Did ED's Vadra Chase and BJP's Personal Attacks on Rahul Convince Priyanka to Take Political Plunge?
The Congress has upped the stakes for the 2019 Lok Sabha battle by playing its trump card against Narendra Modi, underlining its determination to not only oust the BJP but to make a credible bid for power.
In an unmistakable signal to the ruling party and the opposition, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been tasked with reviving the party in Uttar Pradesh. Ever since her electrifying debut on the campaign trail two decades ago, Congress workers have been awaiting her entry into the field. She has all the charisma her brother and party president Rahul Gandhi seems to be lacking in and her very presence galvanizes the rank-and-file.
Within the BJP, there is speculation that the Enforcement Directorate's investigation against her husband, businessman Robert Vadra, may have played a role in motivating Priyanka to step directly into the electoral campaign. In recent months, the probe has picked up speed, with several raids against Vadra's aides.
Priyanka is not involved in Vadra's business in any way and had said as much when the question regarding her land purchases in Amipur village near Faridabad in 2006 was raised. (The land was subsequently resold to the original owner.) However, she did serve as director of Blue Breeze Trading, one of Vadra's many companies, which was incorporated in 2007. She resigned in 2008 and was replaced by Sreenivasan Krishnan, who was inducted as a Congress general secretary last year.
The induction of Krishnan, who claimed to have quit the company in 2011, was seen as testimony to the clout that Priyanka wields in the party. It is widely known that she played a key role in planning election campaigns and selecting candidates, operating daily from her brother's home on Tughlaq Lane where she had her own office and staff. She sought independent feedback on the party's performance in various states and intervened from time-to-time on a variety of issues.
After her marriage, Priyanka confined her activities to the family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareilly. Her reluctance to enter politics directly was attributed to three factors. The first, according to senior Congress leaders, was Sonia Gandhi's obvious preference for having Rahul Gandhi in the leadership role. “She is a typical Italian-Indian mother,” was the standing joke. Second, Priyanka herself did not want to take the spotlight away from her brother, by creating scope for an alternative centre of power within the party.
Third, she preferred to concentrate on her own family, which – according to report and rumour – was extremely challenging for an extended period of time. Her husband, Robert, indicated an interest in politics quite early on. In an interview to a prominent daily, he declared that he would join politics when his children were grown up and he had the time and if he felt he could make a difference: “I don't know if I will join politics, but I can definitely win from anywhere”. Robert undertook motorcycle yatras and gave speeches while accompanying his wife on her electoral campaigns.
The fact that the recent opposition mahagathbandhan in UP left the Congress out in the cold could also have motivated Rahul to finally induct his sister into the campaign. She is widely seen as the best chance that the party has of putting up a credible show in UP on its own. The Congress vote is at rock bottom in UP; it was 7.5 per cent in Lok Sabha 2014 and fell to 6.2 per cent in Assembly 2017. However, the Congress has shown considerable elasticity in terms of votes and managed to win 21 seats in 2009.
The Congress is well aware that in order to make a post-electoral bid for power, it will have to produce the numbers. Currently, its scope for improvement lies mainly in the states where it is in direct contest with the BJP, either on its own or as the senior partner in an alliance. Everywhere else, regional forces are dominant. Passing the 100-mark is an ambitious target, which involves more than doubling its 2014 tally. To make a pitch for leadership, it will need to open its account in UP.
In a do-or-die battle, Priyanka is the party's best and perhaps only bet. She has the common touch and an Indira Gandhi-esque persona that allows a palpable connection with the crowds. Congress workers regard her as more than a match for the high-decibel campaigning of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)