Why Priyanka can be more than ‘just another Gandhi’ making poll debut
While Rahul is likely to continue acting as the ideological anchor of the party who would periodically spell out the party’s concerns on major issues in and outside Parliament, Priyanka may prove useful for the party to defuse any tirade coming from the Modi-Shah duo or others on the Treasury Benches | File photo

Why Priyanka can be more than ‘just another Gandhi’ making poll debut

The Congress couldn’t have found a better way and time to project itself as the architect of the bridge between the north and the south

If all goes to Congress’s plan, all three members of its Nehru-Gandhi family will soon serve as Members of Parliament; Sonia Gandhi as a member of the Rajya Sabha and her children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, of the Lok Sabha. Five years after she was drafted in by her brother, Rahul, then the Congress president, into active politics as a general secretary of the party, decks have finally been cleared for Priyanka to make her electoral debut.

Often credited as being the more astute politician and one with a greater flair for public life than her brother, Priyanka will be the Congress’s candidate from Wayanad as and when the Election Commission announces the bypoll for the Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala. Rahul, who won the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls from Wayanad and Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli, has decided to vacate the former constituency, which had sent him to Parliament five years earlier when his traditional seat of Amethi in UP showed him the door and rooted instead for the BJP’s Smriti Irani.

Priyanka expected to win

Rahul’s decision to vacate the Wayanad seat for his sister comes days after he told the constituency’s voters that irrespective of which of the two seats — Rae Bareli or Wayanad — he lets go of, he would ensure that the voters of both constituencies “will be happy”. On Monday (June 17), as Rahul finally chose to retain Rae Bareli, a constituency his mother had won from since 2004 and with which the Nehru family’s association dates back over a century, he told the voters of Wayanad that they would, in a way, be getting two MPs “Priyanka and I”, as a mark of his gratitude to them for standing by him during “a very difficult time”.

The Left and the BJP are expected to come at Priyanka — and at Rahul — all guns blazing once the bypoll campaign truly begins. The familiar allegations of the Congress perpetuating dynastic politics will be par for the course. Yet, the popularity of the Gandhis in Kerala, Rahul’s own work as an MP from Wayanad, the demographic composition of the constituency and the palpable euphoria around Priyanka’s long-anticipated debut as a lawmaker collectively make her victory from the seat fairly imminent.

“Bigger plan”

Rahul may have revealed his decision of vacating Wayanad only a day ago but the plan for Priyanka’s electoral plunge was set in motion on May 3, if not earlier, when, after a long and suspenseful silence, the Congress finally fielded Rahul from Rae Bareli and KL Sharma from Amethi. Many in the Congress had, in hushed tones back then, indicated that the “surprise” choice of fielding Rahul from Rae Bareli instead of having him avenge his 2019 Amethi defeat was part of a “bigger plan”.

Realising that the party would need her combative campaigning skills in Rae Bareli and Amethi to ensure victories for Rahul and Sharma, respectively, the party decided against fielding Priyanka from either of these seats. Instead, she became the showrunner for the party’s campaign in both seats — and she delivered thumping victories.

With Rae Bareli and Amethi both falling into the Congress’s kitty and the results also showing some signs of the party’s electoral revival nationally following a decade of setbacks, Priyanka was now free to chart her own electoral debut.

The calculations

Besides, as a close aide of Rahul told The Federal, “Having Rahul contest only from Rae Bareli was never an option because had he given up Wayanad at the beginning, the Congress wouldn’t have swept Kerala as it did... If the party had fielded Priyanka from Amethi, the chance of her taking up Wayanad after Rahul wouldn’t have arisen.”

This aide added, “It was certain that if Rahul wins both seats, he would stick to Rae Bareli, not only because the family’s association with the seat predates that with Amethi but because Sonia pretty much pledged Rahul to Rae Bareli when she declared in Rae Bareli that ‘I am giving you my son’... Priyanka as Rahul’s replacement in Wayanad was the most logical step forward; she could focus on Amethi and Rae Bareli during the election while Rahul campaigned across the country and once Rahul vacated Wayanad, Priyanka could step in.”

