The cri de coeur to anoint Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as Congress president reaffirms three perceptions in vogue about the Grand Old Party: one, the leadership ‘vacuum’ — if it can be charitably labelled that — is unlikely to be filled in the near future, unless Rahul Gandhi, the ‘outgoing’ Congress president, rethinks his resignation; two, the Congress is unprepared to disjoin itself from the command and control of the Gandhis; and three, Sonia Gandhi, the emeriti, will likely have to use the respect she pulls and the authority that flows therein to intervene and have the last word.
Senior leaders such as former MPs Abhijit Mukherjee, Bhakta Charan Das and Shriprakash Jaiswal led the ‘Priyanka lao’ chorus that has yet to culminate in staging spectacles outside the Congress headquarters. It's a reflection of the unique position that the Gandhis hold in the Congress that such entreaties are never snuffed out, even after Rahul made it clear that the next president will not be from his family. He ruled out Priyanka as a candidate. However, after the recent round of pleas, the Gandhis are silent.
The speculation that Priyanka would be put in charge of Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress won just one seat, was not confirmed or denied. She continues to be the general secretary minding eastern UP, a position that was given shortly before the Lok Sabha elections. Unlike her peer Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was farmed out in western UP and who resigned ostensibly for his failure to win a single seat, Priyanka stayed put. The kindest explanation was she was inducted in a job of immense responsibility and challenge too close to the elections and did not have the time to earn her spurs.
It’s time to take a close and hard look at just how effective Priyanka was in UP if one is to extrapolate her utility and productivity in the future elections. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, she largely confined herself to Amethi and Rae Bareli — her comfort zones because she was a regular in both the constituencies since the eighties — and seats where the Congress had a fighting chance, such as Moradabad, Saharanpur and Kanpur. As it happened, her electioneering yielded little. The Congress lost Amethi to the Bharatiya Janata Party and retained Sonia’s Rae Bareli by a vastly reduced margin. The other seats went to the defunct Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party gathbandhan or the BJP.
The Varanasi cop-out was a disaster. The UP Congress was convinced that had Priyanka challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the city, she would have given him a run for his money and boosted the party’s prospects in east UP as a whole. Priyanka gamely played along with the sentiments, back-pedalled and, in a sense, boded the disaster that befell the Congress.
After May 2019, what did she do in UP? She addressed the Rae Bareli workers and ticked them off for not working in the elections. Priyanka ascribed her mother’s win to Sonia’s own popularity and the voters. She warned the workers that she would fine-comb the data at her disposal and identify the rebels and the laggards. To the handful of workers left with the Congress, Priyanka’s admonition was ‘humiliating’ (some of those spoken with said so) and a bit rich because in the Assembly elections too, her barnstorming in Rae Bareli and Amethi fetched nothing for the Congress.
She sacked her personal secretary Dheeraj Shrivastava, a former bureaucrat who was associated with the National Advisory Council that Sonia helmed, and replaced him with a Jawaharlal Nehru University product, Sandeep Singh.
The Congress dissolved all the district committees in UP after charges of widespread nepotism poured in and set up a three-member disciplinary panel to look into the charges that ranged from fund embezzlement to appointing family retainers in key posts. Raj Babbar reportedly put in his papers as the UP Congress chief but there's yet no word on whether the resignation was accepted.
The only substantive directive Priyanka issued was that the district bodies would be headed by persons who were less than 40 and from the backward caste and Dalit communities. Is there a smidgen of novelty in these moves that could fashion an approach to partially lift the Congress from the quagmire it has sunk into since 1989?
If Priyanka had followed the peaks and troughs of UP politics, she would know that the ‘Mandal’ phase, which resulted in the political and social empowerment of UP’s Other Backward Classes, passed over the Congress. Unlike Congress leaders in the south, such as Karnataka’s D Devaraj Urs who took a farsighted view of the significance of the OBCs and worked hard to coalesce them into a whole and challenge the dominance of the intermediate castes, the Congress’ Brahmin leadership of UP, endowed with a feudal sensibility, never came to terms with the rise of the Yadav, Kurmi and Lodh-Rajput. The Congress was electorally outsmarted by various socialist incarnations, the BSP and most importantly, the BJP that crafted new ways to enlarge its backward caste base. The question is, how will Priyanka spot and nurture OBC and Dalit leaders and more pertinently, why will they come to the Congress and not the BJP, SP or BSP?
If the BSP’s downslide continues and its leader Mayawati is unable to get her act together, there's a chance that the Dalits might look afresh at the Congress, more so if the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP in UP continues pandering to the interests of the powerful Rajputs. But the Congress will have to re-write its Dalit narrative and transcend the politics of patronage pursued from Nehru’s time.
It's a long haul for Priyanka to set UP in order before she thinks of leading the Congress nationally. It will need more than an organisational revamp to get the party ticking. The task will have to begin with Priyanka herself relocating to Lucknow to signal that she's serious about UP or at least apportioning time equally between Delhi and the state capital. Lineage and reflected glory are the last attributes that present-day voters seek.