Priyanka Gandhi - Profiling the Biggest Unknown of India's 2019 Elections
India is preparing for its 2019 General Election, due to take place between April and May this year. Around 900 million people will decide the fate of the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the world’s largest democratic exercise. The Prime Minister finds himself pitted against his national rival – Rahul Gandhi led Indian National Congress – and a number of other regional parties. Smarting under the historic drubbing it received in 2014, the Congress is keen to demonstrate the unraveling of Mr. Modi’s original campaign slogan, “ache din aa rhe hai” (good days are coming), as an economy reeling under a jobs and agrarian crisis struggles to justify the exponential increases in the income of its uber rich.
The Congress party’s morale has been in an upswing since it secured election victories in 3 traditionally BJP stronghold states. These were the party’s first major electoral victories since 2012. However, more than bolstering the morale of the Congress, the results have worked to energize a weak opposition, and an election which less than 5 months ago was a foregone conclusion, is now a toss-up. That the election is still fair game is demonstrated by the fact that despite the expected surge in popularity it received on account of tensions with neighbouring Pakistan, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to stich strategic alliances with regional parties, often at the cost of unfavourable seat-sharing terms.
To capitalize on the shifting trends, the Congress has finally played its wild card – Mrs. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Mrs. Gandhi-Vadra is the sister of Mr. Rahul Gandhi, and the great-grand daughter, grand-daughter, and daughter of India’s 1st, 3rd, and 6th Prime Ministers, respectively. Her mother, Sonia Gandhi was Congress President from 1998 to 2017, exercising de-facto control over the Govt. of India for 10 years until 2014. Mrs. Gandhi-Vadra therefore, comes from a family that has directly controlled the reigns of the Government of India – and that of several states – for all but 17 years since 1950.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi (L) with Ms. Priayanka Gandhi-Vadra (R).
Ordinarily, such a lineage would render anyone liable to charges of nepotism, not least someone who enters the electoral fray in their late 40s without any prior experience. Her brother – who has been a Member of Parliament since 2004 – faces this charge regularly. However, the reason she is the wild card for the Congress is because she is able to repel such criticism like water off a duck’s back. Despite her limited participation in public life, Priyanka Gandhi has proved to be a savvy political operative. When her mother faced defections and hostility from old family confidantes in 1999, she was tasked with managing the campaign in the family bastions of Rae Bareli and Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh. By successfully defending the seats, she cemented her place within the Congress ranks, and also laid the foundation for Sonia Gandhi to take over a divided party.
Perhaps the strongest weapon in Priyanka Gandhi’s arsenal is the unmistakable resemblance she bears to her grand-mother, the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Far from a shallow physical likeliness, this transcends into the stylistic realm, unlike her mother and brother. In the chaos of Indian politics, she appears to be a calm, reassuring figure, with a capacity for oratory and turn of phrase that few can match – much to the ire of PM Modi, who can himself be described in similar terms. As Prime Minister in the 1970s, Ms. Indira Gandhi launched a slew of socialist policies – nationalising banks, launching redistribution programs, abolishing the privileges of former princely rulers, etc. These have since been the standard norm in India’s political economy. However, the former PM is also remembered as the Knight who kinked the armour of India’s prized Constitution. She presided over ‘The Emergency’ during 1975-77, when India’s Constitution was practically suspended, and the country slid into authoritarian rule. While she decisively lost power to a rag-tag coalition after suspending the Emergency in 1977, she was emphatically returned to the PM’s chair by the Indian electorate in 1980 after the coalition collapsed. Post 1984, when she was assassinated as a result of the militancy in the state of Punjab, became a paradoxically polarizing figure – loved and detested simultaneously.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (L), Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra (R).
Ironically, the BJP – whose previous political avatar fought against her in 1977 – has found it most difficult to reconcile itself to the former PM. In PM Modi, it aims to project the same decisive, strong-willed politician that Indira Gandhi was, yet, it aims to showcase itself as a party that respects democracy and thus, leaves no stone unturned to criticize her. In doing so, it often ends up with adjectives that many point out can be used equally effectively to describe the BJP’s own Prime Minister. As Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra comes to the fore, the psychological impact of that figure lurking in the shadows is perhaps the biggest metaphysical mystery of India’s elections.
In a remarkable turn of fate, Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 brought both Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, who were children at the time, to national attention. Their pictures next to the pyre of their grandmother, earned them the sympathy of a grieving country. Little would they have known that merely seven years later, they’d find themselves at the center of national sympathy again. In 1991, then former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – father of Rahul and Priyanka – was assassinated during an election campaign at the hands of a Sri Lankan militant organization. A Congress-led government came in, but for the first time since Indira Gandhi became PM in 1966, the Nehru-Gandhi family was completely out of both the party, and government. Rajiv’s widow – Sonia Gandhi – took an initial pledge to stay outside the fray of politics, while Rahul Gandhi did not seem too interested in the activity, either. While the mother and son would eventually return to politics in 1998, and 2004, respectively, Priyanka Gandhi decided to marry a businessman Robert Vadra, and settled into private life in 1997.
