IN THE DEAD Of night on May 22, 1991, Priyanka Gandhi accompanied her mother Sonia in an Indian Air Force (IAF) jet to Sriperumbudur, the temple town 42 km from Chennai, where her father Rajiv had been assassinated hours ago.
Priyanka was 19. Her brother Rahul, then 20, was abroad. Sonia had dreaded this moment ever since she pleaded with her husband Rajiv not to accept the prime ministership following Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984.
It was a poised Priyanka who consoled her shattered mother as the two flew back to Delhi with Rajiv’s remains.
Now 51, Priyanka has long been Congress’ secret weapon. Her resemblance to grandmother Indira Gandhi, her sharp political instincts, and her empathy that helped heal fissures within the party led many Congress workers to see her as a natural heir to the Gandhi dynasty.
But things haven’t quite worked out as expected. Sonia chose Rahul to be the family’s flagbearer. Aged 34, he was given the (then) safe Amethi constituency in 2004. Priyanka, 33, withdrew into the background. Born in a patriarchal tradition of post-war Italy, Sonia believed her son, not her daughter, was the custodian of the Gandhi dynasty.
Following Sonia’s poor health in recent years, Priyanka has increasingly taken on a role as the party’s interlocutor, bridging differences between factions (most recently, during the Sachin Pilot protest fast against Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot). Party insiders expect her to expand her role and replace Sonia as Congress’ guiding force.
Priyanka accompanied Rahul to his constituency Wayanad on April 11, 2023. Suppose Rahul’s disqualification from Parliament is not set aside by the courts on time. In that case, the Election Commission of India (ECI) will be constitutionally bound to hold a by-election in the constituency which has been lying vacant since March 24, 2023, when Rahul’s disqualification came into effect.
Priyanka is the obvious choice to keep the seat warm till Rahul is reinstated as an MP and can seek re-election from Wayanad or another ‘safe’ constituency.
Following Sonia’s poor health in recent years, Priyanka has increasingly taken on a role as the party’s interlocutor, bridging differences between factions. Party insiders expect her to expand her role and replace Sonia as Congress’ guiding force
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For the Gandhi siblings, the worry is that Rae Bareli could meet the same fate as Amethi in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The incumbent MP from Rae Bareli, Sonia, may relinquish her seat to a family faithful. Priyanka was the clear choice for Rae Bareli before Rahul’s disqualification queered the pitch. However, no constituency in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is deemed electorally safe for the Gandhis any longer.
Besides, Priyanka has often flattered to deceive. The Congress high command put her in charge of the 2022 UP Assembly election. She managed to erode Congress’ vote share from 6.25 per cent in the 2017 Assembly election to 2.33 per cent in 2022.
Has the Gandhi family now retreated to familiar territory in Kerala? Wayanad’s population is 45 per cent Muslim and 13 per cent Christian. Congress knows that with a total minorities’ population of 58 per cent, Wayanad is what Amethi and Rae Bareli no longer are: Gandhi family boroughs.
Could we then see both Rahul and Priyanka contesting the 2024 Lok Sabha polls from safe constituencies in Kerala, a state that gave Congress 15 of its 52 Lok Sabha seats in 2019?
That could guarantee Rahul and Priyanka two seats in Parliament in 2024. But it would reduce Congress to a party that relies excessively on minorities to win elections.
That feeds straight into the hands of BJP’s playbook. It can turn around and say, look, we aren’t majoritarian. It’s Congress that’s minoritarian. For the Gandhis, that is a losing argument.
Priyanka’s marriage in 1997 to a relatively unknown brass trader Robert Vadra raised eyebrows in Delhi’s elite circles where you are supposed to make a good marriage. In the medieval patriarchy that infects the elite, girls ‘marrying up’ is okay but men marrying above their station is not.
Vadra has retreated into the background after the Enforcement Directorate (ED) questioned him for days over his land deals in India and Dubai. BJP, however, has been careful not to let ED’s case progress. As in the National Herald case where Rahul and Sonia are out on bail, ED’s and CBI’s sword of Damocles is more useful left hanging over their heads.
Priyanka has been content to play second fiddle to Rahul since her elder brother—whom she dotes on—entered Parliament in 2004. But changing times call for a change in strategy. Kerala may be Priyanka’s ticket to Parliament.