The return of the original Gandhi mystique
THE MOST STRIKING thing about Priyanka Vadra Gandhi is a cliché, but one that is true: that she resembles her much- revered, much-feared grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a politician who the late writer Gabriel García Márquez is said to have famously exclaimed about: “Madam Gandhi—what a combination of delicate femininity and sheer power.” The Latin American novelist was on a visit to India as part of a 1983 Cuban delegation led by the late Fidel Castro during which he became friends with the only woman Indian premier till date. People close to the first family of the Congress—also called the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty—say that Priyanka possesses not only her grandmother’s charm, but several other attributes as well: irascible yet compassionate, firm, receptive, warm, shrewd and communicative. Jad Adams, the author of The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story who also worked on an eponymous BBC series, recalls that Priyanka’s father Rajiv Gandhi used to compare her to his mother Indira for her strong will. “That trait which Indira’s opponents would call her stubbornness,” he says.
So much has been said about Priyanka taking after her imperious grandmother— a politician who wielded enormous power in her time and was lionised even by her rivals— that expectations can get dizzyingly steep. This is where diffidence apparently gets in the way of decision. This perhaps explains why Priyanka decided to stay out of the constant spotlight of public life and instead wilfully held on to the role of a dutiful mother, beloved daughter and loyal sister.
But twelve days after she turned 47, a year older than her father was when he was assassinated (in 1991) and at an age when her grandmother lost her father Jawaharlal Nehru, Priyanka took the official plunge into politics, much to the euphoria of her party. The Congress party’s announcement that she would be AICC general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh also broke the internet, reinforcing the perception that she was its ace saved for a last-ditch battle against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“She is very intuitive,” says Divya Spandana, who heads the social media division of the Congress and has closely watched Priyanka, who has so far remained a quintessential behind-the-scenes strategist, tirelessly assisting her mother and brother in party matters and opting to be in the public glare only on rare occasions.
Her choice to stay away from the limelight can be attributed to multiple reasons. All that several people close to the family who Open spoke to would say is that Priyanka does things on her own terms and that she is someone who tends to steel her resolve in the face of daunting adversities.
Come to think of it, as a grandchild and daughter, Priyanka, who often appears rather unflappable, has seen agonising tragedies at close quarters: first in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two bodyguards on the morning of October 31st just outside their home, and later when Rajiv was assassinated near Chennai by suicide bombers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on the fateful night of May 21st, 1991. Priyanka was 19 when the world saw her on television alongside her mother Sonia and brother Rahul at her father’s cremation in Delhi. She admitted years later in an interview that she had felt inexplicably angry with the whole world back then for snatching her father away from her. It wasn’t anger directed against the perpetrators, she had emphasised.
Years later, in 2008, she did something that endeared her to many: she met Nalini, a conspirator in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, in Vellore Central Jail, where the latter was serving a life sentence. A month after that visit, Priyanka opened up about her face-to-face meeting with one of her father’s assassins. She said she met Nalini in an attempt to understand why her father was killed. She also said that she had forgiven her father’s killers, a gesture that won her admirers; it was seen as a daughter’s determination to conquer hatred. Interestingly, Nalini’s death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment after Priyanka’s mother, the then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, pleaded for her clemency.
But almost a decade before that cathartic moment, the persistence of traumatic memories had pushed Priyanka to take a spiritual path; this was in her late twenties, shortly after she got married. She delved into Buddhism, pursuing academic courses and coming under the spell of the late SN Goenka, the man who introduced vipassana meditation to India. To start with, she attended a basic 10-day silence meditation retreat, before being drawn to advanced techniques. She was perhaps seeking what Goenka repeatedly referred to in his talks as equanimity in the face of the impermanence of things. In her own words, she was also “introspecting” on what she wanted and what she didn’t.
Priyanka will no longer confine herself to campaigns for Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in Amethi and Rae Bareli but will cast her net of activities wider in an effort to revive the fortunes of a 134-year-old party that is languishing at its lowest ever tally in the Lok Sabha and is a lightweight in what was once its stronghold: Uttar Pradesh
Priyanka had always put her foot down on politics, clear that she would not join it, and has held firmly to her wish of staying out of the electoral fray since as far back as 1999, claiming it almost like a fundamental right. Last year, too, under tremendous pressure from partymen and poll strategists to join active politics, she refused to buckle. It seemed as though she would never make a full-fledged political foray for a variety of reasons. Those loud ‘will she? won’t she?’ questions began to slowly soften. Wild rumours continued to do the rounds, but expectations began to fade of her grand entry into the rough and tumble of Indian politics. Party workers, resigned to their fate, decided not to hope against hope.
