Senior Journalist & Author
PRiyanka Gandhi’s Sonbhadra agitation is not a Belchi moment for her. The young AICC general secretary leading the Congress from the front needs to put in place a lot, including a residential address in Lucknow, before she could be in the hunt for the Indira Gandhi legacy. Politics, as Amit Shah and Narendra Modi have defined it, is a 24x7 job without holidays, art shows, movies, lavish meals, etc.
Mission Uttar Pradesh 2022, therefore, requires a 16-hours-a-day work schedule inside the country’s most populous state. She will have to perform like a regional satrap in the mould of Siddaramaiah, Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala and the rest who are seldom seen in the national capital. Seemingly small, but leaving Khan Market and the rest of ‘Dilli ki galiyan’ for good is never easy, as the metro magnet keeps attracting.
Moreover, given the complexities of Uttar Pradesh politics, Priyanka and the Congress need to set some realistic goals for themselves instead of dubbing the next round of Assembly polls as a Yogi-versus-Priyanka straight contest.
Indira Gandhi was out of power in 1978 when some Dalits were massacred at Belchi in Bihar. She flew to Patna, motored into the countryside and then, because the monsoons had made the roads impassable, reached Belchi on elephant back. It was late at night and she shone a torch on her face so the villagers could recognise her. The next morning, a stark black and white picture of Indira Gandhi entering Belchi, alone but undaunted, frail but fearless, her strong profile silhouetted against the black night, was on the front pages of newspapers.
Today, 41 years later, her granddaughter lacks the connect with the agitating adivasi community in Uttar Pradesh that shares borders with Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. In fact, as things stand in UP, there is not a single caste or sub-caste group of any consequence which is solidly behind the Congress. There is no organisational network for Priyanka that can sustain the stir. The word from the influential social media varies from ‘vulture politics’ to picnic, grabbing TV eyeballs or politicising a tragedy.
The criticism is not harsh. Both Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi are known to fret away opportunities that Indira grabbed decades ago which helped her stage a grand comeback. Priyanka would have been barely six and Rahul eight on October 3, 1977, when Indira Gandhi, out of power and short of public sympathy, was arrested.
Sonia Gandhi at 12, Wellingdon Crescent, New Delhi, was preparing tea for her mother-in-law around 5 pm when CBI superintendent of police NK Singh knocked at the door. “Handcuff me!” Indira had shrieked at NK Singh. “I will not go unless I am handcuffed,” she roared. Till the media arrived in great numbers, Indira kept delaying her arrest. “Where is the warrant of arrest and the FIR report?” she asked Singh. When the officer struggled to produce the relevant documents, Indira’s lawyer Frank Anthony chipped in, “Is that Charan Singh’s (the then Union Home Minister) new law?” “I’ll not budge until you handcuff me,” Indira kept repeating, “bring the handcuffs and take me.”
Indira was subsequently released on technical grounds. It prompted Rajiv Gandhi, who was maintaining an apolitical profile then, to comment to a foreign correspondent, “Even Mummy herself couldn’t have written a better scenario.” “Political prisoners,” commented Le Monde, “are often regarded as martyrs in India, where prison, as was once the case for the majority of members of the (Morarji) Desai’s government, can be an antechamber of power.”
Nostalgia can be an illness, particularly in the context of the present-day Congress where longing for past glory has become an obsession of sorts. The task before Priyanka is to get real.
Priyanka’s detractors, including the BJP, need to be careful. The AICC general secretary is drastically different from Rahul in temperament, oratory skills and social tact. While it is true that Priyanka was a failure in 2019, making numerous mistakes, such as a flip-flop on the Varanasi contest, the ‘vote katua’ remark and remaining acutely self-conscious about not overshadowing Rahul who was the AICC president then, she has the making of a street fighter. Moreover, the Congress party rank and file has a greater faith in her leadership than in Rahul’s. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has stolen a march over Kamal Nath, Capt Amarinder Singh and others by rushing to Priyanka’s agitation spot. The Trinamool’s move to identify with Priyanka’s cause is not without significance, signaling at her wider acceptability within the non-NDA parivar.
The timing of Priyanka’s activism is important. At a time when Rahul has quit as party chief and a search is on for a non-Nehru-Gandhi family member as his successor, Priyanka seems to be giving an assurance that the Gandhis would remain part of the Congress through thick and thin. The mantle of political leadership will ultimately be with her, while Rahul will grapple more with the issues of ideology without holding any office.
The grand old party is currently going through an intense debate whether Rahul’s successor should be a young, energetic face or someone from the old guard with decades of experience. The overall strategy of the Congress is to try out different things and play different roles. Can Rahul, his successor and Priyanka work as a team to keep the Congress motivated and in the hunt for power in 2022 and beyond? Sonbhadra is an important destination.