A desperate Congress in search of life-saving mystique
‘GOONGI GUDIYA’. That’s how Ram Manohar Lohia described Indira Gandhi in her early years in politics. The voiceless doll. Not much later, as if in retribution, she became the maximum leader of the Congress party. Then, she rang in the Emergency. Indira was India and India, Indira, Dev Kanta Barua, then president of the party sang in absolute sycophancy.
A generation later, her daughter-in- law Sonia Gandhi was also taunted as a goongi gudiya by the opposition and by some even within the party. Fashioning herself as the Nehru-Gandhi family’s dutiful ‘bahu’ who was being treated unfairly by her political detractors, Sonia took charge of the party after much dithering on her part and plenty of grovelling by Congressmen chanting the slogan of ‘Sonia Laao, Congress Bachaao’ (Bring Sonia, save the party). In the untold history of India’s grand old party, the phase leading up to it could have been called the ‘Time of the Signs’. Despite Narasimha Rao being the party’s Prime Minister, its inside narrative was all about senior leaders holding back-channel meetings with Sonia Gandhi. Most of them were left to interpret every tilt of her head, momentary nod or wave of the hand, wondering what it meant in each context. The most powerful person in the party spoke very little. After Congress lost power in 1998, it was a divided house, threatening to fall off the electoral map, and partymen were desperate for a Nehru-Gandhi to revive it. She led them back to power in 2004 and came into her own as a leader, strategically turning down the Prime Minister’s post in response to being called a ‘foreigner’ by opposition campaigners, and naming Manmohan Singh for it in a move that catapulted her into the electorate’s consciousness as a party chief with political acumen.
Following the party’s most disastrous performance to date— in the 2014 General Election—and the arrival of Narendra Modi as one of India’s most popular prime ministers ever, Congress is again in need of life support. The DK Baruas of today are now clamouring for Indira Gandhi’s granddaughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to wave a magic wand and give the party the required makeover. Two issues lend this cry its urgency: Sonia Gandhi’s failing health and 46-year-old party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s apparent inability to gain any significant electoral traction for the party.
It was a foregone Pavlovian reflex. With a prolonged phase of political wilderness staring them in the face, Congress leaders have fallen back on Priyanka Gandhi to lead them out of the woods.
The Congress is badly in need of a miracle in Uttar Pradesh to kick-start a revival in the rest of the country in time enough for the General Election of 2019. Between the Lok Sabha polls of 2009 and 2014, the BJP’s vote share at the national level shot up from under 19 to 31 per cent. In the same period, the Congress figure dipped from 28 to 19 per cent. In UP, the BJP netted a whopping 42.3 per cent of all votes in 2014, while the Samajwadi Party got 22.2 per cent and the BSP nearly 20 per cent; India’s ruling party won 71 of the state’s 80 seats, with its ally, the Apna Dal, bagging two. The state’s incumbent, the SP, won a mere five seats. The Congress managed to win only two, Rae Bareli for Sonia and Amethi for Rahul Gandhi (though with far slimmer victory margins than in 2009), chalking up only 7.5 per cent of the state’s votes. A Modi wave had swept aside all caste-and-class poll calculations, with BJP attracting a large proportion of non-Yadav OBC votes and non-Chamar Dalit votes, adding vast numbers to its traditional support base of upper-castes and trading classes.
Priyanka Gandhi’s formal ‘plunge’ into active electoral politics— having made ‘guest appearances’ along the campaign trail in the family pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi in 2014— comes at a time that the Assembly poll result of UP could shape national level politics from here onwards. This time, she is poised to campaign in other parts of UP as well. The party leadership has decided it was time her popular appeal was put to the ballot test.
The ‘Priyanka Laao, Congress Bachaao’ campaign began in the latter half of 2016, even though it was Rahul Gandhi who was to lead a series of yatras across UP, according to the party’s plan.
