Irrespective of the interpretation that Congress party leaders try to make of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s uncharacteristic emotional defence of her husband Robert Vadra, she was actually signalling her decisive entry into politics.
Priyanka, until now, has been a willy-nilly political campaigner, restricting herself mostly to the two family pockets of Rae Bareli and Amethi, represented by her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi, respectively. All these years, her campaign style was mostly limited to addressing street-corner meetings, with little or no media coverage. Thereby she ensured that she did not step on to her brother’s shoes, who was being groomed as the heir apparent to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.
This election, she continues to play a similar role, and is also seen as Rahul’s key strategist, who is not only streamlining his campaign but also pulled him out of the philosophical path he seemed to had embarked upon, in his belief to restore internal democracy in the Congress party. In the process, she also repaired the fault-line between the old and new guard of the 128-year-old party. The old guard was disillusioned by Rahul’s style of functioning and withdrew from the campaign long before it started.
In her Rae Bareli speech last Tuesday her careful invocation of Indira Gandhi and her two growing teenage children signalled Priyanka’s determination to defend Robert in public, rather than retreat into a lofty shell of silence or bypass. She has taken the criticism on her chin and tried to create an armour of defence around her family. She took the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its poster-boy Narendra Modi head-on, saying that attacks on Robert would only steel the Gandhi family further. It was also a clear message to party members to defend her Achilles’ heel if they want her to emerge as their messiah post elections. It ensured that Congress party spokespersons finally rallied behind her husband by labelling allegations against Robert as motivated and baseless. Until now, the party leaders maintained that he was a private person and so were his dealings.
While the allegations against Robert over dubious land deals in the Congress-ruled states of Haryana and Rajasthan have swirled for the last two years, politically, the issue has moved beyond an individual. The party, already beleaguered by various charges of corruption, is feeling the heat now because the BJP seems to have successfully positioned Robert as the emblem of corruption, citing him as evidence of how graft and favouritism that flowed from the top in the 10 years of Congress rule systematically stymied the United Progressive Alliance government.
Congress now appears to be lamenting that it has let the charges go unchallenged for so long. There is also a realisation that the party is vulnerable to such allegations because of the anti-incumbency factor fuelled by the graft charges over the last 10 years.
Priyanka’s emotional outburst is also to provide solace to her two growing children in an era of invasive media. It is very difficult to tutor young minds in today’s world, especially when they are exposed to various forms of media, where their father is being charged with corruption and impropriety on a regular basis.
Earlier, she had cited them as the main reasons for her aversion to public life.
The last time the Indian media saw her two children was during the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections in 2012, when Robert was also a key campaigner trying to provide his brother-in-law the necessary moral support and required muscle power to win the state, which the Congress had long ceded to regional players like Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Ever since the graft charge came into public domain, Priyanka also ensured that Robert is hardly seen with the family, except for special occasions, like the death anniversary of her father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
After the electoral defeat, the calls from her party members to take the political plunge will be more deafening as the Congress party is bound to look towards the first family for leadership, which is believed to have acted as a cohesive force to keep the flock together. And this time, Priyanka knows she cannot ignore the call, considering her brother’s repeated electoral failures in the last 10 years, in various state assembly elections.
She has been using this election as a dry run for the future that awaits her. Congress party spin doctors are already at work so that she is not over-exposed, or else the impending political defeat will be used by her detractors as an example of her failure as a leader.