Analysis: Is Priyanka Gandhi the Indian Congress Party’s trump card?By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay Oct 16, 2013 1:25PM UTC
The Indian political grapevine has been abuzz for the past few days following rumours that 41-year-old Priyanka Gandhi, is set to take a more active interest in politics than merely tending to Raebarelli, the electoral constituency of her mother, Sonia Gandhi.
On Monday, October 14, the rumour mill spilled over into several television channels which broadcast reports saying that the entry of the granddaughter of India’s first and only woman prime minister into active electoral politics was imminent. The reports contended that there were two possibilities: one – she could become the star campaigner of the party in the face of the tepid response of the people to her elder brother, Rahul Gandhi. The second possibility was that she may herself contest parliamentary elections.
To ensure that the spate of reports did not gather further momentum, the Congress party officially dispelled them. It was evident that this was done to ensure that the leadership of Rahul Gandhi was not challenged either outside the ‘family’ or from within. But the official denial does not mean that it marks the end of speculation on the issue. Clearly, this is not the last time that Indians and the world would have heard the story that in a last ditch attempt to stall the ascendance of Bharatiya Janata Party and extreme Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, the Congress party will play a trump card in the form of Priyanka Gandhi.
Reasons behind this are not difficult to seek. The younger of the two Gandhi siblings has a more favourable public presence owing to a more amiable persona. In a country where norms of patriarchy govern families and where sex-selective abortions are commonplace, it has been ironic that the same people have had no qualms about women occupying the highest positions of power. Before President Pranab Mukherjee moved to the largely ornamental position in July 2012, India had a woman Constitutional head in Pratibha Patil.
Concurrently, the chairperson of the ruling coalition was a woman – Sonia Gandhi. She was complimented in power politics by two other women – Sushma Swaraj and Meira Kumar – the former being the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, India’s Lower House and the latter being the Speaker of the same House.
Despite the fact that the legislation which will constitutionally guarantee that one third of parliamentary and legislative seats (in the States) are reserved for women has been hanging in fire for several years, the people have cast their lot with several charismatic women leaders. India currently has three women who are chief ministers in their states and there are at least four others who have previously held the position. With this in the backdrop, speculation had been rife almost a decade ago when the BJP-led coalition was in power, about the identity of the Gandhi sibling who would eventually enter the political arena.
Most who hoped that it would fall on Priyanka were a tad disappointed when Rahul Gandhi’s name as the party candidate for Amethi, the seat held by his father and mother, was announced in March 2004, just a month before the watershed polls that resulted in a dramatic regime change in India.
Disappointment stemmed from two factors: there was general consensus that Priyanka was the more charismatic of the duo and secondly she was closer in public image to Indira Gandhi, her grandmother and the tallest leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family in the post-independence era. Such was Indira’s appeal that nothing negative stuck to her – not even the fact that in a country dominated by caste and religious considerations, few mentioned that the Gandhi name came from a husband who was born a Parsi, among India’s smallest religious minorities.
In the past decade there have been several occasions when it has appeared that a change of guard was imminent in the Gandhi family. Yet Priyanka remained astutely at the side of her mother and brother as an assistant, not as a leader. Despite this, the spotlight has always been on her – both due to the fact that he is a ‘good story’ for TV and also because she was capable of giving the choicest sound bites.
In 2008, days after the outrageous terrorist attack in Mumbai, she famously told journalists that her grandmother “would have acted in a way that would have made all of us proud.” The comment went down well with a nation and its people who were looking for some steel in its hour of crisis. That this did not come from either prime minister or any other official, but from someone who was not even a political leader in the true sense of the word, was not lost on the people. It only increased the people’s longing for her to enter public life.
The question, however, is, despite Priyanka having such a huge public draw, why has the ‘family’ not made optimum use of her charisma? The answer is mainly tucked away within family living rooms and the full truth may never come out. But the decision is in line with the Indian patriarchal tradition where the family enterprise passes to the son and not the daughter who gets a chance at a golden moment only after the passing of a male sibling or if the other chooses to opt out.
Priyanka also has a handicap in the form of a husband who has been under a cloud for a long time – first within the Indian capital’s gossip circles and in recent months when allegations have flown regarding financial misdemeanours that have forced the government to go into overdrive to defend him. In the face of the delay to launch Priyanka into politics, her brand value may have diminished somewhat in a country that is now looking at change not within the system, but from someone – like Modi – who is an outsider. But knowing him, he would have every reason to feel more unsettled if pacing a pitched battle against the sister rather than against the brother.