If Priyanka Gandhi intends to stay, she has to open up

The Priyanka enigma continues to confound. She has been panned for not fighting against Narendra Modi in Varanasi, most notably by ‘liberal’ intellectuals. A legitimate political decision (not to contest) is being seen as an indication that the Congress is under-confident in Uttar Pradesh and lacks the will to confront Modi.

Typically, Priyanka has not explained her decision to deny Modi-baiters the vicarious pleasure of needling him, merely attributing it to ‘the party’, that is, her sibling and Congress president Rahul Gandhi.  Going by her public demeanour and pronouncements, she is not afraid of facing Narendra Modi. She must know that a confrontation is inevitable, if they both remain in politics

. Naturally, she would want it to be at a time and a place of her choosing. Varanasi in 2019 was not the appropriate theater of action. To cite Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a favourite tome of politicians of Rahul Gandhi’s generation- “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

Priyanka must have read the ground and decided it was not to be. Fighting to lose would have made sense if she could pin the PM down to Varanasi, thereby depriving the BJP of oxygen elsewhere in the state. When it became clear that the strategy was unviable and the PM’s physical presence was not needed to solicit votes in Varanasi, she discarded it.

Until the very last moment, she led everybody on, by hinting she might contest. Keeping the BJP and her own supporters guessing is part of her style. She does not open her cards. Her entry into the Congress was as much of a surprise to senior Congress leaders as it was to journalists. As a result, it was a hurried and badly-managed affair.

In UP, the Congress’ lack of visible traction has disappointed political observers and prompted speculation that the ‘Priyanka factor’ has failed. The fact is that she is not really in play, except as a campaigner. Her presence in Eastern UP is intended to provide an extra push to candidates who won their seats in Lok Sabha 2009, riding on the farm loan waiver.

Her job is not to pull the Congress engine in UP, but to enhance its power. The race will still have to be run by individual candidates on their own strength. She can only provide an extra push to get them past the finish line. She has made her presence felt, starting with a Ganga Yatra from Prayagraj to Varanasi.

She has not put a foot wrong, visiting temples, downplaying dynasty and playing on anti-incumbency. Her aarti at the Maa Vindhyavasini temple in Mirzapur evoked powerful memories of Indira Gandhi performing the same ritual, which was probably the objective of the exercise.

Priyanka won hearts with small gestures: refusing a life jacket while on the boat, talking about cooking and recipes with girls, accepting drinks from voters and hugging women and children. By avoiding a visit to Ram Janambhoomi in Ayodhya, which may have proved controversial, she showed considerable presence of mind.

To fully exploit the ‘Priyanka factor’ in UP, the Congress would have to re-brand itself around her. She already has the essentials; her charismatic persona, look, poise and articulation are all that could be desired. Potentially, the Congress could build her up as a messianic figure (much like Modi in 2014).

What is missing is the script – the software to her hardware. This will tax the ingenuity of Congress programmers and Priyanka herself will be forced to take hard decisions. First and foremost, she would have to convince voters that she is there to stay, as the vanguard of the Congress Mission 2022, aimed at re-taking UP after a gap of three decades.

In the past, Priyanka has made no bones about her distaste for the rough-and-tumble of politics. She famously declared in a 2009 interview, “But I am very clear I don’t want to be in politics. I am very happy living the way I am. There are certain aspects of politics which I am just not suited to”. She would have to dispel doubts that she is there for the long haul and show a willingess to move to UP – lock, stock and barrel.

Second, she would have to shed her tantalizing air of mystery and open up to the media. The Gandhi family’s urge for privacy has shrouded their lives in secrecy. In the age of exhibitionism, when celebrities let it all hang out, this is counterproductive.

Witness the teary-eyed responses to Modi’s real-time interactions with his mother. Third, Priyanka’s poor-little-rich-girl story may not play well in contrast to Modi’s chai-wallah childhood and therein lies her biggest challenge. By contesting Varanasi, she would have taken the plunge, at a time when the Congress is woefully under-prepared.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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