OPINION | In Hunt for New Chief, Has Congress Failed to Read Priyanka Gandhi’s Signal from Sonbhadra?
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles.
- Prince Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1
The existential crisis of India’s grand old party, the Congress, is so aptly summed up by these Shakespearean lines that one would not be surprised if these words of Hamlet were ringing in the ears of Priyanka Gandhi on her way to Sonbhadra from the Varanasi airport.
It is a measure of how fast she has learnt the ropes, that while her brother chose to suffer in his mind the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune, Priyanka came out to take the sea of troubles head-on. Her dash to the trouble spot showed an agile mind which understands that relevance is life in politics.
The handling of the Sonbhadra massacre fallout by the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh provided a political lifeline to the opposition, but soon enough, the BJP understood the possibility of this moment turning into a movement, thus stopping Priyanka from reaching the affected village.
It is a measure of the moribund Congress’ rootlessness in Uttar Pradesh that all the theatre of the Gandhi dynast went in vain. Still, the picture of Priyanka crying with the women was a moment of promise. In case the family corrects its course, Priyanka gave a hint of being able to take the mantle.
Sonia Gandhi’s biographer Rasheed Kidwai has an interesting take on the Gandhi succession plan. On Sonia, he says Italian catholic mothers are very much like their Indian counterparts in their preference for boys and a male child. So, when it came to passing the baton after playing night-watchman, Sonia, on an impulse, chose Rahul, discounting his lack of intent, or, worse for Congress’ fortunes, Priyanka’s aggression. The additional dividends that could have accrued from likeness to Indira Gandhi got washed in Sonia’s putra moh.
Sonbhadra is not the first time Priyanka has shown comfort with combat. She had taken on Narendra Modi in 2014, hitting back with “kya main budhiya lagti hun”. Or, in the manner she has stood with her husband Robert Vadra despite him being a political liability.
For most part of her public life, Priyanka has played an obedient daughter, loving sister, indulging wife, and a doting mother. Her Amethi and Rae Bareli appearances, too, have been as a prop rather than the protagonist. Her enrolment as in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh was meant to be an apprenticeship that came rather too late. Ask any political observer and you would know it would have been a Herculean task even for someone from the Amit Shah stable to hold against the Modi juggernaut. If the mother almost banished her, the brother retrieved her only to discredit her.
So, was the Sonbhadra agitation Priyanka’s long shot at the GOP and her mother, telling them that they have an option, if only they look around? Was she applying for the vacancy at the top of the party? When she cried with the women victims, was that a catharsis at the fate of Congress as well?
Let’s make no mistake that the fact that Rahul Gandhi agreed to make Priyanka in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh (not giving her complete charge though) was only after the Congress won three states in December 2018 under his leadership. What had changed between January 2017 and December 2018, when Rahul initially agreed to project Priyanka as the face of the elections in Uttar Pradesh and then backed off?
Interestingly, even when she was sitting on the dharna in the guesthouse, Priyanka insisted that she was acting as an emissary of the Congress chief. She had been “sent by Rahul ji”. Why did she say so? Why was she giving the credit for her moves to her brother? That begs the question whether Rahul Gandhi took her view or was his announcement of ‘not a Gandhi president’ a unilateral one?
A look at Priyanka Gandhi’s track record shows there isn’t much to give her credit for. She hasn’t had any moment of glory in politics so far except her striking resemblance to her grandmother and her razor sharp political repartee. She would need a magic wand and a karmabhoomi to appear as a serious player politically. Whether she is combative or not, we may not know. If anything, the fact that Priyanka Gandhi didn’t contest from Varanasi despite openly displaying she was itching for a fight only showed she is a general who runs away from a battle while the entire army was enthused for a good fight.
On the stage of political theatre, under the arc lights of 24x7 news channels, the cast needs to indulge in nonstop polemics or face a fadeout. The elder Gandhi sibling has shown a propensity to blink whenever the lights turn harsh, the younger one is trying to stare down instead.
If Kidwai is right, then Sonia clearly misfired in bypassing Priyanka. Over a month since Rahul Gandhi went public with his resignation, the party has no plan to move on. The Congress Working Committee meeting that would set in motion the process of electing the next president is still awaited.
In the bargain, a bad one at that, the Congress has turned Sonbhadra into a poor Bhatta Parsaul circa 2011. If anything, even worse, for, Bhatta Parsaul kept the news cameras on Rahul Gandhi for weeks. As someone who covered both the incidents closely, I can sense that the Congress has done injustice with Priyanka, the price for which the party itself would pay.