Could Priyanka Gandhi be Congress party’s secret weapon?

Scion of India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty is a fluent orator and loved by crowds, but has been reluctant to join her mother and brother in active politics.

Priyanka Gandhi arrives at a Congress party rally in Rae Bareli district on February 17, 2017, during campaigning for Uttar Pradesh state elections. Sanjay Kanojia / AFP
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For months now, the Congress party’s headliner at campaign rallies in Uttar Pradesh has been its vice president, Rahul Gandhi. But with four phases of voting still to go in the state assembly election, the party has now begun to field its underused star: his sister, Priyanka Vadra.

On Friday, Mrs Vadra spoke alongside Mr Gandhi in Rae Bareilly, a parliamentary constituency held by their mother Sonia Gandhi and once held by their grandmother, the former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Although she makes few campaigning appearances for the Congress, Mrs Vadra is a fluent orator, and the crowds love her.

“I ask you to spurn those who lie to you, who fail to deliver their promises,” she said on Friday, referring to prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Choose those who want to work for you, those who want to develop the state.”

Her ease with campaigning is no surprise for someone who has been steeped in Indian politics all her life.

Born a year and a half after her brother, in January 1972, Mrs Vadra grew up within the Congress party. Her great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister. She grew up watching her grandmother campaign, and then saw her father run successfully to become prime minister.

Over the past two decades, her mother and brother have led the party, steering the Congress through two terms in government between 2004 and 2014, and then presiding over its slide. The BJP trounced the Congress in the 2014 parliamentary election, reducing it to 44 seats in the lower house – its lowest-ever tally.

Despite her family’s standing and the success of her occasional forays into the family business, Mrs Vadra has steadfastly refused to seek office herself. “I have said it a thousand times, but I will repeat: I am not interested in joining politics,” she told an interviewer as long ago as 1999.

Even at a time when her brother seems unable to halt or reverse his party’s decline, Mrs Vadra continues to stay above the fray.

"There is little doubt that Priyanka has a greater ability to connect with the crowd than her brother," said Prashant Jha, who has covered several of the Congress party's rallies in Uttar Pradesh for the Hindustan Times this year. "Rahul's speeches lack focus, he digresses, and he is not able to speak a language that the crowd can relate to. There is greater curiosity about Priyanka, she can keep the audience interested while speaking, and she seems to be more charismatic."

Mrs Vadra also reminds people of her grandmother, who was an electrifying campaigner and a popular politician, said Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and the vice chancellor of Jain University in Bengaluru.

There is no doubt the party would welcome Mrs Vadra’s entry into politics, said a Congress MP who asked not to be named. “We need to secure electoral victories, and if her entry enhances our chances, then we’re all for it,” he said. “We have tremendous affection and loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family, so it would be rapturously received. Rahul Gandhi was the first choice to take forward the legacy. Now that he’s having trouble delivering, we need a second engine for the plane.”

The assassinations of her grandmother and father no doubt influenced Mrs Vadra’s decision to stay out of politics. As the mother of two children, she has a young family to nurture, but Mr Shastri indicated a couple of other reasons.

“Her entry would fully eclipse her brother, and that is something she wants to avoid,” he said. “She also carries a baggage called Robert Vadra, which could well be a liability. It is no coincidence that whenever she is projected in politics, some controversy relating to Robert surfaces.”

Mr Vadra, Priyanka’s husband of 20 years, has frequently been implicated – but never charged or convicted – in cases of corruption.

The Congress MP suggested that the party perhaps has greater things in mind for her in the 2019 parliamentary elections, and he compared her to the “brahmastra”, a mystical weapon of great potency in Hindu mythology.

“The brahmastra can’t be unleashed multiple times,” he said.

But Mr Jha noted that Mrs Vadra’s popularity has not been truly road-tested. Her campaigning is limited to the seats of Amethi and Rae Bareilly, parliamentary constituencies her family has represented for decades.

“In tangible terms, we don’t have any yardstick to judge her appeal,” he said. And he pointed out that despite her campaigning during the last Uttar Pradesh election in 2012, the Congress still lost eight out of 10 state assembly seats in Amethi and Rae Bareilly districts.

“We simply do not have a way to know whether Priyanka is indeed a more successful campaigner – crowd response is only one parameter – unless she gets immersed in full-time politics, contests an election, or leads a campaign,” he said.