And then Priyanka, it seems, had an epiphany. Or was it a formal role thrust upon her? Whatever it is, she will no longer confine herself to campaigns in her mother’s and brother’s constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi, but will cast her net of activities wider in an effort to influence people and revive the fortunes of a 134-year-old party that is languishing at its lowest ever tally in the Lok Sabha (in 2014, the Congress won a mere 44 seats) and is a lightweight in what was once its stronghold: Uttar Pradesh. Her party’s move, several years after the ‘Priyanka Lao, Congress Bachao’ slogan was first raised, is being viewed by many pundits as a political masterstroke that could change the rules of political engagement in India’s most electorally significant and populous state.
“WE NEED HEROES who are relatable,” says a Delhi-based Congress leader who argues that much more than anyone else within the party, Priyanka, with her film-star looks, also has the “dexterity and skills” to reach out to the Indian masses. This leader hastens to add that there has been a marked change in the performance of the Congress under President Rahul Gandhi. “But this is the time for the last push. Priyanka’s entry is definitely a shot in the arm for the party and will rejuvenate the organisation,” the leader adds.
Being in charge of the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh means Priyanka has to steer the Congress in constituencies where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath hold significant sway.
Besides, UP, with 80 Lok Sabha seats, holds the reins of power at the Centre. With the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) having forged an opposition alliance against the ruling BJP without the Congress, the latter didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The region comprises 30 seats and is among the most backward and epidemic-prone even by UP’s low standards. For a party that did reasonably well in the state in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, faced huge reverses in the 2014 General Election amid a Modi wave that buffeted the entire northern belt, and was then battered in the 2017 Assembly polls which it fought in alliance with the SP, no headway in the national scheme of things is possible without recapturing lost ground there. Which is why the party’s need to field Priyanka, a natural speaker who often comes up with snappy, impromptu one-liners and has an ear to the ground, can’t wait.
Incidentally, when Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, called the Congress an “old” party in 2009, a smiling Priyanka addressed a rally asking the audience, “Kyaa main buddhhi dikhti hoon? (Do I look old to you?)” Quite indicative of her ability to swing the moods of crowds, she chose to throw the question to the people while allowing them to answer with a resounding “nahin”. Last April, an irate crowd at a candlelight march organised by the Congress got a taste of her temper when they began to push and harass women attendees.
Priyanka, it has been said, was also at the forefront of negotiations with Akhilesh Yadav of the SP ahead of the 2017 polls, and was instrumental in hiring the services of political strategist Prashant Kishor, who is now a JD(U) leader, to help revive the party in UP, where its good days ended in the late 1980s. “She is adept and flexible in handling challenges and in parleying with potential partners. She takes quick decisions. And everyone takes her seriously because she exudes the confidence of a person baptised by fire,” a family loyalist tells Open, expressing the hope of a “seismic political impact” across India, thanks to this measure to take on the BJP.
Notwithstanding that sense of exaggeration, the Congress party is upbeat about the response of rivals who have shown reluctance to attack Priyanka personally. “Party workers are gung-ho about her formal entry,” says Yasmin Kidwai, Congress municipal councilor from Daryaganj and a documentary filmmaker. A few political pundits believe that Priyanka’s charisma remains unstained especially thanks to rivals focusing all their energy online and offline on tarnishing the image of Rahul Gandhi, who, lately, has won applause for his party’s recent poll triumphs in three states held earlier by the BJP, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Meanwhile, the BJP contends that the Congress launched Priyanka into active politics because Rahul failed to meet expectations and that this is a sign of desperation. Some party leaders, including Modi, have said that the Congress continues to be a party of the family, while for the BJP the party is the family. Meanwhile, Rahul tweeted congratulations to his sister: ‘UP is central to building a new hope filled & compassionate India. The new UP AICC team lead by Priyanka & Jyotiraditya, will herald the dawn of a new kind of politics in the state. We will offer the youth in UP a dynamic new platform to transform the state.’ He also added that it was up to Priyanka to contest a Lok Sabha seat, a move that may trigger a change of mindsets both among people who go for tactical voting hoping to keep the BJP at bay and among upper-caste voters who have traditionally voted for the Congress.
So much has been said about Priyanka taking after her imperious grandmother that expectations can get dizzyingly steep. This perhaps explains why Priyanka decided to stay out of public life and instead held on to the role of a dutiful mother, beloved daughter and loyal sister
Without doubt, it has been a long journey for Priyanka.
