There is talk again in the Congress party of bringing in Priyanka Gandhi, causing her to react. “The constant conjecture about my assuming various posts in the Congress and the manner in which this issue is brought up at opportune moments is incorrect,” Priyanka said in a brief statement. “I would be very grateful to all concerned if they desisted from encouraging such baseless rumours.”
This statement was unusual. It is true that the Gandhis, like all dynasts, are wary of having Rahul’s authority eroded and want no such talk to circulate. However, these rumours have long been spread and always been ignored by the Gandhis. So, why did Priyanka feel pressured to put out a statement at this point?
The difference is that this time, even members of the party are openly saying to the media that her entry was needed. Congress spokesperson Shobha Oza said: “Everybody from all over India wants that all members of the Gandhi family should come into politics. We want that all three of them should take leadership roles in the party (Hum chaahte hain ki teeno party ki kamaan sambhalen),” she had said. One of the Gandhis’ most loyal followers, Oscar Fernandes, said that, “Priyanka should have a more active role in the Congress” and that “another member of the Gandhi family would strengthen the party”.
Before him, former Union minister KV Thomas said that Priyanka “should come to the main arena. She should work with mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi as a team ... Priyanka is a big fighter. We have seen that in this election. Many people see madam Indira Gandhi in her. She is able to attract the people.”
It is clear that there are some and perhaps, many in the Congress, who believe that Rahul has failed. These people are not necessarily asking for an overthrow of the Gandhi family, merely that someone else among them take charge.
Why are they saying this? To know that, first let’s see what the problem in the Congress is. Till this year, the Congress was the largest political force in India.
It was only when the opposition ganged up against it, such as in 1977 and in 1989, that the Congress party conceded its majority. When the coalition failed to hold together, as it usually did, the Congress returned. It was seen as the natural ruling party of India till Atal Bihari Vajpayee put together an anti-Congress coalition that for the first time went into its fifth year.
Narendra Modi has comprehensively ended the Congress dominance of national politics. The numbers, whether vote share or seats, show that the main political force in India is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The one thing that Congress supporters could say before this year was that theirs was a pan-India party (meaning they had presence in the south and the extreme east) while others, meaning the BJP, did not.
This does not hold true any longer. In the south, the BJP actually did better than the Congress in Tamil Nadu for the first time. In North and West India, the Congress has been pushed into the position of a permanent opposition. In Gujarat, it has served in this role for two decades. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh also, the same situation prevails, while in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, the numbers indicate something dire for the Gandhis. The BJP under Modi has revived itself in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, while the Congress, which seemed to have come alive in UP a few years ago, is not competitive any longer.
The family can no longer assume that it will naturally bounce back out of adversity as it could when Sonia Gandhi took charge 15 years ago. Today, it is clear that states lost to the BJP are unlikely to return to the Congress easily, because the BJP manages them competently.
And so, the decay of the Gandhi charisma has happened everywhere in India. The family probably accepts this because even the party is fidgeting openly.
The question is: will Priyanka make a difference? I think in opposition, the party needs an aggressive and charismatic leader, which Rahul is not. Priyanka is certainly more charismatic and better-spoken than he is and will be better for the party at this point.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 10th, 2014.
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