By playing on the front foot, the Congress general secretary seeks to turn her baggage into advantage
The new Congress general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi, has turned the rules of the game by taking on the bull by the horns from the word go. While most politicians would be wary about their Achilles heel, she has decided to talk about the unmentionable. Yes, she is not disowning her marital tag — her nameplate says “Gandhi Vadra.” And by accompanying her husband to ED offices, where he was questioned over alleged money laundering and wealth accumulation in London with a calm and cool demeanour, she signalled that she was not scared or shy of facing the consequences of an inquiry if it was an impartial and fair one. She would face it, chin up, and go to the people with that openness. But if it was politically motivated or mischievous, as it would appear to be so close to the polls, then she would not take it lying down. As if it was all in a day’s work, she dropped her husband and headed straight to the Congress headquarters to take up new responsibilities. But this is undoubtedly a big gamble on her part considering that though the charges had surfaced before 2014 and the Modi government had not exactly speeded up proceedings until now, Vadra had avoided responding to ED summons and had ducked designated dates for questioning. This time, too, he showed up because he was not left with an option by the court. An adverse ruling could put the Congress in a spot of bother but Priyanka has chosen to turn it around, implying that the ED heat on her husband was in continuity with Central agencies being let loose on other members of the Opposition combine, be it Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati or Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. In fact, the Bengal Chief Minister extended support to the first family by dismissing the ED grill sessions as another example of revenge politics through government notices. Probably, this was a quid pro quo to Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s support to her in the CBI vs Bengal police tussle. Political circles are agog with speculation that her formal ascension in the party had something to do with preventing the Modi government from taking any coercive action against Vadra. Call it good, bad or ugly but with this decisive move and playing on the front foot, she has even put her signature on the internal dynamics of the Congress. For the grand old party, be it under Sonia Gandhi or Rahul, had dehyphenated Vadra as a “private citizen” but now she has sent the message that her surname or choice is not an unwanted drag just because others were saying so. In fact, it can be used as a tool of political victimisation. So having played on the front foot, by the time she set foot in her party office, cadres felt enthused enough to shout laudatory slogans.
With this new-found aggression, Priyanka has put the Modi government in a bit of a pickle. Though BJP leaders were unsparing about Vadra and went to town about their relentless campaign on corruption, no matter how big the errant was, they would not like to add ammunition to the Opposition rhetoric of unleashing political vendetta. Now that even the Sangh brass has realised the virtue of toning down the clamour for a Ram temple or religious issues, the BJP is not sure if corruption would be an emotional issue enough or whether it would make the party look more like a tormentor than a saviour. For Priyanka sure has stolen some of the optics from Modi. It remains to be seen how much of the BJP’s upper caste votebank she can chip into, considering that the Congress had done so in the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha bypoll last year. And even Rahul Gandhi, by going it alone in 2009 had pulled up the Congress’ votebase in Uttar Pradesh. If she does score with women, Muslims and fringe parties as general secretary of eastern Uttar Pradesh, she could impact some of the SP-BSP votebase as well. At the moment, therefore, Priyanka seems to be a better vote disruptor and clutter-breaker. And her unpredictability could unsettle strategies of the bigwigs.