As a hands-on mother who made it a point to attend all functions when her son Raihan and daughter Miraya were at The Shri Ram School’s junior branch in Vasant Vihar, Delhi, she had to juggle home and backroom political work, including at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, of which she is a trustee. She also took her children along on election campaigns to the family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, both in UP.
Priyanka has also been supportive of her son’s lesser-known initiative, iParliament, a mock parliament session held twice a year to discuss specific themes and attended by students of a few schools across the country. Ananya Jain, an alumnus of Delhi’s Vasant Valley School who is now an undergrad student in Scotland and took part in the event twice in 2017, remembers one discussion on Article 356 of the Constitution. A person close to the family says that Priyanka has raised both her kids attentively, instilling in them traditional values. Raihan, who made a surprise visit to the Lok Sabha sometime in 2014 sporting spiked hair, attended The Doon School, while Miraya, a basketball player who has made occasional public appearances, is at Shri Ram School, Gurugram.
Herself an alumnus of Modern and Welham Girls’ schools and Jesus and Mary College, where she first studied psychology and later attended a course in Buddhist studies, Priyanka married Moradabad-based Robert Vadra in 1997. Vadra, three years her elder, faces allegations of corruption over land deals in Haryana and Rajasthan. One of the reasons often cited for Priyanka’s earlier reluctance to take up formal party positions was a fear that the BJP Government would go after Vadra for these dealings, or that he would become a political liability for her. But for all practical reasons, such speculation appears to have been laid to rest. Looks like the instinct to fight on overshadows such qualms.
ADAMS RECALLS THAT Priyanka was always tipped for a political career when she was a child. He notes, “The only surprise to me is how long this has taken.” He feels that pitching her into organisational politics is a wise move for the Congress to appeal to an age-old tradition of family loyalty. He reasons, “Families tell a more appealing narrative than political movements. The resentments and jealousies, victories and defeats of a family like the Nehru-Gandhis mirror those of the ordinary person in a way in which discussions of policies and ‘vision’ do not.”
He also argues that one is never too old to enter politics. Motilal Nehru was 27 before he attended his first Congress meeting and, therefore, was hardly an early starter for that time, he points out. “His son Jawaharlal was 30 before he committed himself politically; Indira was 42 when she first became Congress president in 1959; Priyanka’s father Rajiv was 36 when he left his career as an aircraft pilot to go into politics,” he says matter-of-factly.
Various scholars, even those of the repute of Atul Kohli of Princeton University, have often wondered why the Congress couldn’t forge ahead without the Nehru-Gandhi family as a glue that holds party workers and leaders together. In his critique of how the family held power, University of Virginia professor and India scholar John Echeverri-Gent had argued that it was centralised access to funds that ensured their supremacy and control over the party’s regional leaders. Congress rivals have invariably used this ‘loyalty’ that its leaders displayed towards its ‘high command’ to attack it as a family-run party filled with sycophants.
Adams, however, offers a contrarian view. He says he understands that some people sneer at the dynastic mode in Subcontinental politics as being evidence of an Asian inability to achieve democracy and points not just at the Nehru-Gandhis but the Bhuttos of Pakistan and the Banderanaikes of Sri Lanka. “Are the people hankering after a royal family? I think differently. I see it as unremarkable that many members of the same family go into the same occupation. Tradesmen, farmers and doctors may go for many generations working in the same field. There is some level of nepotism, but mainly it is learned behaviour.”
Incidentally, dynastic politics in India is not restricted to the Congress party alone. Increasingly, regional parties and even national parties such as the BJP have seen many entrants from political families.
Adds Adams, “Children from political families are around political talk all their lives; they are around diplomacy and policy making and speechifying. They understand as if instinctively what will ‘play’ in the political arena, in a way which most people have to learn if they choose to go into politics.” Adams has also penned a book titled Tony Benn: A Biography about Britain’s Benn family that has also been in politics for five generations.
Priyanka Gandhi, stately in the handloom saris she wears, like her grandmother, for most public functions—though she appeared in Parliament once in an elegant shirt-and-trousers more than ten years ago—has an evidently calm disposition. It’s as though she has been trained to stay cool and confident in the face of extreme pressure. She is a natural and if Sonia doesn’t contest this time around from Rae Bareli, maybe the responsibility will fall on her. It seems she always knew that even if she was not interested in politics, politics was interested in her.