant Sonia Gandhi assumed the mantle in 1998 after the obsequious-turned-adamant Sitaram Kesri was unceremoniously ousted as party president. She not only reunited fragments of the party but also gave it direction and purpose, eventually leading the Congress to victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha election.
Expectations further soared when Rahul Gandhi began taking greater interest in the affairs of the party, became general secretary in 2007 and vice president in 2013, and for all practical purposes, its national and future face. The argument for the present is that the Congress now needs another new dose of charismatic leadership, which Priyanka Gandhi Vadra can offer, to steady the electorally rocky boat of the party. And, if she can make a difference in time for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the Congress can bank on her for the big 2019 contest.
But there is a problem in the historical narrative. Rajiv Gandhi lost his charm for a variety of reasons within three years of becoming Prime Minister; Sonia Gandhi frittered it away particularly in the last five years of the UPA rule when she was perceived to have stolen governance decision-making from the country’s Prime Minister; and Rahul Gandhi failed repeatedly to lead his party to victory election after election, since becoming the vice president. There is thus, no certainty that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, if she comes into full-time politics, will be able to reverse the process. The Congress, however, at least officially, is not willing to even consider this prospect. As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.
And yet, if Prashant Kishor’s idea – seconded by many Congress leaders – has not as been as enthusiastically endorsed officially as expected by the party’s high command, it is not without reason. The first is that many Congress men and women, especially belonging to the so-called old guard, are more comfortable with Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. They are wary of the culture shock that may hit them in case Priyanka Gandhi Vadra gets to play a larger role in the party’s affairs – and coming as it may along with the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as party president, it may be too much for the old guard to digest. The second reason has to do with the desire of the party to shield the Nehru-Gandhi family members from the responsibility of possible defeat in the Uttar Pradesh election. It is no secret that the party’s prospects are far from bright, and it may well end up in the fourth position, behind the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – not necessarily in the same order – even if Priyanka Gandhi Vadra campaigns across the State. With Rahul Gandhi already being dubbed a failure, the party would not want its trump card to go waste.
There is also a third reason. The ascent of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will be seen as a tacit admission by the party that Rahul Gandhi has not lived up to expectations. It would lead to undermining his position, even if he assumes charge as party president. Besides, just as there is a group loyal to Sonia Gandhi and another one which believes in Rahul Gandhi as the future, a coterie will develop around Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as well. There is no saying that this bunch will not work at cross purposes and end up creating friction within the party rank and file.