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Congress's Trump Card


Could the introduction of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into active politics act as a countervail to Narendra Modi and the looming presence of Arvind Kejriwal? Pramod Kumar has the larger picture.
PRAMOD KUMAR | Issue Dated: January 26, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Priyanka Gandhi Vadra |Rahul Gandhi |Indira Gandhi | |

Last week Congress office bearers at 24 Akbar Road headquarters were served with an urgent missive, they had to be present at Rahul Gandhi’s 12 Tughlaq Road residence for an urgent meeting within an hour. Naturally such short notice calls at the residence of the Congress heir apparent cannot be taken lightly, it did not matter even if they were not told who the convener of the meeting was. They assembled at the designated address only to be pleasantly surprised that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra herself was the star speaker.

Naturally, ifPriyanka talks, Congressmen listen. The granddaughter of Indira Gandhi and Rahul’s sister got to the point without too many formalities. The Congress, she told the gathering, did not just belong to the Gandhi family but held the aspirations of millions of workers and people of India who wanted UPA 3 in place. It is time, she said, that the government and the Congress organisation get their act together. It may not have been evident in the recently-concluded assembly elections disaster, Priyanka pointed out, but the litmus test lay five months ahead when the country went to the polls.

It was a carefully calibrated Congress move to introduce Priyanka into proceedings, subtly making it appear as if she was part of the larger strategy-making apparatus of the party and an even subtler hint that she could have a larger role to play in the weeks and months to come – even maybe contest from a family seat in UP, giving the party the cutting edge that it now needs desperately.

According to party insiders, Priyanka lived up to her star billing. In a candid chat she told those assembled that an individual mattered only so much in an organization like the Congress. “No one should think he or she is not expendable to the party. It is mandatory for everyone to work within party discipline; those who cannot must make way for people who can,’’ she emphasized. She reflected on the Delhi assembly debacle saying that the results showed that there was utter lack of coordination between the government and the party. To remove the anomalies, Priyanka was categorical: the time to take hard decisions is here and party leaders and workers have to be prepared for what comes their way.

The meeting, tactically held in the absence of Rahul Gandhi, drew the desired response. In anticipation of the AICC special session to be held in Delhi on January 17 where he is expected to be given a fee hand, first party secretaries and then the power general secretaries offered to put in their papers there and then. Party insiders say that Priyanka said in as many words what brother Rahul was hesitant in pointing out. Gandhi family watchers say that Priyanka is cast in a different mold from her family. She is independent and does not believe in pulling punches – in other words she believes in taking the upper hand. Without holding a formal position in the party, she keeps a hawk eye on mother Sonia’s parliamentary constituency and helps out with party work if the occasion demands, as it does at the moment. Her hold over the party can be gauged from the fact that senior leaders were both chastened and sobered down, a little insecure about their own moorings within the party.

The after affects of her speech became evident; within hours the clarion calls to introduce ‘bitiya’ Priyanka into poll proceedings gathered momentum. Leaders bent over backwards to raise the introduce-Priyanka call, posters sprung up in several places by enthusiastic Congress workers ‘welcoming’ her as an answer to all ills that the party was plagued with.

Party leaders candidly admitted that the rise and rise of Narendra Modi and now the looming presence of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Arvind Kejriwal, made it imperative for the Congress to ever-so-slightly reveal its trump card that is Priyanka, in whom many see a shadow of her grandmother, a perennial voter catcher in her time. If she actually decides to play a more active role in politics in the days to come, these comparisons are sure to become sharper and calibrated. Janardan Dwivedi, party general secretary regarded closest to 10 Janpath, told TSI: “With disappointing poll results, Priyanka like the rest of Congress leaders, is worried about the future. That is perfectly natural for anyone who loves the party. As far her contesting elections is concerned, it is a decision that is best left to her and party president Sonia Gandhi has said as much.’’ Clearly, whether Priyanka takes an active hand in politics is a sensitive million rupee question, best left to India’s first family to tackle but the way she went to Rahul’s house and met him, does not make her by any chance a contender for her brother’s spot. It is very clear that she will stick to the party protocol, stand behind Rahul, guide him, strategise on Congress tactics and hopefully ensure that a UPA 3 under her brother returns to power for a third successive time.

Party insiders say there are good reasons for Priyanka not to enter active politics. Her arrival on the scene is certain to take the luster off Rahul because informally and off the record, even Congressmen believe that the Gandhi scion is no match for Narendra Modi when it comes to the rough and tumble of national politics. Rahul’s campaign, if anything, will benefit by Priyanka’s charisma. Even otherwise, she is regarded as a Congress trump card whose introduction into politics is not seen as a priory by the Congress as an act of desperation. The party will never favour that the sister trumps the brother.

According to well placed Congress sources, even before her appearance at the Tughlaq Road meeting, she has been playing a solid behind-the scene role; in other words act as Rahul’s brains thrust and unofficial adviser. Sources say that with the emergence of Narendra Modi  it was her initiative that the party began to project Rahul Gandhi as the Congress face for the mid-2014 battle. She is also said to be the brains behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s public declaration backing the candidature of Rahul as the man to succeed him. She has began to exert a lot of influence on important party decisions – with the help of Janardan Dwivedi - which for the moment is unseen but will be more visible as elections draw closer. Party leaders cite the example of minister of state for defence Jitendra Singh from UP who has been selected as president of the Lok Sabha seats screening committee. Singh has the backing of Priyanka who believes that here is a man who will work without fear or favour and it is to such new faces that the party is likely to give Lok Sabha tickets. Says Janardan Dwivedi: “The Delhi assembly results have no doubt come as a blow to the Congress but the party is by no means demoralized. We will take steps to remedy the situation as every Congressman wants Rahul to become the next prime minister. We have time and I have no doubt that we will get our act together.’’

