'Priyanka has a nose for detail, and Rahul is great with strategy': A look into relationship of India's best-known dynasts as Lok Sabha election voting ends

Rashme Sehgal

The end of voting and months of soul-draining political campaigning should serve as an opportune moment to examine the unique relationship shared between Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi who was appointed the general secretary of the Congress earlier this year. This makes both these dynasts head India's oldest political party and, whatever the 2019 Lok Sabha results may throw up, they will continue to be influential players in the country's political future.

Priyanka is the last among the fourth generation of Nehru-Gandhi family to enter the political arena. Once the 2019 campaign hotted up, the brother-sister duo was seen sharing a pleasant exchange at the Kanpur airport where Rahul put his shoulders around her and said light-heartedly, "Let me tell you what it means to be a good brother. I am going in a little helicopter all squeezed up and my sister is doing short flights in a big helicopter... but I love her."

Priyanka responded in the same vein saying, "That's not true. I have also gone on long flights."

Their brief exchange provided a pleasant contrast from the vitriolic election campaign that the public has been subjected to in the last two months. Interacting with a group of students in Pune in the first week of April during campaigning, Rahul told a group of students, "My sister is my best friend€¦. we have been through life together."

Priyanka was merely 12-year-old when her grandmother Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards in New Delhi on 31 October 1984. She said the memory of that morning has been etched in her mind because she went into her grandmother's room to borrow a jhola.

Indira's death left a strong impression on Rahul Gandhi as well. The Congress chief told NDTV, "I had two friends Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, they taught me how to play badminton. They were my friends. In 1984 I was in the garden I met Beant Singh and he asked me where does your grandmother sleep, is her security adequate? If somebody throws a grenade at you, he told me how to lie down. At that time I did not understand what he meant. Years later I understood that Satwant Singh and Beant Singh were going to throw a grenade at her during Diwali."

 

The assassination of Indira and Rajiv affected both Rahul and Priyanka, who said the memory of the morning Indira was killed has been etched in her mind. AFP

The assassination of Indira and Rajiv affected both Rahul and Priyanka, who said the memory of the morning Indira was killed has been etched in her mind. AFP

Elaborating on this, Rahul had also said, "You have to understand my relationship with my sister. We have been through a hell of a lot together. Everyone thinks we have come from an illustrious family and everything is easy. It's actually not that easy. My father was assassinated, my grandmother was assassinated and (we saw) huge political battles, so we have been through a very hard sort of a situation. That has brought us very close together."

The death of their father proved even more traumatic. Speaking to senior journalist Barkha Dutt, Priyanka had said, "In the beginning when my father was killed, I didn't realise it, but I was furious. I was absolutely furious inside. I was furious not with particular individuals who killed him, but I was furious with the whole world."

 

Their father had been the pivot around which their lives revolved. Both the brother and sister were pulled out of regular schools and had to continue their studies from home. Their teacher Avnita Bir, who was then teaching at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, and who helped them clear their board exams through home classes, remembers Priyanka as being self-assured and more poised and confident of the two. She had a strong sense of family and behaved very much like the elder sibling though she was younger than Rahul. Bir further said that what she found remarkable was the close bond between the siblings because it sends out a strong positive message of family values which is "so rare these days".

Rajeev Desai, who advised Rajiv Gandhi on media matters and has been part of the Congress media cell, said, "Rahul and Priyanka sit together at meetings, they consult each other and provide support to each other. Priyanka provides him with psychological and emotional support, as she does with Sonia, as well."

The threat of assassination runs as an undercurrent through their lives. Natwar Singh told this reporter in an interview at the time of the publication of his book 'One Life is Not Enough' that it was Rahul's warning to Sonia Gandhi in 2004 after the UPA had won the elections, to not accept the prime minister's job. Apparently, Rahul told his mother that if she accepted the post she could well end up getting assassinated.

Priyanka was in the know of what Rahul told his mother, according to Natwar Singh, and Sonia took Rahul's advise because, following the Congress victory at the hustings, she chose to offer the post of prime ministership to Dr Manmohan Singh. Initially, Singh declined because he did not have the mandate, but was later persuaded to change his mind.

When Rahul had decided to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, many believed that the wrong Gandhi sibling had joined politics. Priyanka, it was widely held, was more suited for the role. This perception could have been based on her sharp attack against her uncle Arun Nehru who the family believed had betrayed her father and then switched sides and chose to contest from Rae Bareli on a BJP ticket.

Desai feels part of this perception about Rahul is because "like Sonia, he opens up with a very few people. By contrast, Rajiv was extremely sociable while Sonia is more of an introvert," he said.

But Priyanka chose to remain behind the scenes. From 1998 to now, her public participation in politics has remained limited to the Gandhi family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, though she has been known to be more than a mere confidante and counsellor for Sonia and Rahul when it comes to crucial decisions. She is also known to have often acted as a troubleshooter for the party. Priyanka is also known for being in touch with leaders across political spectra when both the 2004 and 2009 UPA alliances were being stitched together.

The timing of Priyanka's political entry was always an important issue for the Gandhi family. Not keen on emerging as yet another power centre in the party, and also trying to avoid comparisons with her brother Rahul, Priyanka bided her time. When Natwar Singh was asked the inevitable question of Priyanka's entry into politics, he retorted, "What will happen to Rahul?"

The raids conducted against her husband Robert Vadra must have acted as a catalyst. The fact that 2018 saw Rahul come into his own as a campaigner and the fact that he won his electoral spurs in the Hindi heartland must have been other deciding factors given that the Congress has been virtually starved of electoral victories following its debacle in 2014.

In an interview to Hindustan Times, Priyanka said: "Actually, I think there were two different aspects to my deciding to be in politics. The first was that my view of myself, my life and its relationship to politics changed drastically. The second aspect was that I found myself watching silently as the BJP was systematically destroying democratic institutions, enforcing a hate-filled political narrative and creating divisions among people for its own political advancement. I began to feel that remaining silent was cowardly. I didn't know how to accept that cowardice."

Sam Pitroda a close aide of Rahul, and someone who played a major role in drafting Congress manifesto for the Lok Sabha election believes, "They augment each other. She has a nose for details and is particular about the execution while Rahul is great on strategy. It is good to see them work together because they share special chemistry."

Not everyone accepts these statements at face value. There is no doubt that Priyanka was keen to contest elections from Varanasi but Rahul did not give her the green signal. Some political analysts in Varanasi believe that the reason why Rahul did not allow her was that he did not want to create another power centre in Congress. Party loyalists dismiss these claims as being far-fetched.

Congress insiders do not agree with this assessment and claim that this was going to be Priyanka's first electoral fight and they did not want her to start it with a loss. They did not want to waste Priyanka in a fight that she could not have won against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

There are others who believe that one of the underlying themes of this campaign has been that the Congress is preparing for 2022 state elections in Uttar Pradesh and for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Their leaders knew from the start that they were no match for the Modi-Shah duo. Time will only tell how correct this assessment is but there is no doubt that both brother and sister will continue to play an important role in Indian politics.

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