By Manik Sharma Jan. 24, 2019
Priyanka Gandhi ticks many checkboxes. For the liberal, she is an educated, eloquent woman; to the masses, she is a smooth-talking ballerina gliding across the stage of a Bhojpuri play. Her appointment as party general secretary in UP is a sign of the Congress making its final stab at relevance.
n her surprise last speech to the Members of the Commons in 1601 – now known as The Golden Speech – Queen Elizabeth I said, “I do not so much rejoice that God hath made me to be a Queen, as to be a Queen over so thankful a people.” Though she meant something entirely different, Elizabeth I’s speech underscores the nature of hierarchy, where truth often becomes subservient to belief. Priyanka Gandhi’s belated entry into active Indian politics must seem remedial to the already thankful.
It, after all, makes sense to coronate the long-touted third queen of the Indian political firmament. It’s somehow surprising and fitting at the same time, since her appointment as the party general secretary (Uttar Pradesh – East), comes in the run-up to an election where the Congress’ odds have unexpectedly risen on account of the BJP’s undoing. But Priyanka’s potential, her now seemingly clearer path to power and authority of some sort is no more than a generic fantasy the Congress, the Gandhi family has time and again floated in front of India’s public.
In more ways than one Priyanka’s elevation seems well-deserved – not that the bar was ever too high for the Congress. Of the two siblings she has always seemed the more astute, more composed, cleverer, and the one with wider appeal. In 2009, for example, she cleverly retorted to a jibe by Narendra Modi where he claimed the Congress was an old party, by asking “Kya main budhi dikhti hun”. She has campaigned for her brother and mother in Uttar Pradesh and has, perhaps, impressed enough to warrant a proper stint in politics. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 she was even deemed by some as responsible for winning her brother’s seat for him.
In more ways than one Priyanka’s elevation seems well-deserved – not that the bar was ever too high for the Congress
But most importantly, it is the endless comparisons with her grandmother Indira Gandhi, that Priyanka mark her draw for the public. Far more than Sonia, Priyanka appears to be the political and spiritual successor to Indira Gandhi. People marvel at the similarities between the two, even if it they are as daft as the way they both wear their hair or their preference in saris. Without ever playing a significant role in politics, there has always been a myth around Priyanka that is as unclassified and unsubstantiated as comparisons to her grandmother are unearned.
Then there are the many checkboxes that Priyanka ticks. She is a well-educated, eloquent woman, from the upper echelons of social mythology that liberals readily endorse. On the other side, to the masses in Uttar Pradesh she is this oddity, a smooth-talking ballerina walking across the stage of a Bhojpuri play. Priyanka, even before pitching her tent on the periphery of Indian politics, seems to have woven some magic within its unexplored corners; at times by being elusive, perhaps even uninterested. Does she even want to do this? A question that has been asked for Rahul as well. Maybe, maybe not. One thing is for sure, her zero attempts somehow outweigh the many incursions her brother has made into the heart of India – worthy until having to prove it.
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That, however, is as far as faith goes, the distance that this latest gimmick travels. The truth is that Priyanka is simply another dynast-in-waiting. She is neither a bold step nor a revolution in the making. The Congress could have rather foregrounded the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia when they had the chance. Though both Pilot and Scindia are descendants of political heritage, they have at least proven their mettle in the field and at the ballot. Priyanka, on the other hand has remained local to her comfort zone, not to mention handicapped by the shadow of a man – Robert Vadra – the country is still trying to figure.
Her popularity is clearly born out of desperation to find worth in the waning influence of the Gandhi family, only unexpectedly resurrected in recent times by an intrepid Rahul. Old habits die hard – old power, perhaps never.
The promise, this manufactured idea of what Priyanka can bring to the table is also considerably tricky in what she might take away from her brother’s end. She has the sparkle but can’t – or at least can’t be seen to – outshine him. Remain on the radar, but not make an unconscious move towards the centre. Be active, but in a passive manner. It is tricky all right, especially considering her appeal is expected to split the upper-class and Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh: The former is looking for an alternative to the BJP, while the latter would have looked straight at the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. A split in the vote will eventually benefit the BJP, who still has a massive cache in UP.
Gandhi’s emergence isn’t revelatory or a deviation.
The Congress, at least in its latest version is not known for its shrewdness. Chances are this is just a knee-jerk reaction to the formation of the SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh. There could also be the more romantic possibility that the party has decided to seize the moment, and has therefore floated this wondrous idea of a long mythologised leader as a fantasy of sorts.
To be honest, it is no different, no more unlikely than the many fantasies the BJP offered the country back in 2014. Gandhi’s emergence isn’t revelatory or a deviation. It is part of the same old illusion that the Congress reconstructs over generation, where someone from the Gandhi family poses as the rescuer, the salvation of masses. It could yet reap rewards for the party, for people tend to believe in the fiction of the future; fiction that has limitless space for the Gandhis to play crucial characters, and precious little for everyone else, like props.