Priyanka Gandhi has an impeccable bloodline. She is the daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter of Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, respectively — all former prime ministers of India. What’s more, she is attractive, exhibits an easy, spontaneous charm and seems to have inherited her grandmother Indira Gandhi’s elegant sartorial style.
Is that enough to make people thrill to her presence on the campaign trail and bring in the votes for the beleaguered Congress party, a party that has become almost synonymous with her family?
Large swathes of the Congress seem to think so. Trounced by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 parliamentary elections, and ousted from one state after another since then, India’s grand old party is in deep distress. And many feel Priyanka could be the irresistible touchstone that could turn the Congress’s fortunes around. This despite the fact that she comes with the baggage of being the wife of Robert Vadra, who is under investigation for crooked land deals.
Last week, senior Congress leader Gulam Nabi Azad said he hoped to see Priyanka play a larger role in the elections to the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) next year. That sparked furious media speculation that perhaps her entry into politics was imminent. The 44-year-old daughter of Congress president Sonia Gandhi has so far not joined politics formally and has only campaigned for her mother and brother Rahul in the family’s home seats of Raebareli and Amethi in UP.
Of course, Priyanka is at liberty to take up her family vocation and dive into the hurly burly of Indian politics. The point is that whenever there is a crisis in the Congress — and there have been crises aplenty lately — its leaders react with an almost Pavlovian reflex. Either they reaffirm their faith in party vice-president Rahul Gandhi and say that he should be elevated to the post of president. Or, they demand that Priyanka be fielded to hitch up the party’s plummeting appeal. In other words, the Congress’s chief strategy to combat its current predicament is to stick with its dynastic credentials. It props up the inheritors of the Nehru-Gandhi line with the fond wish that they will turn the tide.
However, there is a yawning gap between wish and its fulfilment. Here’s why.
The Congress is unquestionably at its lowest ebb right now. In the 2014 general elections, it managed to get just 44 seats in the 545-member parliament. Subsequently, it has lost a series of regional elections and now rules just six states — down from 11 in 2014. Add to that recent defections and the exit of key leaders in Assam and Maharashtra, and you get a picture of a Congress in utter disarray. If it is not yet politically irrelevant, it certainly seems to be getting there.
When Rahul was anointed Congress vice-president in 2013, the message was clear. Here was the fourth generation Gandhi assuming his rightful place as supreme leader to-be. However, it is on Rahul’s watch that the Congress has witnessed its power and influence shrink drastically. In 2014, the Gandhi princeling was no match for Narendra Modi, the BJP’s charismatic, high-energy and superbly communicative prime ministerial candidate. Since then, though he has sniped about the Modi government’s alleged pro-rich agenda, Rahul has not been able to offer an alternative vision of development more alluring or substantive than what the current dispensation seems to have set out. Crucially, he has failed to tackle disaffection amongst state leaders. The fallout is a Congress that sinks into deeper chaos every day.
Rahul’s case shows that the Gandhi name is no longer the fail-safe talisman, the automatic passport to power, it once used to be. He has been judged on his abilities — or the lack thereof — as a leader. If his sister Priyanka is held up as a likely vote-catcher she will be similarly judged as well. Yet, a blinkered Congress continues to bank on the Gandhis to provide its central leadership. Even those who privately acknowledge that Rahul has failed chorus that Priyanka must be deployed to save the day. If it is not one dynast, it must be the other.
This slavish dependence on the Gandhis may cost the Congress dearly. If a Gandhi was once said to be the glue that held the party together, that glue is fast losing its adhesive pull. Hence, the leadership crisis that the Congress faces today has to be countered not with more dynasty, but less.
To reinvent itself, the party needs to look beyond the Gandhi family and back strong, talented leaders from the states, opening up the possibility of them rising all the way to the top. For all too often, the Congress has lost talent — perhaps a potential national leader capable of capturing the imagination of the people — because a regional satrap, his ambition thwarted, quit and formed his own party.
Priyanka Gandhi may well become an excellent politician some day, but what the Congress needs right now is a system reboot — not another instalment of the faded magic of the Nehru-Gandhi story.
Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.