At a rally in Punjab’s Bathinda, Priyanka comes on the stage, takes the lantern and says, ‘Bole so nihaal.’ The rows of men in colourful turbans and women in bright dupattas seated in front of her chant back, ‘Sat sri akal’. Priyanka Gandhi reveals a grin that will stay on her face throughout her 20-minute speech.
There are smiles and there is the Priyanka smile. Pasted on the mug of most Indian politicians, a smile is either a smirk, a sneer, a nervous chuckle, a condescending expression of dominance, a meek admission of failure, a smug announcement of a triumph, an intent of mischief or a forced parting of lips, the kind you see on botoxed faces of socialites posing just for the heck of it.
To understand all these smiles, think of Smriti Irani, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lalu Prada Yadav, P Chidambaram… there is a long list of exponents.
Or think of Rahul Gandhi, who, asked about the Congress defeat in the 2013 Assembly polls, responded with a meek, helpless smile that made him an object of sympathy and ridicule.
But Priyanka’s smile is different. When on display, it’s an ear- to- ear expression of girlish, shy, radiant joy that makes her whole body smile and conveys a certain confidence in her destiny. It doesn’t fade away when she is attacking her opponents or defending her brother Rahul ji, it doesn’t change even when she is playfully patting snakes or shaking hands with her critics. It’s genuine, it’s permanent.
And the effect is immediate. On the side lines of her road show in Madhya Pradesh, a group of BJP supporters are chanting ‘Modi, Modi.’ Priyanka steps out of her car, shakes hands with them, wishes them good luck with an enormous smile. Long after she is gone, the Modi fans are still smiling.
At the rally in Bathinda, hundreds of people have been waiting for her since morning. But their weary bodies participate in the dance of happiness the moment Priyanka smiles and announces she is very happy to be among them because her ‘gharwala (husband)’ is a Punjabi, again with that infectious smile.
“Whether it’s sunny, dark or cloudy, the prime minister’s lies have started coming on the nation’s radar,” she beams. Those who get the biting sarcasm, break into a guffaw. On seeing their reaction, Priyanka’s eyes twinkle, her face glows. The audience and the speaker are now communicating with each other through their smiles. Words cease to matter.
I have talked about Priyanka’s smile in detail because it says a lot about her personality. For instance, it tells her that she is really enjoying her stint in politics and is genuinely in love with it, unlike her brother who, for many years, appeared to be a reluctant carrier of the family inheritance. It tells us, she is relaxed, confident and not too attached to the fruits of her labour. It tells us, unlike most people who spread happiness whenever they go, Priyanka spreads a certain joi de vivre wherever she goes, except in the hearts of dark, depressed, divisive people whose blind belief in political monotheism she demolishes with a smile.
One of the reasons for the Congress decline in politics has been lack of a communicator. Rajiv Gandhi was still learning the art and craft his mother excelled in before he was assassinated. PV Narasimha Rao, who followed him, was known for his pout in public than as a polyglot or an intellectual he was in private. Sonia Gandhi could rarely rise above written scripts delivered more as a litany. Manmohan Singh, well, was known for his maun. And Rahul Gandhi, after experimenting with various styles, mock anger, rolling of kurta sleeves, is just about getting it right after 15 years in politics.
But Priyanka seems to have hit the mike running. She speaks slowly, in chaste Hindi, has a clear diction and seems to be patenting a style that makes her speeches resemble a conversation between cultured people, with lots of humour and smiles thrown in. It’s a style that gets her audience attention, it’s a style that spreads positivity, cheer and joy. After several decades, the Congress has found someone who can hold a conversation with the voters.
It is risky to make a prediction in politics. But, at this point, two things can be safely said about Priyanka.
One, she would soon become a dominant voice in Indian politics, provided she doesn’t treat it like a part-time fancy. Soon, her easy charm will become a counterpoint to Narendra Modi’s high rhetoric delivered with snarls, drawls, aggression and triumphalism.
Two, and the Congress should be happy about this, she will eclipse her brother as a mass leader. Whatever be the fate of the Congress in 2019, Priyanka will become the face of the party. And a smiling one at that.