Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is smart, charismatic and positively youthful compared to other Indian politicians. She’s popular and loved despite being a woman in a country that remains suspicious of female power. And she’s a scion of one of the most famous political families in the country: Her great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and both her grandmother and father served as prime ministers, too. Some have touted her as the only Gandhi family member from the current generation to inherit their political chops.
This week, after years of speculation, she announced that she is entering politics by taking up a high-profile position in her family’s Indian National Congress party — and I’m not excited.
It’s true that Gandhi is eloquent and inherently likable, traits that are very rare in Indian politics. Her entrance into politics is predicted to boost her secular party’s chances in the upcoming elections, casting a blow against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its “Hindutva” platform. She also brings an important female perspective to her party’s leadership, something that has been jarringly lacking given the prominence of women’s issues in Indian discourse over the past year.
Yet her rise is not a defining moment of political change. If anything, it will mean more of the status quo.
For one, Gandhi is not entering politics with a sustained history of issue-based advocacy. She has campaigned for her mother and brother, but has largely kept herself separate from substantive policy debates. So the decision to elevate her to party general secretary overseeing the critical state of Uttar Pradesh seems less about her vision and more to do with her status.
Nor is her rise quite the feminist victory her supporters are making it out to be. Of course, any increase in female representation within male-dominated spheres of power is a step forward. But her decision to enter politics has not coincided with a broader push to bring more women into the Parliament or her party. The glass ceiling is still very much intact for women without storied last names and powerful backing. Gandhi’s promotion only disguises these broader gaps in representation.
But the most disappointing aspect of Gandhi’s decision to enter politics is that the move consolidates an inordinate amount of political power in the hands of one family — just when Congress and the country need to move in a different direction.
During the 2014 elections, the party promoted Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka’s mother and brother, against Modi and performed dismally. After being routed across the country, the party needed to take a hard look at itself and branch out in new directions. Instead, it doubled down on its long-standing strategy and invested even more power in the Gandhis — at the expense of other leaders.
It was the wrong move, and the party is making the same mistake now. As a secular, centrist party, Congress has tried to position itself as the party of the people. This narrative becomes hard to sell when it is continually led by a handful of elite families. It also leaves them vulnerable to criticism from the BJP and Modi, the son of a tea seller. It doesn’t help that Gandhi’s husband, businessman Robert Vadra, has been accused of using his connections to make spurious land deals.
Rather than turning to Gandhis before every election, Congress needs to find a way to move away from dynastic politics and the charges of nepotism and elitism that come with it.
Both the party and country also need new blood and new ideas. Congress has lost touch with young Indians and has never truly defined a policy platform to tackle India’s economic and development challenges. Its dependence on the Gandhi family meant that it never had to build a broader path to leadership or nurture young leaders with bold visions. The party is feeling that loss now, when the Indian public seems fatigued by the Gandhis even as dissatisfaction with the Modi government slowly grows.
In the months and years to come, it’s possible Priyanka Gandhi will use her voice to enact change within the party. She has an enviable platform to campaign for change, particularly on women’s rights, and has the respect and clout to push policies through. But given the family’s track record, and the party’s inability to think outside the box, I’m not hopeful.
One thing is clear: If the party continues with the same old rhetoric from the same old faces and families, it will only play into the BJP’s hands. That’s the last thing Congress and the Gandhis want. But, in their quest to maintain influence, they could find themselves falling into this trap all the same.