Narendra Modi, whose hold over India’s political narrative has been steadily slipping as the country heads into an election, has a new challenge: the 47-year-old granddaughter of Indira Gandhi, who governed the country from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is making a surprise entry into politics to oversee campaign operations for the Congress Party in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. The high-risk but gutsy move will place her in direct confrontation with both the prime minister and the state’s chief minister, the contentious, saffron-robed monk Yogi Adityanath — and right on their turf.
So far, opposition politicians — who have tried to bury egos and transcend differences to form a united bulwark against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — had avoided any sort of personality battle with Modi, who remains personally popular and has successfully campaigned as if India’s parliamentary democracy were an American-style presidential system. His rivals did not want to pitch any individuals against him. They also thought in a personality contest, there would be only one winner.
Now, however, whether Gandhi runs for parliament or not, just the fact that she’ll be campaigning in the prime minister’s electoral backyard — as well as the obsessive media interest in her — ensures that the battle will be inevitably framed in Priyanka vs. Modi terms.
Her persona has a lot to do with this.
She has been endlessly compared to her grandmother, the country’s tough and hardy only female prime minister. She also has an ease and spontaneity that make her a photographer’s delight — flopping down on a patch of mud and grass to share a bite with a village woman, leaning over to pull her mother, Sonia Gandhi’s, cheek at a public rally, or effortlessly jumping over a picket fence while her retinue of security races to catch up with her. These are the sort of images that most political spin doctors can only dream of.
Yet all these years, she adamantly kept away from politics, only stepping in to nurse her mother’s constituency and that of her brother, Rahul Gandhi, president of the Congress Party. In 2009, she tried to explain why.
When she gave me an interview — one of the handful she has ever done — she said in her teenage years, she thought politics was "absolutely what I want to do with my life … because I did idealize my grandmother. I grew up in a house where she was the head and she was an extremely powerful woman. … So being a little girl and seeing this woman who was strong and stood for so much, it did have an effect on me. I think my own identity was confused until a certain point and when I discovered that, ‘Hey, Priyanka is actually this’ — then I realized that this is not for me.”
But 10 years later, there are many reasons that sitting out is not an option. Modi’s win in 2014 decimated the Congress Party, pushing it to a historic low. And in Uttar Pradesh — where Gandhi’s great-grandfather, grandmother and father all won elections that made them prime minister — the party was gasping for survival at two seats. Even today, because of a complex configuration of caste and grassroots realities, the main challenge to the BJP comes not from the Gandhi family but from an alliance of two erstwhile rivals, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati.
Priyanka’s political debut is about the Congress Party looking to resuscitate itself in U.P.
"Our workers have been demanding that she take a more active role in politics,” says Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera. “She took her time in deciding, and all of us are happy that she agreed. These are not normal times. We need to not only rebuild our republic; we need to save it.”
There are other reasons the timing makes perfect sense for the party.
Rahul Gandhi, who she insisted to me is much more like their grandmother, has definitely earned his spurs as the Congress president. Often written off by the media and disparaged by the BJP, he was subjected to relentless and unflattering comparisons with his sister. But the party’s win in recent provincial elections makes that a thing of the past. He is now firmly in the leader’s saddle.
The BJP’s main weapon against Priyanka Gandhi — the allegations and charges government agencies have filed against her businessman husband, Robert Vadra — has also been fully blunted. In the previous election, Modi would mock the Congress “damaad” ( son-in-law) in his speeches and accuse him of receiving undue favors. Five years later, forget conviction — not one of these cases has shown concrete forward movement. Any move the government makes now, in the last month of its term, will only appear vindictive and make Gandhi the victim.
The other ammunition in the BJP’s arsenal is the swipe about the Gandhi siblings being a dynasty who inherited power, in contrast to the self-made rise of Modi. While this is true about the prime minister, that line of attack would be more effective if the BJP had a different political culture. But data shows that all parties, including Modi’s, are replete with leaders who follow their parents into politics. In some states, the BJP had more “dynasts” than the Congress in power.
Of course, if the Congress remains in single digits in Uttar Pradesh, the enigma of Gandhi would be tough to invoke a second time around. The “Brahmastra” (Hindu mythology’s celestial weapon of last resort, said to cause total annihilation) can be used only once.
But if Priyanka Gandhi is on test now, so is Narendra Modi.