THE ALLIANCE WITH the SP was yet to materialise. Priyanka was a long shot, but the only big one left in the Congress arsenal. A couple of years younger than her brother Rahul and a mother of two, Priyanka has stayed away from the rough-and-tumble of politics so far. Her political instincts are untested. Much of the buzz around her mass appeal has been created by her striking resemblance to her grandmother, which it’s believed, would translate into Congress support from voters under 30. The results of her intermittent flirtations with electoral politics in Amethi and Rae Bareli have been mixed, at best. She had made stage-managed appearances with her two children to woo voters, and taken a few potshots at Modi.
In October last year, it was conveniently leaked to the media that she had attended a strategy meeting on UP that had the presence of Ghulam Nabi Azad, the general secretary in charge of the state, but neither that of Rahul Gandhi nor the party’s strategist Prashant Kishor. She had asked a few questions, but spent most of the time observing and listening.
Once the party decided to project Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate, the plan was to have Priyanka address rallies in Lucknow and Allahabad, starting with the former in order to ‘boost the flagging morale’ of party workers in UP. Through all this planning, senior party leaders could not have been unaware that the candidates Priyanka had backed in Rae Bareli for the Assembly polls of 2012 had failed to make a mark; in those elections, the Congress did not win a single Assembly seat in a region that was considered a Gandhi bastion, nurtured ever since Indira Gandhi represented it in the Lok Sabha. So it was not surprising that some senior leaders suggested that having Priyanka campaign extensively in UP ought to be resorted to only after the party had finalised its broad strategy. Says a senior Congress leader, “The decision to involve Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the heat and dust of the UP fray and afterwards to also pursue an alliance with the SP was imperative after we got readings from the ground that Rahul Gandhi’s efforts were not enough for us to make a mark of any noticeable sort, compared to the last elections. And there’s no denying that her organisational skills are good and that she’s good at media management.”
The decision to tie up with Akhilesh’s SP has made it clear that Congress has no illusions of leaping ahead in its count of seats in the UP Assembly. Neither of Rahul Gandhi’s appointed strategists has been able to come up with a strategy to optimise the party’s chances in UP, with or without an alliance
Once the SP alliance was clinched, Azad went public to credit Priyanka Gandhi with fixing what seemed to be coming apart in the last stages of talks. In Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress obligingly also attributed to her efforts the entry of Navjot Singh Sidhu to the party. The image-burnishing department was activated again to put out ‘news’ that an adamant Akhilesh Yadav of the SP had finally agreed to part with 105 seats in a seat- sharing arrangement with the Congress only after she came into the picture. Posters with her face on them had already been approved within the party and the Election Commission had been notified. Since Yadav’s lucky number is said to be nine, Priyanka was listed ninth on the Congress list of star campaigners. Asked if he’d ‘blinked’ after she joined the seat negotiations, especially since the SP had not been keen to allot the Congress more than 60 seats, Yadav ducked the question with this: “Whoever played a role, played a good role so that we can fight together against the BJP with our combined clout.”
The UP Chief Minister’s cryptic reply came just hours before the Congress leadership let word out that Priyanka’s role would again be limited to Amethi and Rae Bareli, ostensibly to avoid ‘over exposure’ before a Lok Sabha debut should she contest the Rae Bareli seat in place of her mother in the next General Election. At most, as the word went, she could campaign in a few key Congress constituencies.
The latest volte face—that she will address rallies across the state—comes just days after what was billed as her ‘formal political launch’. Might this indicate a realisation that a party led into the field by Rahul Gandhi, even piggybacking on Yadav, could give the BJP’s chief campaigner, Modi, a big advantage? Congress leaders deny this. “We had two strategies in place: one, if we decided to go it alone with Sheila Dikshit at the helm, and another, if we allied with the SP. Priyanka was to play a big role in the former and a campaign strategy team was planned to ideate for her. This is just the second strategy falling in place,” says the senior party leader.
