In the rough and tumble of the country’s longest election season, politicians often make statements for political mileage. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s exaggerated claims of benefits accruing to industrialist Anil Ambani from the Rafale deal, his inability to stick to one figure for the corporate loans allegedly written off by the Narendra Modi government, and his immature attempt to attribute his opinions about the Prime Minister to the Supreme Court (which was not amused), can be taken as par for the course.
Gandhi is fighting for survival against a very astute politician. Sister Priyanka Vadra was inducted into the Congress and given charge of half of the critical state of Uttar Pradesh to revitalize the moribund organisation and bring voters back to the grand old party. Projected by an adoring media as a charismatic trump card and serious game-changer, she frittered away her advantages with juvenile antics about challenging the Prime Minister in Varanasi, and then disappeared like the proverbial horns of a donkey.
Vadra’s sense of entitlement can be gauged from the fact that, till the time of writing, she has felt no need to explain her conduct, either to the media that she used to create a false buzz around herself, or to the party whose workers looked up to her with so much expectation. Her contribution to the Congress tally will match this attitude.
Diehard Congress fans see her flight from Varanasi as extremely damaging. Far from energizing the party, she has inadvertently exposed deep fissures within. Thus, confidants of Rahul Gandhi explained the decision on one ground; the faction aligned with her explained it on another. This is a grave political error. During his long apprenticeship under Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi never once presumed to overtake or overshadow his mother, and kept his nascent camp under tight control. Similarly, Sonia Gandhi has been careful never to take the limelight away from Rahul Gandhi after he became party president. By unilaterally proposing herself for Varanasi on multiple occasions, Vadra breached this red line. Her retreat could be imposition of party discipline.
Anyway, Vadra could regard Smriti Irani with scorn in 2014; but in 2019, Irani forced Rahul Gandhi to seek a safety net in Kerala. So did Priyanka Vadra really believe (even if she dared to contest and give details of her and husband Robert Vadra’s assets in a sworn affidavit, along with five years of income tax returns) that she was strong enough to face Modi? Informed sources say she is also shy of revealing her educational qualifications.
One wonders why Vadra did not focus on helping the party to win Amethi. If the famously secretive family has privately conceded Amethi to Irani and the Bharatiya Janata Party, how did she imagine that tossing a half-baked dare at the Prime Minister was going to yield electoral dividends? Now the reverse has happened, to the dismay of the loyal glitterati.
The crux of the matter is that Varanasi is not merely a constituency. It is the beating heart of Hindu civilisation, and Narendra Modi chose it consciously for this reason in 2014. His obeisance to Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya, who built the university to cater to every aspect of knowledge from traditional to modern, was part of a subtle quest to align the BJP with the soul of India. By seeking refuge in a constituency dominated by the Indian Union Muslim League, Rahul Gandhi unintentionally made the Congress-BJP contest a civilisational battle. The temple-hopping sacred thread-wearing (jeneu-dhari) Kashyap gotra (clan) Brahmin persona evaporated in an instant. This truth will not escape the Indian voter.
Modi alluded to the civilisational aspect when he said the Congress president had sought safety in a minority-dominated seat. This Nehruvian legacy – of making the Muslim community a core vote bank and winning elections by adding some caste votes – is now under serious challenge. This is what the BJP sought when it espoused the Ram Janmabhumi movement and spoke of ‘justice for all, appeasement of none’.
Perhaps the vision needed more time, or a new leader with an aspirational message linking the past with the future. This also sums up Modi’s developmental work in Varanasi – grand roads, new institutions, cleaning the Ganga and the ghats, and recovering hidden temples on the path from Kashi Vishwanath temple to the river. Modi alone has had the courage to venture into the spiritual heartland without the benefit of family, caste or regional roots. Kashi welcomes such wanderers.
The Gandhi family lacks roots on this civilisational firmament. Vadra blundered to think she could meet Modi on this terrain. When apprised of the reality, she should have retreated gracefully. Instead, she fed the frenzy. Later, Congress announced the candidature of Ajay Rai the very day that Modi filed his nomination, and left the poor scapegoat to field the questions.
The media and intellectuals who lionized Vadra and invented the mystique of her political acumen must feel disenchanted. Some of the eulogies accompanying her entry into the Congress on January 23, 2019 are telling. One headline gushed, “Priyanka Gandhi is already a social media star despite not having Twitter or Fb account”. Her entry was described as a “bombshell”. A prominent intellectual tried to evoke a supernatural link between Swami Vivekananda and the lady, for sharing the same birthday, and posed the question, “Will Priyanka be the X-factor that tilts the scales in favour of the Congress this crucial election year?” Well, the answer is blowing in the wind.
A highly respected columnist made a hugely embarrassing prognosis, “The message is loud and clear. East UP means Varanasi and Varanasi equals Narendra Modi. Giving Priyanka charge of Eastern UP is tantamount to taking on the opponent on his turf.… Given her charisma, ability to think on her feet and come up with instant ripostes, and her resemblance to Indira Gandhi, the battle could become a Modi versus Priyanka fight in 2019, without her being declared as the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress or of the Opposition”. It has taken just three months to shatter that illusion.
This brings us to the real mystery of 2019. Was Sonia Gandhi trying to avert sibling rivalry from spilling into the open when she decided to contest from Rae Bareli? Can a post-election split in Congress be avoided or is it inevitable?
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal)
The Pioneer, 30 April 2019