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Priyanka Gandhi Image Credit: PTI

Dubai: India’s Congress chief Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday delivered on his first promise of a “surprise or two” by deploying his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra on the front line of his party’s make-or-break battle to oust Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News on January 7 at his home in New Delhi, Rahul had dropped hints of a surprise, telling his opponents not to “underestimate” the Congress in the trophy state of Uttar Pradesh which sends 80 out of 543 elected lawmakers to Parliament.

“We are very confident of our ability in Uttar Pradesh and we will surprise people. We are trying to bring opposition together… UP is work in progress. But, I just want to say again — to underestimate the Congress in UP is a mistake,” he had said.

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Priyanka Gandhi during an election campaign in Rae Baereli in 2014. Image Credit: Saify Naqvi/Special to Gulf News

I am personally very happy that my sister who is hardworking and capable will now work with me.

- Rahul Gandhi, Congress president

Soon after on January 12, two powerful regional parties announced a formidable alliance in UP, dumping the Congress which was expected to be the part of this Mahagathbandhan or big alliance as a united opposition’s challenge against Modi. On Wednesday, Rahul announced that the electoral battle in UP will be led by his 47 year-old sister Priyanka, widely regarded as the ‘Brahmastra’, a term used in ancient Hindu scriptures to describe an ultimate weapon. After the announcement on Wednesday, Indian media called her the ‘trump card’ of Congress.

Immediate impact

Since her father Rajiv’s assassination in 1991, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has remained in the shadows of mother Sonia and brother Rahul and her political work was limited to their constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi. Her last election campaign was in April 2014 when she addressed public meetings in Rae Bareli town. In the short term, her entry into active politics is expected to galvanise the Congress foot soldiers and energise the party apparatus which was lying dormant since 1988 when her party’s dominance ended in UP, a political hibernation that continues till date.

Sections of Congress leaders have always sought her active role especially in UP where the party has no mass leader. ‘Priyanka Lao, Congress Bachao’ (Bring Priyanka, save Congress) was a familiar slogan at party meetings until late 2017 when Rahul formally took over as chief. It is believed that it was Sonia who resisted such demands although in public comments she maintained that Priyanka’s limited role was her daughter’s own choice.

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In this May 4, 2014 file photo Priyanka Vadra is seen with her brother and Congress President Rahul Gandhi during a road show in Amethi. Image Credit: PTI

Why now?

The timing and place of Wednesday’s big announcement give clues to the Congress strategy for 2019 elections. It comes barely five months ahead of national elections due in May and Priyanka’s surprise entry shows the party means business and is serious about ousting Modi. Two, there could not have been a better place for this stunning announcement other than Amethi, a constituency nurtured by the Nehru-Gandhi family. The message to both the party’s supporters and detractors is very clear — the Congress will flaunt the dynasty and its legacy to counter Modi’s popularity.

In his first public comments, Rahul made it clear that he has a long term plan for Priyanka and her role will not be restricted to UP. “I have not sent Priyanka and Jyotiraditya [Scindia] for just two months. I have sent them to take Congress’ ideology forward in Uttar Pradesh. Our ideology of standing and fighting for the poor, for the youth, for the farmers... There will be new thinking, new ideology in Uttar Pradesh,” he said.

The Congress party is a family party... After being rejected everywhere, the party has sought a crutch from within their own family.

- Sambit Patra, BJP spokesperson

No Italian baggage but…

Unlike her mother Sonia who always came under attack from Modi’s party due to her Italian origins, Priyanka comes with no such baggage. Her Nehru-Gandhi bloodline has enough credibility to thwart any doubts on her Indianness. Also, it will be tough for 68-year-old Modi to attack Priyanka politically given her age and gender. Modi, who launched a campaign to empower and educate the girl child, may avoid directly attacking the daughter and granddaughter of two assassinated prime ministers. However, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its notorious IT cell will certainly mount a fresh offensive against Priyanka’s husband Robert Vadra, a businessman accused of corruption in land deals. How she responds to scrutiny of her husband’s assets will be the first test of her political maturity.

Charisma and sycophancy

Children of political dynasties inherit traits and personalities of their forefathers and Priyanka is not an exception. She has a striking resemblance with Indira Gandhi and many say that Priyanka inherited her charisma, spontaneous style and natural ability to connect with people from her grandmother. In many ways, public engagement comes naturally to Priyanka and some say she can be a better mass leader than her brother Rahul. This widely held perception can be problematic for the Congress organisation in the long run. Congress cadres are notorious for their sycophancy and Priyanka’s presence has the risk of creating two power centres within the Congress.

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Indira Gandhi with grandchildren Rahul and Priyanka in 1973. Image Credit: Supplied

Another surprise?

After having delivered his first surprise in UP, we will have to wait and see what Rahul does next ahead of May elections. His second ‘surprise’ could well be Varun, his lawmaker cousin known as the ‘other Gandhi’ as he is with the BJP. Varun has been sidelined by Modi due to his refusal to attack the Nehru-Gandhi family. Also, Priyanka and Varun share a special bond despite his mother and BJP minister Maneka’s dislike for the family. If Varun crosses over to the Congress, the two cousins can form a formidable team to challenge not just the BJP but also the regional parties.

Priyanka out of the shadows

  • Priyanka Gandhi, born on January 12, 1972, is the daughter of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.
  • Great-grand-daughter of former PM Jawaharlal Nehru and granddaughter of former PM Indira Gandhi, Priyanka did her schooling from the prestigious Modern School and Convent of Jesus & Mary, Delhi.
  • Later, she pursued graduation in Psychology from Jesus and Mary College of University of Delhi.
  • She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Masters in Buddhist Studies.
  • Gandhi is converted to Buddhism. Also, she is a practitioner of Vipassana, as taught by Vipassana guru SN Goenka.
  • She delivered her first political speech when she was 16.
  • However, during the 1999 general election campaign, she said in an interview to BBC: “I am very clear in my mind. Politics is not a strong pull, the people are. And I can do things for them without being in politics”.
  • She got married to controversial businessman Robert Vadra on February 18, 1997 in a traditional Hindu ceremony. The duo have two children; son Raihan and daughter Miraya.
  • Her hobbies include photography. She is believed to have learnt photography from her father Rajiv.
  • She is quite popular in her mother Sonia’s constituency Rae Bareilly and brother Rahul’s constituency Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
  • In 2004 general election, Priyanka helped supervise her brother Rahul’s campaign.
  • She also served as campaign manager for mother Sonia in the 2004 elections.
  • A popular slogan in every election in Amethi has been ‘Amethi ka danka, bitiya Priyanka’ (the clarion call from Amethi is for daughter Priyanka Gandhi).