For the perpetually ravenous 24×7 news media that craves the sensational, the story of Priyanka Vadra joining active politics was an absolute boon. There were breathless newsreaders, animated reporters, old file footage on loop, and nighty noisy debates. Social media was polarised—as it usually is. But beyond the cacophony of the newsrooms, and the chaos on social media, what impact will Mrs Vadra have on contemporary Indian politics?
Back in the 1980s, my barber tersely summarised what he thought were the contributions of the Gandhi family to India: “Nehru gave us democracy, Indira Gandhi won the Indo-Pak war and Rajiv Gandhi gave us computers for the next generation.” Till the late Eighties, through a principally obsequious media and a national TV channel which relentlessly peddled government propaganda, the Nehru-Gandhi family had managed to maintain the perception in the eyes of the masses that they were indispensable to the nation’s well-being, and nothing short of royalty.
The tradition of reverence and awe for the “first family” received its first massive jolt when the Rajiv Gandhi-led government was defeated in 1989 surrounding allegations of corruption. When the Congress returned to power in 2004, the members of the “first family” did very little to improve this deeply dented perception. The frequent undermining and usurping of the authority of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by then Congress President Sonia Gandhi convinced a majority of citizens that it was a denigration of the sovereignty of the nation by those who thought that ruling the country was their right.
Rahul Gandhi’s claim at the time that India was more vulnerable to Hindu terror than Islamic terror caused deep offense to a majority of Indians. There were myriad scams that bled the exchequer of thousands of millions of rupees. The emphatic defeat of the UPA in 2014 was, among many things, a resounding referendum against the “first family”.
The main reason for the family’s loss of lustre is the Modi-led BJP which—unlike the Vajpayee-led BJP—aggressively highlighted the surfeit of foibles and misdemeanours of the Nehru-Gandhi family. This included mistreatment of other eminent leaders ranging from Sardar Patel to PV Narasimha Rao, imposition of Emergency which had censorship of the press, mass arrest of Opposition leaders and forced sterilisation, the 1984 pogrom, the banning of books and films that were critical of the Congress—just to name a few. This resulted is the mainstreaming of some of the darkest chapters in India’s history.
Politics is all about perception, and thus in the minds of the contemporary voter, sentiment about the “first family” ranges from apathy to abhorrence. There are very few hardcore loyalists left. The choice of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh over any Congress leader with a national or state profile only serves as a reminder that the party is run like a family business. It has to be remembered that Priyanka has no proven track record or political experience. This gives the BJP another massive opportunity to tell voters “they don’t even allow the deserving in their party to rise, what can they possibly do for you”.
For a party mired in scams during its many terms, it doesn’t help to add an individual whose spouse has had several encounters with law enforcement agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate in alleged land grab and money-laundering cases. Once again this provides the BJP with ample opportunity to score easy political points over the Congress.
The rapturous reception from the media upon the entry of Priyanka this late in the game also allows the BJP to push the perception that Rahul Gandhi may not be up to the mark and hence—out of desperation–opted to rely on his sister at the very last minute. Perhaps Rahul may not want this perception to grow after a strong showing in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. It also was well-known that a contingent within the party had urged Priyanka to join active politics. In time, perhaps Priyanka may even present a challenge to her brother if the party doesn’t put up a strong showing in 2019.
It has to be remembered that this isn’t actually Priyanka’s first tryst with politics. She had briefly stepped into the campaign in 2014 and had earned the wrath of many within the BJP for claiming that the Opposition was running like panic-stricken rats. On another occasion, she claimed that then candidate Modi was indulging in neech (low-level) politics. But this rhetoric did little to contain the Modi wave and Priyanka went back to a life away from politics.
Despite their electoral defeats, there still continue to be the likes of Rajdeep Sardesai in the news media who shed all pretence of journalism to conduct PR interviews with the former Congress President Sonia Gandhi while others conduct soft interviews that are devoid of any real challenge. Owing to decades of being in power, the Congress has also managed to cultivate a loyal ecosystem of media people, journalists, bureaucrats both former and perhaps even current, “intellectuals” and individuals from the arts. These are the people who happen to possess the biggest megaphone they have the biggest presence at cultural and media arenas.
Hence, they rush to pronounce the political demise of Prime Minister Modi when he loses a single seat during a panchayat election but is willing to give Rahul Gandhi a million chances before he finally (perhaps accidentally) bumps into a victory. They claim that the Modi era is worse than the Emergency. Killings in a BJP-ruled state leads to national outrage, candle marches and columns in the Washington Post while killings in a Congress-ruled state is barely reported. Keeping with this tradition of cheerleading, the inexperienced Mrs Vadra has already been pitted as a challenger to Modi who was a three-term chief minister and who led his party to a landslide victory. She’s been lauded for her resemblance with her grandmother Indira Gandhi, funnily enough even by a disgruntled ally.
Recently in Uttar Pradesh, there was an unlikely alliance between Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. In the unlikely scenario that the Congress decide to go on their own in the country’s largest state, it may end up stealing votes from the grand alliance that will be a godsend for the BJP. But if the Congress does join the grand alliance, it will be interesting to see the role Priyanka Gandhi plays.
Unlike the India of the late 1940s-1980s, the India in 2019 is an assertive country. There is great impatience among the electorate: if the results are not satisfactory, they do not hesitate in voting people out. What matters to them is issues such as the economy, jobs, GDP growth, control of inflation, proper sanitation, affordable healthcare and education, better road connectivity, a cleaner surrounding, security and a better quality of life.
Priyanka Vadra’s entry into politics may energise a section of the cadre within the Congress and rouse blandishments from members of the Lutyens’ establishment but her lack of experience and record presents nothing in the form of a promise to the voter and allows the BJP a fresh opportunity for attack.