Will Priyanka debut in 2014 polls?

Umesh Raghuvanshi

India, July 27 -- When she said, "I have said it a thousand times that I am not interested in joining politics" in 1999, people - both Congress men and opposition leaders, and even the media - smiled indulgently.

For, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra - great granddaughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, granddaughter of Indira Gandhi and daughter of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi - was trying to defy tradition.

Now, the tall, lean and very fit 41-year-old mother of two cannot be so sure. In fact, her decade-long apolitical assignment to manage the flock in Rae Bareli and Amethi - her mother and brother Rahul's constituencies, respectively - is slowly turning out to be quite political.

So much so that there are speculations that she may finally have to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. All these years, a popular slogan in Amethi in every election has been "Amethi ka danka, bitiya Priyanka (Amethi's pride is its daughter Priyanka). But she let it pass smilingly.

When she set out for her family pocket boroughs, she was very clear about her role although she was considered a good organiser and a level-headed leader of men, besides being a formidable strategist. She is believed to be her mother's political advisor.

She told BBC during a campaign: "Politics is not a strong pull, the people are. And I can do things for them without being in politics."

Then came 2012, when the Congress won only one assembly seat in the area despite Priyanka's target of 10 out of 10. And her days as an apolitical leader came to an end.

She was roped in as a saviour for the party in Amethi, as brother Rahul became vice president of the party and got increasingly busy with his national role. Also, she had to stand in for her mother more frequently as the Congress president went through health problems.

But will she be able to make any perceptible difference in 2014? Even as the Congress pins hopes on her, the rivals are reworking their strategies to corner the Congress in its stronghold. And Priyanka, naturally, is in the cross hairs.

Already, the BJP is trying hard to hit her. Govind Singh, a local BJP leader, revealed the line his party may take against Priyanka: "Her charisma is fading. It will not work against Narendra Modi, who will focus his campaign on this region."

The BJP is parading one more name - cousin Varun Gandhi, son of Rajiv's younger brother Sanjay. He may contest from Sultanpur where his father started his political career in the 1970s.

The BJP's strategy is clear: The battle against the Congress first family in the 2014 general elections will be fought on their home turf. And with all eyes on UP, it will be nastier and bloodier this time.

Meanwhile, Priyanka has completed restructuring of the party in Rae Bareli and begun building the Amethi unit. And, in the process, she has managed to change the party to some extent. "Leaders are not being thrust from the top anymore," said a party worker.

So, every effort will be made to scare her away, with protests against even issues which are well outside her jurisdiction: From the closure of a carpet factory to erratic power supply.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.