A senior Congress MP from Kerala explained further, “It was clear to all of us in Kerala that he would give up Wayanad if he wins both seats; the concern we had was more about who would take over from him in Wayanad.” The MP added, “All of us felt that the only acceptable alternative would be Priyanka and that fielding anyone else would harm the party immensely, not just in the Assembly polls (due in 2026) but for a long time after that too because there would have rightly been a sense among Kerala voters that the Gandhis abandoned them the moment Rahul was able to return to the Lok Sabha from UP... the Left and the BJP would have gone to town with this narrative; they are still doing that but with Priyanka in the fray, the attack has lost its sting.”

Rahul’s “voice of the south” pitch

The political considerations of keeping Kerala voters in good humour aside, there is also a more important purpose that Priyanka’s electoral debut from Wayanad is meant to serve for the Congress, in general, and the Gandhis, in particular. Back in 2019, when Rahul decided to contest the polls simultaneously from Wayanad and Amethi, he had justified his move by asserting that a schism had politically split the country’s north and the south which needed to be closed.

In the backdrop of the BJP’s electoral dominance of the Hindi Heartland and its limited presence in the south, Rahul had tried to position himself and his party as the “voice of the south” in the power corridors of New Delhi. However, the Congress’s second consecutive drubbing in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s deafening blitzkrieg against Rahul for “running away” to a safe seat in Kerala, and Irani’s win in Amethi, collectively neutralised Rahul’s “voice of the south” pitch.

Perfect time

Five years on, with the gulf between the north and the south wider than ever before in the wake of the federalism-driven pushback that Narendra Modi has received from Opposition chief ministers such as MK Stalin, Pinarayi Vijayan, and Siddaramaiah — and despite the BJP’s 2024 gains in Telangana, Kerala, Orissa and Andhra — the Congress hopes to resurrect Rahul’s 2019 pitch once again.

The Congress couldn’t have found a better way and time to project itself as the architect of the bridge between the north and the south. In the Rajya Sabha, the Congress’s main faces would be its party president and Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge, a Kannadiga, and Congress Parliamentary Party chief Sonia Gandhi, who has been elected to the Upper House from Rajasthan. In the Lok Sabha, 43 of the Congress’s 102 MPs (including Independents Pappu Yadav, Vishal Patil, and Mohd Haneefa, who are now associate MPs of the party) are from the southern states and Union Territories, while Rahul and Priyanka, though they would be expected to speak on larger issues concerning the country as a whole, would represent a constituency each from the north and the south.

As such, from the four principal figures of the Congress high command — Kharge, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — either House of Parliament will have one member each representing the north and the south.

Priyanka as a backchannel negotiator?

Besides, of the two crutches that Modi’s government is now standing on, one is provided by TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu, who, as the newly sworn-in CM of Andhra Pradesh, has made huge promises to his voters, for which the financial and administrative aid has to come from the Centre. The Congress would want to keep reminding Naidu and Andhra of the bargain struck with the BJP.

The Grand Old Party is certain to pounce on any friction that may arise between the TDP and the BJP with the hope of rocking Modi’s precariously poised throne. Whether the Congress ropes in Priyanka as a backchannel negotiator with satraps such as Naidu or the now electorally crippled YS Jagan Reddy, K Chandrashekar Rao, and Naveen Patnaik — all stung in one way or another by the BJP at some point — remains to be seen but it’s a proposition worth considering.

A feisty and impactful orator

Having Priyanka in the Lok Sabha would also give the Congress a feisty and impactful orator in its ranks. Through the Lok Sabha campaign, she proved herself to be more than a match for the BJP’s top guns when it came to responding to any charge they made against her party or family. She did so with just the right mix of factual accuracy, belligerence, composure and even humour.

That Modi and Amit Shah made a palpably concerted effort to rarely ever respond to Priyanka during the elections only goes to show that the two would rather engage rhetorically with Rahul, who lacks his sister’s political dexterity and gift for stinging repartee.

Rahul, who the Congress wants to take over as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha (whether he does so is still a tightly kept secret), is likely to continue acting as the ideological anchor of the party who would periodically spell out the party’s concerns on major issues in and outside Parliament. Priyanka, on the other hand, may prove useful for the party to defuse any tirade coming from the Modi-Shah duo or others on the Treasury Benches.

If the Congress plays it well, Priyanka’s candidature — and expected victory — from Wayanad may prove to be much more than just another Gandhi making an electoral debut.

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