The perennial “will-she-won’t-she” saga around Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry into politics finally came to an end on Wednesday, 23 January, much to the delight of several Congress party workers and the chagrin of the Opposition.
The party announced the leader’s foray into politics by declaring her as incharge for eastern Uttar Pradesh in the run-up to the crucial Lok Sabha elections.
Political pundits, Congress supporters and several factions of the media alike have often touted her as the rightful heir to the Gandhi throne and her political role has been a steady topic of speculation.
In the run-up to the 2014 general elections as well, there were reports that Priyanka was "all set to play a bigger role in the upcoming general elections”.
"There has been speculation in recent months on whether Priyanka, who has so far confined her politics to campaign for her mother Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli (her constituency), would take a plunge into politics full-time. Her participating in the meeting today fuelled further speculation," The Economics Times had reported back in 2014.
Behind the constant buzz around Priyanka’s political entry was the understated belief she was always seen as more of a natural leader than her brother, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who was seen as reticent by some.
Consider Congress veteran ML Fotedar’s claim, where he said that Indira Gandhi had an uncanny premonition before her death and had expressed her desire in 1984 to let Priyanka carry forward the family legacy. Priyanka was about 12 years old at that time.
And there’s the fact that slogans like ‘Priyanka lao, Congress bachao’ could be heard within party ranks after every poll debacle that the Congress faced over the last decade.
But now, with her finally assuming a formal role within the party, let us look at how the media has viewed her in the past.
The ‘Right’ Gandhi
Right from 2004, when Congress announced its decision to bring Rahul into politics, many in the media have been ‘baffled’ by the party’s decision not to go with Priyanka instead.
A BBC report from 2004 had said that the decision to field Rahul had taken a lot of Congress workers as well as political analysts by surprise.
“It is a baffling decision. The general impression was that Priyanka was more articulate, forceful and more charismatic. I am not sure anyone knows what the real story is. Perhaps it is more personal or family related,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta was quoted as saying by the BBC report.
A LiveMint opinion piece from 2012 echoed similar views: “Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a magnificent campaigner. In terms of sheer charisma, she beats her brother hollow. She has that preternatural ability to gauge the pulse of the people.”
What is she afraid of, the author had asked in the piece.
Another editorial in The Print on 3 August 2018 argued that Priyanka could have been a victim of patriarchy in Indian politics.
“From her few public appearances, Priyanka appears to be a smarter politician than Rahul. She’s a better speaker, especially in Hindi, more rooted, more natural. She reminds people of Indira Gandhi. Nobody says Rahul reminds them of even his father Rajiv. Priyanka appears to be more aggressive, more political,” the piece reads.
“Priyanka has clearly been relegated to a role behind the stage to give her brother Rahul endless time to succeed,” it adds.
In an interview to Financial Express, Sonia Gandhi had said in “Priyanka is pre-occupied with her children at the moment. It is up to her and one never knows the future.”
A Daily Pioneer report also backs this theory. Quoting sources within the party, the report claimed that Sonia did not want two power centres in Congress once Rahul assumed charge. “If Priyanka had been active like earlier, there would have been questions on Rahul’s command,” the report said.
“The Congress President didn’t want Priyanka to take the limelight away from Rahul’s UP campaign,” a NewsLaundry piece had opined. And Priyanka, the piece adds, seemed willing to toe her mother’s line.
However, Rasheed Kidwai, journalist and Sonia Gandhi’s biographer, feels that it was incorrect to see the siblings as rivals.
"It's not a question of Rahul or Priyanka. It will probably be Rahul and Priyanka, given the scale of the challenge that the Congress faces in the election and beyond," he had told Reuters.
On the other hand, Sunil Rajguru opines in DailyO that even if Priyanka came to the fore, it is doubtful that she would be any more successful that her brother.
“If at all Priyanka inherits the political treasury of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, she will find that the family cupboard is totally bare of silverware. And this brings us to the second point of her political experience. She has none,” he argues.
‘Vadra, the Albatross Around Priyanka’s Neck’
Just as talks of Priyanka’s political potential have lingered in the media for years, the baggage of Robert Vadra’s name has also weighed heavily on her image.
Inevitably, and incessantly, she has been at the receiving end of an onslaught by the BJP over the business dealings and alleged corruption of her husband.
So much so, that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never missed an opportunity to attack Vadra, and thereby Priyanka, right from the run-up to 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Many in the media feel the Vadra name will be too big a burden to bear for Priyanka politically.
“Robert Vadra's alleged land dealings and corruption charges against him will adversely impact Priyanka's political career. There is national anger and disgust over his misdeeds and corruption; and protecting him can certainly harm Priyanka's own political ambitions. Certainly, Priyanka will be a loser politically if she defends him as the Congress party itself is enmeshed in this mess,” a Business Standard report said, quoting Asha Sarangi, associate professor at JNU.
Vadra has turned into an albatross around Priyanka’s neck, the report adds.
An editorial in DailyO supports the above claim. It states that the fact that “there are way too many skeletons in the Gandhi closet means a political revival at the moment almost seems impossible.”
The Vadra land deals have seriously impacted the Congress’ political fortunes by directly besmirching the Gandhis, it said. “The reinvention of the Congress party cannot be achieved if proverbial albatrosses which these corruption allegations amount to, keep hanging around the Gandhi family members’ necks.”
Rajguru, writing for DailyO, said that Vadra's reputation “hangs like a millstone round Priyanka's neck”. “Robert is always in the news for all the wrong reasons. Whether it's his land dealings or SPG cover or his run-ins with the media or his name on airport security lists,” he said.
On her part though, as this Economic Times report from 2014 argued, Priyanka has taken the corruption allegations and criticism on the chin, rather than retreat into a “lofty shell of silence”.
“She has asked any agency to probe the charges and find any guilt if they can. This sharp departure from the Congress’ vacillating defensiveness over Vadra has not gone unnoticed: suddenly, the party has cast aside its silence and joined the chorus with Priyanka,” the report said.
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