But the charm of Priyanka Gandhi has since been a recurring, but elusive feature of Indian politics. When the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi’s own parliamentary seat was threatened in the 2014 General Elections in Amethi – a particularly bad election for the Congress Party – Priyanka was parachuted to campaign for her brother. Her aggressive, combative, and hard-hitting attacks on the BJP – particularly its PM Candidate Narendra Modi – struck a rare resonance at a time when PM Modi was at the peak of his popularity.
The 2014 election campaign was particularly remarkable for the energy that Priyanka infused among a largely scattered and demoralized cadre of the Congress Party. It also betrayed the first signs of nervousness within the BJP over her involvement in politics, leading them to allege irregularities in her husband’s business dealings. The said irregularities have since not been proved, despite there being BJP governments at the Central level, and also in the state of Haryana – where the irregularities were alleged – but nevertheless, these have resurfaced as she returns to the fore. The core strength of Priyanka Gandhi has been her ability to connect with the masses. Many have spoken about the stark resemblance she has with her grand-mother, Indira Gandhi, who was a masterful orator. Much to the angst of the BJP, the only individual to match Mr. Modi’s decisive, charismatic image in living memory is Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Since the dead cannot fight elections, anyone with even a resemblance to her who drops in on the electoral field becomes an instant challenger – more so when the person concerned is her grand-daughter.
Mr. Robert Vadra (L) with Ms. Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra (R).
Challenging times in the Congress Party
However, not all is hunky dory in the Congress party, and Priyanka’s entry into the political fray betrays some nervousness in the Congress’ First Family as well. First, one of the authors of this article has always held that Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into active politics was inevitable, and only a matter of correct timing. Politically therefore, her entry leads one to analyze the impact on the prospect of the Congress party, and the Opposition at large in 2019. The point of her entry is equally relevant. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been brought in as The Congress General Secretary for Eastern Uttar Pradesh, tasked with engineering a win for the party in the crucial state – with a population of more than 200 million, the state sends the largest number of MPs to India’s Parliament.
In 2014, the BJP won a historic 73 of the 80 seats from UP. The Congress party, or any other regional party is unlikely to even come close to this number. However, this number should be treated as an anomaly because of the 2014 election saw an unprecedented popularity for a single party after more than 30 years in India. The crucial number therefore, is that of 2009. In the 2009 General Elections – which returned a Congress-led Government to power with a better tally – the party had secured 21 seats in UP. This was its highest tally in the state since it lost political relevance in UP after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, that heralded the political rise of the BJP in the early 1990s.
Recent polls, bye-election results, and the general record of the BJP-led government at the Centre and in UP, make it all but certain that the BJP is unlikely to repeat its stellar 2014 performance. Instead, its best hope is to aim for 35-50 seats in the state, so as to retain the single largest party status in the Parliament. This strategy of the BJP faces a major hurdle in the recently announced alliance between traditional regional rivals – BSP and SP. These two parties are exceptionally strong contenders for the votes in the state of UP, owing to their appeal to the state’s large religious and caste minorities, and strong network of dedicated local cadre. They have largely fluid ideologies on matters relating to larger national issues, and tend to focus on issues of reservation, economic redistribution, etc., which directly impact their vote base. Traditionally, the two parties have been rivals and control of the state government has rotated among them – occasionally interrupted by the BJP – since the late 1990s. On the national stage, they have aligned with both Congress, and BJP led governments.
Last month, the two parties announced a pre-poll alliance, offering the Congress a mere 2 seats of the 80 available to contest. The coming together of the BSP and the SP can spell doom for the BJP, which had benefitted from the scattering of anti-BJP vote – comprising of the lower castes and religious minorities – among the SP, BSP, and to a much smaller extent, the Congress. The announcement of the SP-BSP tie-up left the Congress high and dry, in a state where the party has all but lost its relevance. Priyanka Gandhi’s entry must therefore be seen as the party’s bid to preclude its very existence as a force in the state. For the Congress to remain a potent national force in 2019, it needs to win atleast 15-20 seats from UP. The hope is that Priyanka Gandhi’s oratory, charisma, and connect with the public can deliver this for the Congress party. This would be the best case scenario for the Congress party. Securing 20 seats on its own, with the SP-BSP tie up also working largely as predicted, the Congress would restrict the BJP to 160-180 seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of India’s Parliament). In such a situation, the Congress is likely to hold between 120-140 seats at the national level. Given its greater alliance building capacity post elections, the Congress’ best bet is to use this situation, and its strong numbers among the opposition, to nominate a PM candidate of its own choice and lead a government.
Leader of the BSP, Ms. Mayawati (front), and Leader of SP, Mr. Akhilesh Yadav (back). Both are former Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh.
