Priyanka Gandhi had said in an interview on April 24, 2009, “Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve figured out why myself, but I’m very clear I don’t want to be in politics. I’m very happy living my life the way I am. I think there are certain aspects of politics which I’m just not suited to.”
Congressmen, from that day onwards, were not sure if Priyanka will stick to her remarks. On Wednesday, they had a smug smile when Priyanka’s name figured as AICC general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
For many at the UPCC office at Nehru Bhavan, Mall Avenue in Lucknow, or at 24, Akbar Road, New Delhi, Priyanka Gandhi’s induction in the AICC secretariat is going to go much beyond eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Coming at a time when Lok Sabha polls are less than 90 days away, the announcement is a psychological tool to shock both the ruling BJP-NDA and third-front protagonists who were scripting their success story on the basis of Congress support.
Prima facie, the Congress focus on projecting Priyanka is to give an otherwise demoralised and defunct Congress in UP something to cheer about. If the Congress does well in UP in May 2019, the chances of Narendra Modi-led NDA returning to power would turn bleak.
The Congress has a rich history of Nehru-Gandhi family members working as a “pair”. If Priyanka indeed joins politics, this will not for the first time that two family members of Nehru-Gandhi family would be holding high posts together.
In 1959, Indira became Congress president much to the surprise of many in the party when father Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister. Nehru's detractors had viewed the development as the then prime minister's bid to push his daughter into the coveted post. But a large section of Congressmen of that era had felt that Indira had earned her post through merit.
They had reason to say so. As AICC chief, Indira tackled Kerala crisis and recommended creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat to end the linguistic trouble there. When her term ended in 1960, the Congress Working Committee tried hard, requesting Indira to stand for re-run but she declined firmly.
Sanjay, from 1974 to 1980, did not opt for a formal post in the Congress (except for a brief stint as AICC general secretary) but was considered at par with Indira in many organisational and administrative matters. In fact, weeks before he died in a fatal air-crash in June 1980, associate Ram Chandra Rath was viewing Sanjay as party president.
Rath used to say, “Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru became AICC leaders at a very young age. So if the party elects him president, it's perfectly democratic. There is nothing wrong with that."
Sanjay’s brother Rajiv became AICC general secretary in 1983 when Indira was prime minister. He was given a room at 24, Akbar Road, next to Indira. Rajiv's words mattered most and most ministers in Indira’s Cabinet were often seen waiting outside his office. Sonia’s own functional relationship with Rahul between 2006-2014 saw a clear demarcation when UPA ministers, other than those belonging to Team Rahul - younger lot like Ajay Makan, R.P.N. Singh, Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot - were not encouraged to call on him.
So what is next in the store for Priyanka?
Ten years of UPA rule (2004-14) did not enhance Rahul’s political stature. Rather, it made a somewhat promising politician appear as a confused, reluctant and often non-serious character. In this sense, Rahul’s subsequent task was to restore aura of a credible, 24X7 politician, earn respect from his fellow partymen and demonstrate his capability to defeat the BJP. December 11, 2018 provided him that opportunity when the Congress, on its own strength, humbled the BJP in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In India's 72 years of post-independence history, Gandhis have led the Congress for 59 years. Congressmen of all hue and shades look up to Gandhi family members as unquestionable leaders and in return, expect electoral success, power etc.
From Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, no Gandhi membership has failed or abruptly opted out of politics. As a result, Congress leaders blindly follow them and do not wish to look beyond Gandhis. Gandhis like Rahul and now Priyanka, have to live with this illusion of grandeur and prove Congressmens’ political instincts right.
Priyanka had repeatedly been saying, "I will do anything to help my brother...I will do anything he requires me to do." Her entire politics revolves around making Rahul a success. It now required her formal entry in politics and the younger sister jumped on the bandwagon even forgetting what she said in that interview ten years ago.
(The author is visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a senior journalist. Views are personal)