Decoding the Priyanka gamble

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Akhilesh Mishra

“It is my hope that you (Modi) become Prime Minister again.” This was the parting wish of Mulayam Singh Yadav on the last day of the 16th Lok Sabha. How will this wish of the patriarch of Samajwadi Party resonate in Uttar Pradesh as the country officially enters poll season? It would be instructive to look at some of the recent developments to see how the two main political parties are positioning themselves.
On the BJP front, three big developments in recent weeks have strengthened the position of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party. First, the announcement of 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker sections in the general category has been a unique and unqualified success. It is to the credit of Modi, and the trust he generates, that he could get this done without any social tension. Second, the decision to completely exempt from income tax those whose taxable income is up to Rs 5 lakh has been met with uniform cheer. That this move is likely to benefit more than 80 per cent of the taxpayers and immediately contribute to an increase in their disposable income indicates how well-thought out this decision was. Third, the PM Kisan income augmentation amount has been rolled out at an unprecedented speed and unlike the hassles associated with getting farm loan waivers, this is directly reaching the farmers’ accounts. These three recent announcements, along with the milestone of every home in India now being fully electrified, the remarkable success of Ayushman Bharat, the human story of more than 15 million families now having the security of their own homes through Awaas Yojana, the 70-million milestone of Ujjwala Yojana and the firm control on inflation make the development basket of Modi quite irresistible. Add to it, the bold and decisive action in Balakot and Modi has further strengthened his formidable image as a decisive leader.
On the Congress front, the Priyanka Gandhi Vadra card has finally been played. She comes with her strengths. Anecdotal evidence suggests that she is more natural than Rahul Gandhi when it comes to connecting with people, she has more flair than her brother and because she is fresh, she does not have the baggage of being labelled a failure like Rahul Gandhi. Arguably, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is also less likely to make the gaffes that her brother has made a habit of. Of course, she has her own baggage of Robert Vadra to deal with.
If we consider India’s electoral verdicts since the first elections in 1952, we would find that no government at the Centre, other than the Congress, has been re-elected. The Janata Party experiment in 1977 failed after three years in office. As did the experiments in 1989, 1996, and 1998. Atal Bihari Vajpayee did technically return in 1999, after getting elected in 1998. But that term lasted just a year; so 1999 was, for all purposes, a first term. In 2004, after five years in office, Vajpayee too lost.
The initial hope of the Congress, and the establishment it nurtures, was that Modi too will suffer the same fate in 2019 after a full term. But as 2019 approached, this hope quickly evaporated. Modi’s popularity has, in fact, increased. His schemes have positively changed the lived experiences of people and have also paid dividends in terms of votes. All in all, Rahul Gandhi was staring at a second successive defeat. The Gandhi family survived the rout in 2014. But it feared that a wipe-out in 2019 may actually portend doomsday in so far as the family’s hold on the Congress is concerned. No other Gandhi family member has, after all, lost elections successively and kept the Congress out of power for so long.
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A defeat in 2019 would be like a double whammy for the family. First, there would be a strong possibility of a real revolt within the Congress for a change of leadership. It would be impossible to hold on by arguing that Rahul is fresh and hence needs more time to learn. And second, this could lead to the desertion of the permanent establishment the family has reared in Lutyens’ Delhi. This establishment is of vital importance to the family — it is this that runs its legal, judicial, bureaucratic, academic and media empire, even while not in power. And while it is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the Congress establishment, the truth is that its only loyalty is towards the family. The scorn poured on Pranab Mukherjee by the members of the Congress establishment, after the Bharat Ratna was conferred on him, demonstrated the true loyalty of the establishment in real time. Permanent establishments need permanent anchors to survive in rough times, and the only permanent anchor is the family — not individual leaders who come and go.y leadership of the Congress, with no new member of the family waiting to take over, would have meant this establishment would finally wither away. This is where the entry of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was strategically timed. She has been given a responsibility which is not too small to go unnoticed and not big enough either for her to be blamed for the overall defeat. In a way, it is a tacit admission by the Congress that it has lost the 2019 elections. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is an insurance policy that in case the rebellion against Rahul Gandhi becomes too hot to handle post-defeat, then instead of the leadership going to a non-family person, she would be there to step in.
The family would retain its hold and the Lutyens’ establishment would continue to have its anchor to hold on to, in severely adverse times. The only way to assess the Priyanka Gamble, if we can call it that, is that the Congress party has already started to prepare for a post-Rahul Gandhi regime.