However, things could backfire as well. Analysts and experts are bewildered at the Congress’ decision to send in Priyanka Gandhi. No one denies her strengths as a master campaigner. However, her presence could damage the Congress’ own best case predictions. This is because the SP, BSP, and Congress all compete for the same voter base in UP, while the BJP attempts to drive out a higher turnout among caste Hindus to win large seats by brute numbers. If the BJP were to successfully polarize the communal-caste environment in the state, as looks likely by the tone of its Chief Minister and other leaders, the lower castes and religious minorities (particularly, the Muslims), would find themselves having to chose between the SP, BSP, and Congress. This would end up splitting the anti-BJP vote, and benefit the BJP immensely, as it did in 2014. Therefore, by sending in a candidate that strengthens its position in the state, the Congress might have paradoxically scuttled the strength of the Opposition in India’s First Past the Pole System of voting. In an alternate scenario, it was quite likely that post elections, the BSP-SP combine would have anyway joined a Congress-led government, rather than a BJP-led regime.
A second way of looking at this is to view Priyanka Gandhi’s entry as an attempt by the Congress to arm-twist the SP and BSP into submission. The greatest damage of a BJP sweep in the state would be to the two regional parties – the BSP had failed to secure even a single seat in India’s lower house in 2014 – because, the Congress still remains a strong factor in other states. Therefore, it could be the case that Priyanka Gandhi has been sent in to scare the SP and BSP into submission. It is possible that the three parties come to some sort of an arrangement – even if it is not formal – to give each other an easy ride in some seats.
There is a third dimension as well. Rahul Gandhi has been in politics for a significant time now, however, his successes are only recent. Before the victories in the 3 state elections in December last year, he was repeatedly mocked for being a dynast, and his oratorical impact had been limited. While he currently enjoys an upswing in popularity, with some polls putting him close to the Prime Ministers numbers, it is unlikely that regional leaders who themselves harbor ambitions would accept him as Prime Minister. He is further hamstrung by his lack of administrative experience, despite a long public life. On the other hand, his sister’s relative absence from public life means that she is the ideal blank slate. The gravitas of her personality far exceeds that of her brother, and her competence – or perception thereof – significantly blunts the charge of nepotism. Her strong persona can also help dispel the potent argument of an unstable coalition of interests, that the BJP often uses against any opposition alliance. As an outsider, she is also likely to be acceptable to regional leaders, and the history associated with a second female Prime Minister is no small advantage.
Former Congress President Sonia Gandhi (front), with Ms. Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra (back).
However, if this is to be the Congress’ strategy, they will have to convince regional leaders that Priyanka Gandhi as Prime Minister would not become a threat to their own strongholds in the future. It is here that parallels of her personality to Mrs. Indira Gandhi would do her real damage as a compromise candidate. When she was made Prime Minister in 1966 – after both Nehru, and Shastri passed away in quick succession – Mrs. Gandhi was a compromise candidate between competing factions of the Congress Party, aka, The Syndicate. She was dubbed as the goongi gudiya (dumb doll), for her soft-spoken personality. In a short span of 4 years, Mrs. Indira Gandhi went on to become the Prime Minister who broke out of the control of The Syndicate, pursued a war to divide Pakistan into two countries, and emerged as the Iron Lady of Indian Politics much before Margret Thatcher had even taken over as the Leader of the Tories. She would go on to dismantle each state leader of the Congress Party, and dominate Indian politics for about 15 years thereafter. This would be fresh in the minds of many of today’s regional leaders, many of whom were mentored by the very leaders who were politically trampled by PM Indira Gandhi.
The impact of her entry therefore, will come with its positives and negatives – both of which will manifest in the 2019 election results for the Congress. While on the one hand, it will certainly end up benefitting the party in UP – a tally of 2 can only be increased – how many seats are lost to the BJP because of the scattering of votes remains to be seen. At the same time, the BJP now faces not one, but two strong challengers in the Congress. Despite all the abuses and jokes hurled at him, Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in establishing himself as a leader with a national presence. He has broken the halo of invincibility, and the consequent psychological intimidation that the BJP enjoyed in straight contests with its national rival. The BJP is also well aware of Priyanka’s potential – no wonder that they have attempted to accelerate investigations against her husband.
Political analysts and experts are having two minds in considering this situation. It has been said that, on one hand, that personality politics pushes the Opposition to a disadvantage – Mr. Modi’s face continues to resonate with voters, for better or worse. At the same time, in Mrs. Gandhi, the Congress might finally find a potent face to challenge the Prime Minister – even if this is accomplished from her fort in Eastern UP. Mrs. Gandhi-Vadra is neither hobbled by command over Hindi (unlike her mother), nor subject to major gaffes (unlike her brother). One thing is certain, she is the biggest unknown of the 2019 elections – and that must give sleepless nights to everyone, most of all to the incumbent she is challenging.
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About the Authors
Prashant Khurana is a student of Law at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from Hansraj College. He is an accomplished debater, and an active participant and organiser of Model United Nations Conferences and was recently offered the position of Chairperson at the University of Kent, United Kingdom for their MUN conference. He has appeared as a guest panelist on Headlines Today News Channel and has also interviewed personalities such as Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Dr. Sambit Patra, the Ambassador of Canada to India, among others.
Rehana Iftikhar holds a graduate degree in Journalism and mass communication from Lady Shri Ram College for women, University of Delhi. She has done a Diploma course in Print and Electronic Media. Rehana previously worked with an online magazine, The Qurius, formerly known as The Indian Economist. She loves to read books and is a fierce voice for environmental and animal protection.