Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Congress general secretary incharge of Uttar Pradesh, has been exceptionally proactive ever since the coronavirus lockdown forced lakhs of migrants to flee the cities and trek home to the safety of their native villages.
She wrote several letters to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, pressing for a variety of relief measures for farmers, daily wagers and others displaced by the pandemic. She followed this up by seeking the CM’s permission to transport stranded migrants from Uttar Pradesh to their villages in the 1,000 buses especially commandeered by the party for this specific purpose.
This led to a political slugfest between the two leaders. The Yogi government first said no to Priyanka Gandhi’s offer, then yes and then demanded necessary documentation of the vehicles. This back-and-forth continued for some time and finally ended with the Congress sending back the buses parked at the state borders for the stranded migrants, accusing the Yogi government of indulging in petty politicking.
Priyanka Gandhi’s latest battle with Yogi Adityanath and her ongoing interest in Uttar Pradesh has undoubtedly delighted the Congress state unit, which believes these activities will help create some political space for the beleaguered party in this electorally crucial state. Reduced to a bit player in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is depending on her to put the party back on its feet in the Hindi heartland state.
However, Priyanka Gandhi’s focus on Uttar Pradesh has also led to rumblings in the Congress over what many party leaders described as “undue importance being given to UP” while other states are being neglected. This was particularly evident during the ongoing period of the coronavirus lockdown when the Congress decided to take on the cause of the poor migrant workers.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi set up a control room at the party headquarters to coordinate with the state units regarding relief measures and travel arrangements for the stranded migrants.
However, this exercise soon became all about workers from Uttar Pradesh.
Priyanka Gandhi’s office, which was overseeing the travel plans of the Uttar Pradesh migrants, constantly flooded the control room and the state units with lists of these migrants, with the request that expeditious steps be taken to locate the UP contingent and transport the workers to their destination.
For instance, on Wednesday, the National Students Union of India in Delhi made special arrangements for 30 stranded students from Uttar Pradesh to travel home. NSUI president Neeraj Kundan publicly acknowledged they were instructed by Priyanka Gandhi to help the students from UP. Such requests have become a routine affair for party leaders. In fact, the entire party machinery has been mobilised during the lockdown to help migrants from Uttar Pradesh.
With UP figuring high on the priority list of the Congress leadership, especially Priyanka Gandhi, the requirements of migrants from other states have suffered for want of adequate attention.
This has sparked resentment among party workers who feel that the interests of their respective states have not been given due consideration. Their common refrain is: ”Aren’t there poor people in states other than Uttar Pradesh?”
But then, this is not about Uttar Pradesh alone but about Priyanka Gandhi who occupies a special place in the hierarchy of Congress general secretaries, primarily because she belongs to the party's first family. Once considered a powerful position, a general secretary’s post today has been steadily devalued over the years.
With the exception of Priyanka Gandhi, who has the necessary pedigree and the clout to ensure that she has her way, most other office bearers have been relegated to the margins. They are barely seen or heard. Among the rest, KC Venugopal is the only general secretary who enjoys a degree of power but that’s easy to explain as he is Rahul Gandhi’s favourite.
If Priyanka Gandhi is gradually making her presence felt in the party in her own low-key manner, it appears that Rahul Gandhi never went away even after he stepped down as party president last year. Sonia Gandhi is heading the Congress but it is Rahul Gandhi who is being projected as the face of the party.
Unlike Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi holds no official position in the party; he is only a Lok Sabha member. And yet, he is more visible and vocal than Sonia Gandhi. The Nehru-Gandhi scion’s travel plans, tweets and statements are regularly publicised by the media department of the Congress, a courtesy which is not necessarily extended to even senior party leaders.
Rahul Gandhi has also addressed several media briefings at the Akbar Road party headquarters in the recent past, seeking answers from the Modi government about its management of the Covid-19 pandemic and offering specific suggestions on providing succour to farm labour, daily wagers and others working in the unorganised sector. And more recently, the party has put out video recordings of his conversations with former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee and global health experts.
Clearly, the party has little time for anything else given its preoccupation with following up on Priyanka Gandhi’s instructions and rebuilding Rahul Gandhi’s profile.
The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.