Aditya Iyer finds out how the Gandhi mystique plays out on a campaign trail
THE ROAD LEADING UP TO Manhaiya, a village by the river Ganga on the outskirts of Prayagraj, is not so much a road as a slender vein of dirt and dust, hemmed in from both sides by tin shops and brick huts and fields of swaying wheat. The ghat, or bank, at the far end of Manhaiya is a masaan ghat (an open-air crematorium) and on a regular day the steep and narrow strip of silt by the sacred river is spotted with half-burnt firewood and extinguished pyres and shards of clay urns and even empty bottles of Indian moonshine. But today is not a regular day and the freshly swept gradient of mud is flanked by two rows of men in starched kurtas and they are holding oversized garlands in their hands; when more men in starched kurtas arrive at the bank in bulky cars, workers sticking bills of the Congress party on tin shutters and electric poles shut their eyes and cough into the rising dust.
For Priyanka Vadra Gandhi, the reluctant heiress of the oldest political party in India and a sequestered scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Manhaiya is the starting point of a three-day campaign trail on the Ganga, from Prayagraj to Varanasi; and also, possibly, the starting point of a full-time political career. For many a year, the 47-year-old had acquiesced to informal public roles: from helping her mother Sonia Gandhi with her early speeches in Hindi to occasionally campaigning in her constituency of Rae Bareli during election season to being a campaign adviser to brother Rahul Gandhi once he took over their mother’s role before the 2014 General Election.
It was perhaps due to Congress’ shambolic show in that Lok Sabha election, securing all of 44 seats at the Centre in May 2014, or maybe even because of the recent spike in the party’s arm at the state level after the Congress formed the governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December 2018, but when Priyanka was appointed as the party’s general secretary (Uttar Pradesh east) earlier this year, the move was seen as her formal entry into a world she had thus far conscientiously avoided. Whatever may have been her reason, the move was also accepted as Priyanka embracing her destiny, and at Manhaiya, Congress karyakartas (party workers), dignitaries, journalists and the locals have already gathered in vast numbers by the ghat and stand by the muddy waters to watch her take her political plunge.
Five minutes before Priyanka’s scheduled departure time of 9 am, three stern- faced men in blue safari suits shepherd an old sniffer dog down the bank and into an anchored steamboat and the dog takes in a whiff of each of the white bolsters lacing the upper deck. This boat will be Priyanka’s campaign vehicle and in it she will travel east on the Ganga as the river snakes through the baking plains of Poorvanchal until Varanasi. By road, the same journey can be completed in less than two hours; but Priyanka’s agenda on the river is to stop from ghat to ghat— inconsequential villages that have been bypassed by national politicians in the past—and hence the journey will carry on for much longer. Longer still, given that Priyanka is late. It is now 10 am and the only sign of her in Manhaiya is that of a large cardboard cutout of a smiling Priyanka hugging a blushing village woman. The cutout is tied to a bamboo fence that has been erected to separate the locals from the Congress dignitaries and when word arrives that Priyanka is yet to leave her Anand Bhavan guesthouse in central Prayagraj, there is an audible groan on both sides of the dividing fence.
Nearly three hours after she was to set off from Manhaiya, Priyanka arrives at the bank with a clutch of students from Allahabad University and her security officers. The students will be her companions for the day and they are escorted to the boat even as Priyanka breaks rank and gravitates towards the locals behind the bamboo fence. Amidst the strong chorus of ‘Priyanka Gandhi Zindabad! Zindabad, Zindabad!’ a television journalist finds his voice and reports the significance of Priyanka’s saree colour to his camera. “It is greenish-blue, just like the Ganga,” he says, all excited. Meanwhile, Priyanka has been pulled into the bosom of an old lady. She offers Priyanka a steel jug and says there is Ganga jal in it, so Priyanka dips her hand in and sprinkles the liquid on her curly hair. Another lady thrusts a framed photograph of the former Prime Minister and Priyanka’s late father, Rajiv Gandhi, at her. Priyanka holds the frame and smiles at the picture, and when she is asked to keep the frame, Priyanka hands it over to one of her security officers.
The security officers guide Priyanka down the steep, sandy bank and as the Congress dignitaries and karyakartas rush towards her the security officers also cordon her from the ensuing chaos, escorting her in a bubble to the boat. She climbs up to the upper deck and waves to the crowd before squatting beside the students—on the floor, with her arms making an elegant knot around her knees. The angry mob of dignitaries is told that they will not be allowed to ride on Priyanka’s boat, but that a second vessel has been arranged for them. When it arrives, they swarm the entry plank and behave like crabs in a glass jar. Not everyone manages to get on board.
Just as the vessel with the dignitaries begins its journey (to keep abreast with Priyanka’s already moving boat), a Congressman is caught mid-plank and he falls into the water. The watching crowd combusts into giggles and whistles. When he rises, furious and embarrassed, his once starched white kurta is drenched in algae and slush. “None of this would have happened if not for Priyanka’s theatrics,” he tells the karyakartas assisting him back on shore. “Instead of all this boat drama, if she had just met Mayawati and joined hands with her it would have secured Congress’ future. But no, she wants a tamaasha.”
