Is Priyanka Vadra the secret Gandhi family weapon for Congress?


All eyes have been on Rahul Gandhi, the somewhat reluctant warrior who’s leading the campaign for the governing Indian National Congress (INC / Congress) that hopes to win a third consecutive term in power in this spring’s parliamentary elections.India Flag Icon

But it’s his sister, Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who is getting all the buzz recently with word that Priyanka will step out of the shadows to take a fuller role in the election campaign this year, mostly as an advisor and manager for Rahul’s campaign, but also taking an increasingly visible role as well.

As she steps closer to the heart of Congress’s campaign, it will be the third major Gandhi family member to figure prominently in the 2013 elections.  Their Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi, has been Congress’s party leader since 1998, though when Congress won the 2004 national elections, Sonia declined to become prime minister, instead handing the top job to Manmohan Singh, who will step down this spring after a decade in office.

Rahul is not technically the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, but his role leading the campaign means that it’s more likely than not that he’ll become India’s next prime minister if the INC wins this spring.

That outcome seems increasingly less certain.  The latest CNN-IBN-Lokniti-CSDS poll shows that Congress and its allies, which together comprise the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will win between 107 and 127 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of the Indian parliament — a loss of over 100 seats.  Instead, the more conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) would win, together with its own allies that form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), between 211 and 231 seats, under the leadership of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has waged an aggressive campaign against Congress, on the basis that he can bring Gujarat’s high-growth economic approach to the rest of India.  Modi, who is 20 years older than Rahul, routinely refers to his opponent as shehzada, or ‘prince,’ and there’s speculation that Congress’s leadership decided not to anoint Rahul as its official prime ministerial candidate to avoid a presidential-style showdown between the two leaders that Modi would almost certainly win, despite his flaws.

Priyanka has campaigned before on behalf of her mother and broher in their constituencies in Uttar Pradesh.  But neither she nor her brother, Rahul, have faced the rigors of leading a national campaign in the world’s largest democracy — especially against perhaps the most talented BJP politician in over a decade.  Modi’s not without flaws, though, especially given doubts over his role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

But there’s no disputing that Modi, if the elections were held today, has enough momentum to win.

So who is Priyanka and how can she help turn things around for Congress? 

Born in 1972 (at age 42, she’s one year younger than Rahul) to Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, who himself served as prime minister between 1984 and 1989 before his assassination in 1991, Priyanka is the granddaughter of former prime minister Indira Gandhi  (assassinated herself in 1984) and the great-granddaughter of Jawaharlal Nehru.

It’s fair to say that Priyanka is more popular than either her brother or her mother.  That’s in part because of her striking resemblance to her grandmother.  It’s in part because she seems more comfortable talking to everyday voters on the campaign trail, at least in her limited experiences in Uttar Pradesh.  But most of all, it’s because she’s been so reticent to enter politics at all — she’s popular for the same reason that all non-politicians are popular before they actually become political.

Sandipan Sharma, writing earlier this month for FirstPost, gets to the real heart of the matter:

Priyanka’s advantage is that she is everything that Rahul isn’t. Unlike Rahul who resembles a confused, bumbling student destined to fail every political test, Priyanka seems to have some of the traits required to succeed. She is seen as more charismatic and energetic, an extrovert and somebody who can connect with the masses effortlessly. Moreover, she reminds many of Indira Gandhi, every Congress supporter’s eternal deity and ultimate symbol of popularity. Apart from the resemblance to her grandmother, Priyanka has no other baggage from the past.

If Priyanka enters the fray or plays an active role in the poll campaign, she would give the Congress worker a reason to get involved in the election. Her presence would attract people to party rallies and solve the biggest problem the Congress is facing: the absence of a star campaigner and a leader who people are willing to listen.

Though it seems unlikely that Sonia and the INC leadership will toss Rahul aside to mount a Priyanka-led campaign instead, there’s no doubt that Priyanka has a more popular edge than Rahul.  That means that even her limited involvement in the INC’s 2013 election efforts could upstage Rahul and make him seem even more feckless against the wilier Modi.

That’s not to say that Priyanka doesn’t have baggage — her husband, Robert Vadra, who made headlines last year with a potentially shady deal with DLF Limited last year.  Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी),  and the newly elected chief minister of Delhi, accused Vadra of trading political favors for interest-free loans and discounted land sales.  Vadra responded rather uncharitably on Facebook, calling Kejriwal and his followers ‘mango people in banana republic.’

But Kejriwal is now riding high as the latest political star and he and the AAP are planning a national campaign that could easily steal a dozen or more seats in Delhi and the surrounding state of Haryana.  Polls show that with the right candidates, the AAP could have a breakout performance throughout India’s urban centers.  Priyanka’s husband will become an easy target for the kind of corruption and entitlement that has surrounded the Congress-led government (and the Gandhi-Nehru family) for the past decade, including the notorious 2G telecom scandal.

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