In UP, Priyanka’s entry changes everything

Saeed Naqvi

Just when Kumbh tour operators were smacking their lips for brisk business at the prospect of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra kicking off her election campaign in eastern Uttar Pradesh with a holy dip at the Sangam, there is an abrupt stoppage of news on her pious intentions.
The idea of a dip on an auspicious day like February 5 or February 11 (Basant Panchami) has not been given up, but plans can only be firmed up when Priyanka returns, surprise of surprises, from the United States. Some questions will obviously be asked — was she in the US when her appointment as AICC general secretary for the eastern half of UP was announced?
In any case, what was Priyanka doing in the US, or Chicago to be more precise? To turn up in Chicago with the family makes no sense at all in today’s freezing temperatures.
Those whose job it is to prepare the ground for her campaigning must be holding their breath. Equally, those who have been sidelined to make room for her would be watching with a touch of malice to see whether Priyanka will measure up at all.
Injecting new blood into a moribund party can have unexpected consequences. A function of urban unemployment is a sub-culture spawned in election season — habitual hangers-on around political party offices. These are carriers of unprocessed news. On this network have been floating rumours on how Kamal Nath, Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, and Ghulam Nabi Azad had angered Mayawati into such an alliance with Akhilesh Yadav in UP as to leave no room for the Congress in the state.
The narrow margins with which the party won the December elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have belatedly convinced party leaders that generous seat-sharing with Mayawati would have stood the party in good stead, particularly in MP. A pleased Mayawati, tough bargainer though she is, would have been more open to seat-sharing in UP.
There is such a barrage of stories that it is difficult to gauge their reliability. Mayawati is supposed to have been startled at the breezy manner in which Kamal Nath greeted her: “Hullo, Miss Maya”, he said, reaching out for a handshake. She likes to be fawned upon — and called “Behenji” with folded hands.
Reports of the UP trio — Pramod Tewari, Raj Babbar and Ghulam Nabi Azad — reaching the Congress headquarters were worse. Naseemauddin, once Mayawati’s moneybag and who these days is her pet hate, has in his new capacity as a Congressman wormed his way into the circle of the three.
Was this association likely to enhance Ghulam Nabi Azad’s bargaining position with Mayawati? In fact, one Naeemuddin Siddiqui, a builder from Barabanki, was pasting his posters in Lakhimpur Khiri. Zafar Naqvi, whose traditional seat it was, turned up in the Delhi Durbar with the grievance that money had changed hands.
Little wonder that the announcement that Priyanka and Jyotiraditya Scindia would share UP came like a bolt from the blue when Azad was in Lucknow participating in revelries surrounding the wedding of Raj Babbar’s son. Not just that, he was shown the door out of UP. He may now look after Haryana. In fact, rumours are that all the party stalwarts who had trooped into the Rajya Sabha as soon as the 2014 election results came in, will have their ears tweaked, one by one.
Priyanka’s entry changes everything, provided that she takes up the challenge. There is a reason for this element of doubt in my tone.
The image of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra that has stayed with me is of her campaigning for her mother and brother in Rae Bareli and Amethi in April-May 2014. It was a desperate bid to keep the family in play.
The extraordinary element in the campaigning was that it took place at all. For weeks, months, if not years, Kishori Lal Sharma, assigned by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to keep a watch on the two family constituencies, would wait for Priyanka Gandhi to turn up. Sharma, with a moustache like Hardy’s (as in Laurel and Hardy), would mobilise crowds, but on most occasions the shamianas would be dismantled after the invitees departed. Priyanka, of course, had not turned up.
Sharma, handpicked by Satish Sharma, Rajiv Gandhi’s pilot friend, was the local in-charge. Priyanka Gandhi had been given the task in overall, political control of the “fiefdoms”. But her long absences and repeated non-arrivals had led to speculation about her health.
Her disinterest or disability must have alarmed the family as Narendra Modi mounted history’s most expensive media campaign. The media was comprehensively under Mr Modi’s spell. Reports reached Sonia Gandhi that the Congress score in UP was likely to be zero. Never having lived without power, the family pressed panic buttons to at least keep Sonia Gandhi and Rahul in play in the Lok Sabha. That is when Priyanka galvanised the campaign so effectively that the family’s “izzat” was saved in the two constituencies. The credit must go entirely to her for the two elections.
Her husband Robert Vadra’s business misdemeanours were, in popular expectation, the vulnerable points where the Opposition might choose to strike. But Priyanka turned the game around. She raised the subject herself. “I am confident like my grandmother always was that the truth will eventually come out”. What saddened her was not that the Opposition had tried to humiliate (she used the expression “zaleel kiya”) the family, but that her “bewildered” children had to be explained what they were hearing.
Indians are nothing if not a feudal people, holding on to their hierarchies adoringly. It’s the dream of even the lowest in the land to play the “prince” image and come riding a horse as a bridegroom on marriage day. Imagine, then, the “princess” from the country’s premier family, taking “her” people in the family pocket borough into confidence on the humiliations that the Opposition has tried to heap upon her. How evocative. Will not the people be moved?
This big question remains — is the Congress playing spoiler in the state? Or is “we shall fight all 80 seats” designed to pressure the BSP-SP combine to settle on “one-third seats to each”. This is the expectation of Priyanka’s current chaperone.