Priyanka Gandhi: Congress’ elusive queen of hearts

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Should Priyanka Vadra enter the campaign for the 2014 elections? Her presence at a Congress meeting this month made news and led to speculation that this will happen.

It was clarified that she was only there to have a look at her mother’s and brother’s election schedules, but such is the despair in the Congress that even this casual visit produced rumours. Let’s have a look at the matter and see what is likely.

The important fact of course is that the excitement that the Bharatiya Janata Party is able to create around its prime ministerial candidate is missing in the Congress. Narendra Modi is seen as a far more charismatic campaigner, and more effective communicator, than Rahul Gandhi.

In pictures: Will Priyanka Gandhi follow in Indira Gandhi’s footsteps?

The strongman from Gujarat also has the advantage of a record on governance and growth that Rahul personally lacks. The reluctance or inability of the younger man to deploy his charisma — by making heroic or lyrical speeches — also hurts his party.

Dynasties survive on the back of such charisma, and every South Asian family politician knows this. In the Congress there is a large section, particularly in the lower ranks, that would like Priyanka to bring the spark that Rahul is unable to kindle. Election campaigns need personality and colour and this is absent in the Congress, and acknowledged by many within it. Where will it come from?

Priyanka, on the limited evidence of her public outings and media interactions, is more magnetic a figure than her brother. The mischief of her husband, and the awful public image he has built, has not rubbed off on her, and this has in part to do with her independent personality. She is likeable and attractive.

So on the face of it, the entry of Priyanka would help the party fight back against its toughest opponent in decades. The other way of looking at it is to say that Rahul ought to be given a chance to fail first before being sidelined in favour of his sister. A move to bring in Priyanka at this stage would mean an acknowledgment of Rahul’s failure and defeat in 2014. But that defeat hasn’t yet come.

It well might, and there may be a need to rethink the idea of Rahul as the party’s future, but it cannot be done on the basis of an imagined result. Since taking over as Congress president, Sonia Gandhi improved on the party’s electoral performance (in terms of the number of seats) in three consecutive general elections. It is probable that this year the sequence will end and the party tally will drop.

The Congress should then assess whether this loss can be debited purely to a weak and colourless young leader or to other factors also. The weariness of voters with the Congress over its decade in power, its many scandals, its inability to control its partners and a general fatigue could be as responsible as Rahul’s shortcomings in comparison with Modi.

Even if the Congress is fighting a half-hearted fight and getting ready to sit in Opposition, the judgment on Rahul as leader and Priyanka as the future must wait.

One final aspect is the division of power between mother and son. The extent to which Rahul has independence in directing Congress strategy is unclear. Though his interventions have sometimes resulted in the party changing direction, he is still the deputy leader of the Congress and subordinate to his mother.

Sonia Gandhi enjoys a much better reputation as a leader than her son, at least with the media. It is quite remarkable that she personally has not come under the sort of attack that Rahul has, though she is the individual in charge of the party.

It is only after the elections that the family — mother, son and daughter — should sit together and see if the scion is a dud who needs to be replaced.

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