The large convoy of boats—Priyanka’s steamer, her escort vessels and several motorboats hired by news television crews— sputters towards the ghat of Dumduma, the next stop on the campaign trail. From afar, Priyanka rises and waves one last time at the Manhaiya crowd, which is hurriedly being dispersed by the local police. When the crowd thins, a grieving family descends the bank with a still body on a stretcher.
WHAT DOES PRIYANKA GANDHI mean to the people of a state—the largest electoral state in India at that, with 80 seats in the Lok Sabha—who have the tendency to vote for a leader based solely on his or her caste? The sense that I got during the three days of following Priyanka on the stump was that to some—and these are possibly those voters who gave the Bharatiya Janata Party 71 out of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections—she is a performer. To others, she is the saviour who shall one day win India the way her grandmother Indira Gandhi, whom she so resembles, once did.
But for Saritadevi, who is seated cross- legged in the antechamber of the Shivganga Vatika Mandir in Sirsa, Priyanka is the very symbol of hope and change. Sirsa is a township located on the right bank of the Ganga, some 40 kilometres from Prayagraj, and by the time Priyanka’s steamer arrives on its shores, it is late afternoon and the thousands gathered on the hillocks overlooking the bank have their shirts pasted to their backs. They stream down like human rivers and follow Priyanka’s entourage up the path made of kilned brick and on reaching the steps of Shivganga, she turns around and folds her hands and only then disappears behind the temple’s gates. When Priyanka enters the antechamber where the womenfolk of Sirsa have long assembled, Saritadevi, a housewife married to a local shop owner, asks her to take her place on a chair seemingly borrowed for this occasion from a wedding hall. But Priyanka refuses.
“Please stop putting politicians on a pedestal,” Priyanka tells Saritadevi. “We are here for your service and nothing else. I will sit on the floor next to you during this meeting if that is fine by you.” Saritadevi is visibly thrilled by this development and as she told me a little while later, inspired by it too. “Big-named politicians don’t come to this part of Uttar Pradesh. And the local-level ministers who do, want to be treated like filmstars,” she said. “If all politicians behave like Priyanka, this country will be a better place to live in. I wish my daughters become like her.”
“Badlao kaun laayega (who will bring change)?” Priyanka Gandhi asks the crowd. When they reply in one voice with “Congress” she cuts them short and says: “No, not Congress. You will. You will bring in change. So, vote wisely, because your vote is worth its weight in gold”
After the meeting, Priyanka is rushed into a roadshow on the narrow brick lanes of Sirsa. On these slender pathways, the local police and the security officers and an entire township hustle for walking space and it is a stampede-like situation. Often Priyanka is pushed and sometimes she is shoved and always she is made to walk at an uncomfortable pace; yet, never once does she lose her poise. Perma-smile on her face, she greets those hanging out of their balconies with folded hands. When a young girl standing on her front yard wants to shake Priyanka’s hand, Priyanka pulls her into a hug and plants a kiss on the young girl’s cheek. When a schoolboy hands her a glass of red sherbet, she drinks it. And when a lady wants to draw a tika on her forehead, Priyanka lowers her neck and allows it to happen.
A seemingly exhausted sun sinks over the Gangetic plains by the time Priyanka’s steamer approaches the bank of Sitamarhi, her final halt for the day. To welcome her, the town of Sitamarhi has turned carnivalesque, setting up a full-blown mela close to the podium where Priyanka is scheduled to give her first speech on this trail. Not one but two stages are set up in the rally area and the larger stage brims with the local workers of the Congress party. Into the mic and on loop one of them screams “UP mein badlao ki aandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi!” until the speakers set up around Sitamarhi screech with feedback.
When the screeching dies, the worker is publicly chastised by a local adhyaksh (chairperson), who in turn summons a singer to sing Pankaj Udhas’ hit number Chitthi Aayi Hai. The singer is well aware of the adhyaksh’s strategy and pauses intermittently to allow the adhyaksh to address the masses. The jugalbandi goes something like this:
Singer: Chitthi aayi hai aayi hai, chitti aayi hai (x 2)
Adhyaksh: “When was the last time a national politician came to Sitamarhi? That’s right, never. I know Priyanka bitiya is late, but please wait.”
Singer: Bade dino ke baad, hum bevatano ki yaad (x 2)
Adhyaksh: “Uma Bharti promised us that if the Ganga is not clean in five years, she will take jal sanyaas. What happened to either of those promises?”
Singer: Vatan ki mitti aayi hai, chitthi aayi hai…
The sun has set and it is completely dark by the hour Priyanka arrives; and when she does it is by road and not by the river. The steamer, we’re later told, had broken down. There is heavy shuffling on the crowded stage to make space for her, but Priyanka is ushered towards the empty one. On his mic the vexed adhyaksh asks Priyanka to join the waiting Congress workers on their stage and before he can complete his sentence his mic is turned off from a remote destination. Priyanka now approaches the podium and opens her speech with the words, ‘Beheno aur bhaaiyo (sisters and brothers)’, a cultural break from addressing the men before the women.
