The question regarding the most anticipated entry into Indian politics has been answered. Whenever it was made, there would have been assumptions over the timing. With this decision, the Congress Party, till now facing the prospect of getting stuck to the starting blocks despite its victories in three state Assembly elections last December, has suddenly overshadowed its adversaries and “friendly” contestants insofar as social media trends and the public conversation is concerned. From political pundits to the proverbial paanwala and his customer, there is unanimity that regardless of the outcome of the 2019 parliamentary elections, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has ensured that the battleground has become a lot keener.
It is not just the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who would have rushed into parleys with colleagues, but even other Opposition parties, especially the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav combine, would no longer be as certain about the decision to keep the Congress out of their alliance. Over the next couple of weeks, several decisions are certain to be either put on hold or abandoned, and some may even be reversed.
More immediately, that political parties that were beginning to consider following the BahujanSamaj Party-Samajwadi Party combine into cold-shouldering the Congress will re-evaluate their plans. It must be factored in that a couple of days after the “United India Rally” at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground, there were reports of the Rashtriya Janata Dal too dragging its feet on sealing the pact in Bihar with the Grand Old Party. After Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics, however, it is difficult to envisage an Opposition alliance minus the Congress. Although she has been officially designated AICC general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh, she will have an impact and role much beyond that region. Hereafter, keeping the Congress completely out of an anti-BJP front even in states where it is no longer the force it once was, may make the electoral terrain extremely fragmented and increase uncertainty even in the settled constituencies.
The idea of omitting the Congress in Bihar was attributed to Tejashwi Yadav and it was speculated that just as the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav combine had overlooked Rahul Gandhi and his party, he too could do try convincing Lalu Prasad Yadav to follow suit. His decision was in sync with the stance adopted by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, while inviting leaders and parties for her “United India Rally” last week. While she extended an invitation to the Congress — and the party responded by delegating MallikarjunKharge to attend — Mamata Banerjee did not personally invite Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi.
This decision stemmed from the fact that despite the setback in 2014 and public ridiculing of the Congress president for much of the past five years, both he and his mother remain bigger draws at public meetings when compared to regional leaders, although during polls their party repeatedly falls by the wayside in most states. Implausible as it may seem, given the woeful performance of 44 seats in the last general election and the consistent castigation of the Nehru-Gandhi family by Prime Minister Modi over the past several years, the Gandhi name still retains its charismatic appeal. It is this that the Congress president has sought to tap. After all, he would be aware that for long there have been demands and a strong view that Priyanka was a more natural politician than the relatively distanced Rahul Gandhi.
But, beyond the optics, the obvious social media trending and dominance in day-to-day conversations, how does Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s decision to formally become part of the political process impact her party’s prospects, both long-term and in the short-run? Firstly, her entry, even before the din of the elections has become remotely strong, does enough to rattle the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav duo. Significantly, the day her entry was announced, Rahul Gandhi declared that that he was still open to an alliance with the SP and BSP.
What went unstated was that now the negotiations would no longer be undertaken on the terms set by the two parties, and instead the three parties would meet on common ground where respect and dignity would be paramount. The two former chief ministers of the state would be aware that the Congress, with Priyanka Gandhi as its chief driver, will become a more resurgent force than in the past. In the changed scenario, it is even possible that the SP-BSP go back on their decision for the sake of Opposition unity and accommodate the Congress honourably.
As this would reduce the work burden of Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress would not contest each seat in UP if a Bihar-style “Mahagathbandhan” is eventually forged, and she would become free to campaign in other states. There is a strong chance of the Congress president’s sister becoming a more popular draw at election rallies than both he and his mother. As has been shown over previous elections, whenever any leader or party gathers initial momentum, the tide turns in his or her favour significantly. There is thus the possibility of this much-delayed entry eventually becoming a game-changer for both 2019 and the beginning of the process of the Congress’ return as the country’s principal political party.
The party leadership would be only too aware that its position would never become truly legitimate unless it becomes a key political force in UP. The party last polled over 30 per cent of the vote in the state in 1989, when it won 15 seats, and thereafter it has been a slide down. Barring 2009, when it partnered other parties, the Congress vote share has remained less than 10 per cent. With Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics, the party has put its best foot forward in the state and beyond. The race for 2019 has become more intense, and the process of revival of the Congress Party has received a new momentum. It remains to be seen if the brother-sister duo, with the mother’s guidance, can convert this potential into reality.