India's grand old Congress party hopes Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's appointment will be a game-changer in the upcoming national elections.
Ending years of speculation over her formal entry into politics, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the great-granddaughter of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has been appointed as general secretary of the country's main opposition Congress party.
Gandhi Vadra will oversee east Uttar Pradesh, an area that encompasses Prime Minister Narendra Modi's parliamentary constituency Varanasi. The move created a buzz instantly, prompting party leaders and even some political analysts to declare that Congress could emerge as a key player in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous and politically significant state, which elects as many as 80 of the country’s 543 members of parliament – in the coming election. The party was considered a non-player in the state before the appointment was announced.
The general election is due in less than three months. Although she assumes charge in February, 47-year-old Gandhi Vadra's appointment enthused Congress workers who have been on a high after the party wrested back the three key states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, from the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in December 2018.
Congress suffered a setback of sorts on January 12 – as coincidences go, also Gandhi Vadra's birthday - when two regional parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), representing the numerically superior but economically and socially marginalised castes, announced a coalition to take on the BJP in Uttar Pradesh but left Congress out.
Political scientist Zoya Hasan said this "disruptive" move could have been prompted by the announcement of the BSP-SP coalition. She cautioned that it was too early to assess the impact of Gandhi Vadra's formal debut on the state's politics. Congress has not been in power in the state for more than three decades now and hardly has any workers on the ground.
Party leaders however expect Gandhi Vadra's induction to propel the Congress into position as the third pole in the state during the general election, where it has so far been seen as a marginal player in the direct fight between the regional parties (the SP-BSP-led coalition) and the ruling BJP and its allies for the 80 Lok Sabha - or lower house of parliament - seats.
Congress in 2014 barely won two seats in the state, down from being the top scorer with 22 in the previous election. The party is now expecting a performance closer to the one a decade ago rather than the one in 2014.
"Rahul Gandhi's decision has turned Uttar Pradesh's politics on its head. Between yesterday afternoon and this morning, I have received several calls from charged up party leaders,” said Akhilesh Pratap Singh, former UP legislator and the recently-appointed national spokesperson for the Congress party. Speaking to journalists in Amethi, Gandhi said the decision underlined that the party would “play on the front foot not back foot”.
“The decision will have a pan-India impact,” he said. Singh, who is among the party managers who organise Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi’s visits to their parliamentary constituencies, Amethi and Raebareli, has seen Gandhi Vadra's work from close quarters. She has been active as a strategist and election manager for both, as well as the lead manager for their constituencies.
As trustee and executive committee member of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation – a philanthropic trust set up in the name of her father and former prime minister - she oversees the projects running in several parts of the country. Party leaders speak of her ability to take on Modi directly and match the prime minister’s shrill campaigning style note-by-note.
Shortly after Wednesday’s announcement, Modi took a dig at the Congress party. He told BJP workers from Maharashtra: “For some the family is party, for the BJP it is the party that is family.”
Gandhi Vadra's wait in the wings to join active politics has been the longest in recent political history. She had launched her first political campaign in 1999 when Sonia Gandhi contested her first election. In Bellary, a constituency in the South Indian state of Karnataka, it was Gandhi Vadra who was by her mother’s side and not brother Rahul Gandhi.
When he eventually joined the party in 2004 and contested the election from Amethi, his father’s earlier constituency, it was his sister who had introduced him to the people of the small town and the press there. For many in the family borough, she was seen as the natural politician from the next generation of the Nehru Gandhi family. On February 4, nearly 15 years later, Rahul Gandhi is expected to introduce his sister as the new party leader in charge of Uttar Pradesh's eastern districts in the state capital Lucknow.