It is a short speech, less than 10 minutes long, and it is a sharp speech. She apologises for being late and thanks the crowd for remaining patient before launching a subtle attack on Prime Minister Modi. “In 2014, you were promised great things, such as Rs 15 lakh in each of your bank accounts. You were also promised acche din. Did you receive that money? Do you have a better future? That’s right, just what I thought you’d say… Poor people don’t have chowkidars [a dig at Modi], only the rich do.”
While winding up her speech Priyanka summons her punchlines. “Badlao kaun laayega (who will bring change)?” she asks the crowd. When they reply in one voice with “Congress” she cuts them short and says: “No, not Congress. You will. You will bring in change. So, vote wisely, because your vote is worth its weight in gold.” There is rapturous applause and even before Priyanka exits the stage an elderly man in the crowd turns to me and says: “She is smart and a great orator, and will one day be a successful politician. But I will still not vote for her.”
TODAY IS THE THIRD AND FINAL day of the campaign trail and it is slowly dawning upon the Congress welcome- group at Assi Ghat in Varanasi that their leader is perhaps not going to be on time. Priyanka Gandhi is late. A day earlier at the Vindhyavasini temple in Vindhyachal, her late arrival tested the patience of not just the waiting mortals but the gods as well; ironic, given that the Ganga township of Vindhyachal is proud of the fact that the Indian Standard Time line (longitude 82.5°E) cuts through its heart. The temple was closed to the public after its morning darshan and the site’s labyrinthian entryways were cordoned off by wrought-iron barriers, ropes and police personnel. Priyanka arrived at 2.30 pm, four hours after she was due to, and by then the passages were all crammed with onlookers. This led to a frenzy of pro-BJP and anti-Congress sloganeering, eventually erupting into a clash between Modi supporters and Congress karyakartas.
Today, Priyanka is running only two hours behind her schedule and when her boat arrives at the ghat in Varanasi—Modi’s constituency, no less—the onlookers are far more forgiving and welcoming. She is mobbed as soon as she steps on to land, and the mob only balloons as she moves towards the steps of Assi Ghat. There is a severe jostle for space and Priyanka looks both nervous and drained, but the smile never does leave her face. At the bottom step and armed with a microphone, she waits for the commotion to die but when it doesn’t even after repeated pleas, Priyanka ‘uffs’ charmingly into the mic and supports her head on the back of her wrist.
“I have come this far, so please allow me to speak?” she says and the enormous crowd self-hushes. “I have only one request from you, the people of Varanasi. Please free this country from a government that obstructs the growth of farmers, women, labourers and people in general. Over the last five years we have seen what can happen to India if the purpose of politicians is wrong. I can promise you that the only purpose of my politics and the politics of the Congress party is to serve the people.” To the mallaah (boatmen) community gathered on this ghat she says: “Rahul Gandhi has vowed that if he comes to power, he will form a special ministry to serve the needs of boatmen and fishermen. You need security and your boats need insurance and you will only get that if you have a government that understands your needs.”
Speech over, she is whisked back to the boat but en route, when someone whispers into her ear that wives of the mallaahs are waiting for her on the other side of the bamboo fence, Priyanka stops, retraces her steps and simply hops over the low- lying barrier. That move brings her great cheer from the audience congregated on the steps of the ghat and an old lady is beside herself with delight. “This generation of Indian women are really something else,” she says. “She will bring Congress more votes than they got in 2014, mark my words.” The man standing next to the old lady smirks. “You mean Congress will win more than 44 seats?” he asks sarcastically. “Good for them.”
Priyanka looks visibly weary as she makes her way towards Saroja Palace, a banquet hall in Varanasi, to address her party workers—her final assignment of this tour. There are no less than 700 chairs in the hall and almost no vacant seats; many a chair is occupied by two persons and some of them even hold three. The hall is bathed in funky lights of green and violet and two beams of fuchsia are targeted to the two giant chandeliers on the ceiling. The stage is stuffed with Congress bigwigs, including Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Shukla, and they sit under a two-storey hoarding bearing Priyanka’s face. When she enters the stage, her presence has an intoxicating effect on the party workers, who are all now standing on their chairs and cheering, and many are even dancing.
She begs for silence and when she gets none, Priyanka begins pinpointing workers in the crowd and chides them individually. “The gentleman in the second row… yes, you, please sit down. Please? You have to stop dancing, please?” Some begin to sit but just then others rise to slogans and there’s more mayhem and Priyanka can only watch, her head in her palms and her elbows resting on the dais. “I did not expect Congress workers to be so undisciplined. Aap mein bilkul anushaasan nahi hai,” she scolds them like one would unruly schoolchildren. Yet, the hooting and the whistling and the cheering refuses to subside, so Priyanka tries again. “Your behaviour is very discouraging,” she says. “This behaviour and lack of discipline in my own party only tells me that I have plenty of hard work ahead of me.” And here she pauses and stares vacantly into the distance.