The decision to tie up with the SP has made it clear, nonetheless, that the Congress has no illusions of leaping ahead in its count of seats in the UP Assembly. Neither of Rahul Gandhi’s appointed strategists in UP, Kishor and Dhiraj Srivastava, has been able to come up with a strategy to optimise the party’s chances in UP, with or without an alliance. Srivastava is believed to have carried Priyanka’s list of 130 Congress candidates in the alliance to Yadav in Lucknow during the first round of talks. Once the Chief Minister secured the party’s cycle symbol after a battle with his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, however, the Congress had to scale its demand down.
Minimising damage and containing losses became the priority overnight. Says a political analyst from UP: “So, the Congress settled for a face-saving 105 seats from the SP, despite Rahul Gandhi’s marathon yatra over several weeks in UP. Downsizing him further politically by putting the more charismatic Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into the mix could be detrimental to its already bad track record.” It stands to reason, he maintains, that her participation has been extended to framing a strategy for poll campaigns, choosing candidates and monitoring Rahul Gandhi’s efforts on the stump.
Keeping its options open, says the analyst, the Congress had already initiated the process to give Priyanka the image of an adept backroom strategist and political negotiator, apart from that of a good media manager and idea-spouting leader. This would also forestall criticism of her low strike rate in the campaigns of 2014 and 2012. All of this would help position her well for 2019.
Not everyone is ready to fall for the spin. In telling the media, for example, that Priyanka was the key negotiator with Yadav—while Azad parleyed with Ram Gopal Yadav and Rahul Gandhi got reports in real time—the party has sought to obfuscate its low bargaining power vis-à-vis the SP. In 2012, the Congress won only 28 seats to the SP’s 224, not to speak of its abysmal performance in the 10 Assembly seats of the Amethi and Rae Bareli belt, where it won two and the SP got seven. In the course of talks, the Congress was willing to settle for seven of these ten, but Yadav unilaterally announced candidates for five of the seats (including the Amethi Assembly seat, which the SP won last time round). Consider just Rae Bareli, Priyanka’s purported forte. Here, the Congress lost all five seats in 2012, while the SP won four. Even in Amethi, of the two seats won by Congress, its MLA from Tiloi has moved to the BSP (and the SP had won the other three).
THERE IS, THOUGH, an element of truth to the Congress argument that the SP suffers from anti-incumbency this time. The Yadav family drama notwithstanding, the Chief Minister has managed to ‘reset’ his government’s image, insulating it to some extent from its law-and-order failures. In this exercise, the SP has dropped Shivpal Yadav from its list of candidates; this was done in its second round of list-making, perhaps on the realisation that not everyone was buying the SP theatrics of a father-and-son spat, say analysts. Nor is the electorate convinced by Yadav’s ‘development’ pitch.
Says a senior BJP leader from UP, “It takes a lot to convince a highly politically aware electorate, like that in the state, that work has genuinely been done on the ground on law-and-order and development. Akhilesh’s attempt, in all probability under Mulayam Singh’s orchestration, was to shore up the Muslim vote-bank that was threatening to move away from it towards the BSP. Its non- Yadav OBC vote-bank had already been eroded by Narendra Modi in the 2014 election. Coupled with anti-incumbency sentiment, this could be the worst beating that the SP takes, something the Yadav family wanted to forestall. Therefore, the drama. Hoodwinking the public is unlikely to work.”
With or without Priyanka playing a role, in this analysis, whether the Congress alliance can help shore the SP up remains doubtful. To make matters worse, not only did a Bihar-type maha gathbandhan of anti-BJP forces fail to work out, the SP could not join hands with the Rashtriya Lok Dal in western UP. In Bihar’s Assembly polls of 2015, Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal had brought its hefty Muslim-Yadav vote-bank to the table, adding noticeably to the Janata Dal-United’s own, and a combination of caste arithmetic and development work led the grand anti-BJP alliance to power. That isn’t the case in UP. Can Priyanka Gandhi’s charisma make a difference? Congress is banking on untested mystique.