Priyanka Gandhi used to be described as the Congress party’s “Brahmastra” (ultimate weapon) but after a more than underwhelming debut in politics, the Brahmastra is a bit of a dud.
Gandhi has voluntarily confined herself to Uttar Pradesh, the state with the most political heft in India. Gandhi’s job title is general secretary, Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are due in 15 months. Recently, the party, under new Gandhi leadership, not only failed to win a single seat of the nine which went to polls but lost its deposit in four seats. The seats are Bulandshahr, Malhani, Naugawan Sadat and Deoria, which is the seat of Uttar Pradesh state president - Ajay Kumar Lalu - a Gandhi appointee.
These were the first elections in Uttar Pradesh post the Hathras horror of the rape and murder of a young Dalit girl. Yogi Adityanath, chief minister Uttar Pradesh, campaigned vigorously, won big for the BJP and seemed to have suffered no political taint in the horrific mishandling of the case. Worse for the Congress, the few leaders who remained in the Uttar Pradesh Congress are leaving the party and joining the opposition in a steady flow. A recent case was Anu Tandon, who quit the Congress, blaming a “depressing atmosphere” and promptly joined the Samajwadi party.
Disenchanted Congress leaders describe Gandhi as well-meaning but an administrative disaster. She has surrounded herself with an ultra-Left coterie led by her private secretary Sandeep Singh. The entire lot around her is clueless about politics, is extremely aggressive as to what they think is due to Gandhi and totally juvenile, they say. The biggest thing Gandhi has foregrounded in Uttar Pradesh is how amateur her politics are. She flatters to deceive. One perennial story about Gandhi, a helicopter politician, who descends occasionally to the state capital Lucknow, is that she will move bag and baggage to her “karmbhoomi” (work sphere). After the Modi government forced her to vacate her bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi, this was considered as assist to get her to move to Uttar Pradesh.
Stories did the rounds of even a house being chosen for Ms Gandhi. But party workers are now dispirited, saying that she has not moved. With barely 15 months to polls, this signals to the Congress and Uttar Pradesh’s regional parties that Gandhi really does not have any real skin in the game. Gandhi seems to think that she can run Uttar Pradesh politics by her Twitter handle, but the Twitter bubble and bumbling aides have ensured that she is not considered a real threat to Yogi Adityanath.
Uttar Pradesh has long harboured a discernible disenchantment with the Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president, lost his traditional family seat of Amethi in 2019. Perhaps, he had seen the writing on the wall and also contested a seat from Kerala - Wayanad. Currently, the Congress has one Lok Sabha seat from Uttar Pradesh - Rai Bareilly Sonia Gandhi’s pocket borough. The Congress has been extinct in Uttar Pradesh for nearly two decades. If Gandhi wanted to revive a project undertaken and failed by her sibling, she should have signaled what politics she stood for, especially in contrast to a resurgent Yogi Adityanath.
Gandhi’s politics are a puzzle. She publicly welcomed the construction of the Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya. Will it help the Congress to be seen as saffron light? It won’t because the voter who seeks saffron will always have the BJP and Hindutva. If the Congress thinks it can out Hindu the BJP then it is deluding itself. The Congress traditionally in Uttar Pradesh had a vote bank that comprised the upper castes, especially the Brahmins and Dalits. This vote bank has faced near total attrition from the BJP (upper castes), the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati.
After the disaster of allying with the Congress in the last Uttar Pradesh elections the SP has firmly ruled out any further alliance. The Congress contested on 105 seats and managed to win only seven. It also just won seven out of the 70 seats it contested in Bihar in alliance with the RJD. This is the core of the Congress’s dilemma. It still claims to be a national party, but inevitably pulls down the regional parties it allies with. And, until you win elections you count for less and less in the brutal zero sum game of Indian politics.
Gandhi objectively speaking delayed her inevitable political entry making it too late. How many people can start a political career at 40 plus? Those who remember and comment on her resemblance to her late grandmother Indira Gandhi are not in the majority as newer voters have come. The new lot speak the language of self-made achievement and are demanding of their leaders. A twice a year visit in a helicopter and a vague wave from the dust as the copter takes off doesn’t quite cut in anymore. The Uttar Pradesh voter and political party workers of other parties are unanimous on Gandhi - they consider her are a fair weather election politician who comes to campaign during polls and then performs a vanishing trick. This won’t cut it for Ms Gandhi anymore.