If anything exposes the crisis in the Congress, it is the sight of the campaign surrogate for the Amethi and Rae Bareli seats, Priyanka Gandhi, turning the country’s largest and most crucial democratic exercise into a family affair. A quick scan of the front pages of newspapers over the past one week would convey the mistaken impression that Priyanka Gandhi is leading the electoral charge of the Congress against the BJP. It does not matter that Priyanka holds no responsible positions in the party or government to deserve such importance. The Congress party figures occasionally in Priyanka’s utterances, but she leaves no one in doubt that she is primarily representing her family — as a daughter, sister and wife — and not the party. Priyanka’s jibes at Narendra Modi for the snoopgate scandal, her defence of husband Robert Vadra, and her warning that her family would emerge stronger from the attacks on it, indicates the Gandhi scion’s warped sense of proportion. Politics, and the Congress, can wait for her family.
The snoopgate scandal, her husband’s muddled business deals or her family’s misplaced perception of victimisation are the least of the Congress party’s worries this election season. The Congress is in no position to defend its crumbling bastions against a resurgent BJP. The Gandhi family’s alleged rule by proxy through Manmohan Singh and the consequent undermining of the Prime Minister’s position has become a convenient tool for the BJP to slam the Congress. Rahul Gandhi’s indifferent performance as a Lok Sabha MP, his failed attempt to infuse life into the Congress organisation, and his disconnect with voters, underscore the diminishing returns that the Gandhi family fetches for the Congress.
Though Priyanka has refused to campaign elsewhere, the bold pronouncements are clear pointers to her entry into active politics. Priyanka, the non-political entity, could afford to stay silent on the allegations against her husband. But for Priyanka, the active politician, the decision to aggressively combat the allegations against Vadra is sound strategy. The strong backlash that Priyanka is now coping from the BJP will be hard to sustain, the longer it continues. Priyanka would look to get this stigma out of the way, at the start of her political career, rather than have it dog her unceasingly. But Priyanka’s attempt to dare her critics by reminding them of Indira Gandhi’s strong comeback in 1980 after facing nepotism allegations is a poor show of bravado. Indira Gandhi, backed her reputation as a redoubtable leader, to claw back from the ignominious defeat of 1977. Indira sought to exploit, not merely the same sense of victimisation that Priyanka is attempting, but also the dysfunctionality of the Janata Party regime. Expecting a political neophyte like Priyanka to respect this nuance would be to ask too much.
The Congress organisation inherited by Rahul and Priyanka has disappeared from vast swathes of the country despite the Gandhis’ iconic status. Politicians like Digvijay Singh and Sachin Pilot have the potential to emerge as pan-India leaders but are relegated to secondary roles. Until Modi’s ascendancy, most frontline BJP leaders have ambitiously pursued pan-India ambitions; a marked contrast from the reticence of Congress leaders, wary of the “first family”. The stunting of Congress leaders has been a deliberate process to ensure the Gandhi family’s primacy. The chances of a VP Singh, PV Narasimha Rao or a present-day Sharad Pawar emerging to challenge the family’s vice-like grip over the Congress looks remote. If saving Robert Vadra becomes the Congress’ war-cry tomorrow, to Priyanka Gandhi will go the credit. Farcically, of course.