04 Feb 2019

Priyanka Gandhi’s political debut stirs the electoral cauldron in Uttar Pradesh as BJP feels the heat



Pushed to the sidelines in Uttar Pradesh by the combined might of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress played its trump card by appointing Priyanka Gandhi as the party General Secretary in charge of the eastern part of the state.


The move to induct Priyanka is likely to infuse new energy in the demoralised Congress cadre in a state where the party has been marginalised since 1989 and where the Bhartiya Janata Party won a staggering 71 out of 80 seats in the 2014 elections.


Considered the heart of India, a win in Uttar Pradesh is crucial to a majority in the Lok Sabha. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his main opponent Congress president Rahul Gandhi both hold seats from the country’s most populous state as do many former prime ministers.


Priyanka Gandhi's entry at this stage can once again change the electoral arithmetic of Uttar Pradesh which sends the maximum member to India's lower house.


Soon after Priyanka’s induction, Rahul Gandhi said that naming Priyanka Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia as General Secretaries for Uttar Pradesh was a "big step" to spread the party's “real” ideology for poor and weaker sections and to rebuild its base.


Forty-seven year old Priyanka Gandhi makes a full-fledged entry into politics casting aside her earlier role that was mainly confined to the constituencies of mother Sonia Gandhi (Rae Bareli) and brother Rahul Gandhi (Amethi), the only two seats retained by the Congress in 2014. Many believe it was Priyanka’s  campaign in the two constituencies that saved the day in the last general elections.


In the first week of February, Priyanka is expected to assume her new charge in eastern UP, the home turf of Chief Minister and BJP's ‘Hindutva’ poster-boy Yogi Adityanath. If rumours are to be believed, Priyanka will begin her formal political career with a holy dip in the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela on February 4.


She is likely to be accompanied to the Kumbh by Rahul Gandhi, whose public zeal for Hinduism began with an April 2015 visit to the iconic Kedarnath shrine in Uttarakhand and who has been criticised for pursuing “soft Hindutva” to counter the BJP.


Speculation is rife that Sonia Gandhi may not contest from Rae Bareli for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, making way for Priyanka instead. Political observers believe Rahul will have room to renegotiate terms with SP and BSP if Priyanka can improve the party’s performance.


Known for her charisma and striking resemblance to grandmother Indira Gandhi, Priyanka is often called a natural leader who easily connects with people.


While Congress workers and leaders hailed the appointment of Priyanka Gandhi saying it would boost the party's performance in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP said such a development was only expected of a "family party" that has believed in dynasty rule from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru.


Her entry into active politics may have re-ignited a debate on political dynasties but it may also hold the mirror to the BJP which has often accused the first family of Congress of imposing family politics on the country while inducting many leaders from political families into its fold.


The newest member of the Gandhi family has walked onto the political turf carrying a legacy of five generations but no political party except perhaps the Communist bloc, with rare exceptions, can claim to be dynasty free.


Apart from the BJP and the Congress, dynasty is the basic foundation of most regional parties covering the entire Indian political spectrum.


When Rajasthan Congress President Sachin Pilot was asked to highlight one quality which Priyanka Gandhi brings on table which Rahul Gandhi lacks, he said that both the Gandhi siblings complement each other. 


"Priyanka has been handling [the Congress] war room for long and hence we should not prejudge her qualities and ability. Rather she should be given a chance to work," said Pilot.


"Now that she has accepted a role in Congress, we shall give a good fight to opposition," he added.


"They have tremendous team spirit ... You all shall see in the next few months," he added.


Meanwhile, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra described Priyanka Gandhi as a "crutch" for Rahul Gandhi who as the Congress President was unable to get accepted as part of 'mahagatbandhan' of opposition parties.


"Party is the family for the BJP whereas family is the party for Congress. All selections are done in only one family. Somewhere Rahul has failed ... Who will be the next after Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi? Only one family," said Patra.


Although BJP leaders officially dismissed her appointment as a "family matter" which would not impact the BJP's fortune especially in Uttar Pradesh, they admit privately that the road ahead for the party in the most populous state will not be as easy as it was in 2014.


But a senior party leader who did not wish to be identified said that Priyanka Gandhi would definitely be a crowd puller but it needed to be seen how she converts them into votes.


"She has her own appeal. She is a look-alike of Indira Gandhi and has all the ability of a crowd puller," he said.


Asked about her impact in Uttar Pradesh, he said: "It needs to be seen. But asar to padega hi [It will have an impact]."


A party office bearer added that the decision to ask Priyanka Gandhi to oversee eastern Uttar Pradesh was unexpected.


"The Congress had been uprooted from this area and the Congress President has taken a big risk by giving her charge of East Uttar Pradesh. This is shocking," he said.


Another party office bearer said the BJP was yet to devise a strategy to counter the SP-BSP alliance when the Priyanka factor had come into play.


"We will have to draw a new strategy," he said.


However, some party insiders feel that Priyanka Gandhi's task will not be easy because she will have to start from ground zero.


The area she has been assigned is a bastion of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi.


The BJP won 71 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 while an ally, Apana Dal, got two seats. After the SP-BSP alliance was announced, many BJP leaders openly admitted that the road ahead would not be that easy in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.


While Priyanka has performed well during her short stints as a campaigner for the Congress during election season, her stamina for daily politics is yet to be tested. The controversy around the business dealings of her husband Robert Vadra may also work to her disadvantage.


Whether Priyanka can deliver Uttar Pradesh to the Congress in 2019 remains to be seen, for now the promise of Priyanka is enough to galvanise both the Congress and the BJP.

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