Dwivedi’s view can be interpreted in two ways. On the face of it, it would appear like the archetypal Congress sycophant mouthing a time-tested party homily but looked at another way, it is a sign that the party after much prevarication is getting round to the view that tough decisions need to be taken and taken immediately. The Congress Lok Sabha ticket screening committee is now almost certain to reject a number of old candidates and include only those whose win ability factor is high. In other words, the party is preparing to shed some of its old baggage. Indications of it have come from Rahul himself. When asked in Bangalore how the party planned to infuse new blood and introduce fresh faces when old candidates were contesting eight simultaneous Lok Sabha elections, Rahul said that what had happened in the past was not going to be repeated now. Not that everyone is impressed. There are enough skeptics within the party who say that Rahul’s choice of candidates beginning with the UP assembly elections in 2012 till now has been nothing short of disastrous; now however this is make or break time  for him and he knows how high the stakes are.

Jitendra Singh, told TSI that the party will stay clear of giving tickets to traditional Congress families, as has been the norm. “We will look to project aam (common) rather than khas (special) candidates. We have to win back those party workers who are cut up with senior leaders. If we manage to enthuse them enough, then we will become automatically activate our block-level leaders. That is half the battle won,’’ he points out but adds candidly that the task appears herculean at the moment.

According to party leaders, Priyanka believes that names of proposed leaders who get party tickets should be finalized on the basis of an internal survey; once they are finalized they should get the total support of the district Congress committee. To begin with two names each are going to be proposed from each Lok Sabha constituency and one will be selected using laid down parameters. As far as talking points for the party is concerned, it has been decided that Rahul will only speak about social sector issues that have his or the National Advisory Council's (NAC’s) stamp on it, like the Right to Information Act, Right to Education, Land Acquisition Act, MNREGA and Food Security Act. That is going to be Sonia Gandhi’s talking points as well. On corruption and inflation, two vexed issues dogging the Congress, Priyanka wants Rahul to touch upon improvement of delivery systems. Not just that: she is expected to coordinate between the Congress war room in Delhi and the Japanese public relation firm hired by Rahul and will almost certainly lay down responsibilities for different leaders. Party leaders including Rahul and Priyanka are aware of the traditional Congress bug bears – excessive infighting and interference by senior leaders. Rahul has expressed his concern and his worries have been partially answered by Priyanka’s line on fixing responsibility. If there are reports of non-performance or sabotage, then strict action needs to be taken against those guilty.

According to Congress secretary Pankaj Sharma, the party has reached the conclusion that without accountability and responsibility, they have a tough road ahead. This step is expected to keep a handle on dissidents who do not get party tickets and become rebels, as had been the case in the recent assembly election debacles.

Party strategists say Rahul is keen to enter the next Parliament with his own lot of youngsters and for this, UP presents the biggest challenge to his nascent leadership. For the Gandhi scion to make his mark, it is imperative that the Congress makes a decided improvement on its 22 Lok Sabha seats that it currently holds in UP. Sources present a none-too-happy appraisal of the state. According to them, the chances of young leaders Jitin Prasad and RPN Singh returning from UP looks thin at the moment. Coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, commando turned MP Kamal Kishore and veteran Jagdambika Pal do not look too bright either. There appears little doubt now that the party is going to lose seats in UP and it is now a question of speculation as to who the gainer from this process is likely to be.

According to party sources, Rahul is keen to knock off Beni Prasad Verma from his list of prospective UP candidates but the Union steel minister's clout with Other Backwad castes (OBCs) and minority voters may make Rahul change his mind because it means a direct division of votes against the Congress. In any case, Beni is the only OBC leader that the Congress has in UP and one of the reasons for the Congress decline in UP since the 1990s has been a total absence of backward caste leaders in the aftermath of the Mandal agitation. But apart from Beni, none of the other UP MPs appear to be on sure ground. Rahul himself is up against a tough contender in AAP’s Kumar Vishwas in Amethi, who has already launched his campaign in traditional AAP-style caps and colour.

Maverick Beni Prasad Verma – in the news for his scandalous views on former ally Mulayam Singh Yadav – told TSI: “Congress leaders are not aware that the party organization in the state is in shambles. It is in the hands of a select elite who think they are bigger than the party and refuse to even talk to workers.’’ Verma, whose choice of words has sometimes embarrassed the Congress high command, says if `good’ people are given tickets, the party could improve its situation. It is also true that if Beni is denied a Congress ticket, as some of his detractors want, then he could make life tough for the party in the Gonda-Bahraich and adjacent districts in eastern UP. But UP Congress president Nirmal Khatri takes another view. According to him, while the central government’s economic policies could harm the party’s prospects, ultimately the projection of Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate is likely to galvanise the party’s rank and file. Unlike Beni, he believes the party organization can fight back. Well, he should know; he is the leader of the state Congress.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017