Will she, won’t she? She just might!
It had begun at Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral, when pictures of the grieving family were published in every newspaper and magazine across the country. Through the shock of his assassination, there was an urgent need for a transfer of leadership that would minimise conflict. Drawing room conversations veered towards the next generation.
Young Priyanka drew a great deal of attention, with her striking resemblance to Indira Gandhi. Ever since, the question has hung in the air: Would she? Could she?
Over the next three decades, the country, particularly north India, has waited to see if she would step forward, particularly since her brother also took his time settling into his role as leader of the Congress party. In Rahul Gandhi, his tentativeness was seen as a weakness.
In politics, not making a grab for power at the first given opportunity, to think of consequences, to reflect upon one’s capacity for conflict and relentless scrutiny, is viewed with suspicion.
Anticipation Around the Role Priyanka Would Play
In Priyanka, however, her reluctance has helped solidify the anticipation around the role she would eventually play.
People hold women to different standards of responsibility. That she is married and has children explained her decision to absent herself from overwhelming political duties, and it may have won her additional approval from the conservative corner.
At last, Rahul Gandhi is leading the Congress and Priyanka has stepped into a major role in Uttar Pradesh in a very crucial election year.
The knives came out quick: From questions about her mental health to misleading photos and videos that falsify events in order to suggest that her behaviour is aggressive and uncivil. It is not surprising that one of the first attacks was related to her clothes.
Some politicians have pointed out that she wears jeans, as if her jeans wearing days somehow cancel out her saree wearing days. However, the speed at which these attacks have been mounted suggests that she represents a challenge that the current regime does not quite know what to do with.
‘Rahul Not Enough On His Own’
Publicly, senior NDA leaders have dismissed the idea that she poses any kind of challenge. Their line of attack is to continue to focus on Rahul Gandhi instead, suggesting that his sister’s taking on a bigger political role implies that he is not enough on his own.
This tactic serves the dual purpose of underplaying his strength while negating her potential. However, their campaign against him so far has been designed around the idea that Rahul is a man who inherited power, not one who fought for it. Throw a princess into the story, and siblings fighting a battle shoulder to shoulder, and the barb of ‘prince’ loses its sting.
The BJP will now have to work harder at mocking or painting the Gandhi siblings as children who are not quite upto the task of stepping into the shoes of their ancestors.
Rahul Gandhi’s caution, his new image of a forgiving, calm person who nevertheless mounts a no-holds-barred assault upon the political behaviour of the men leading the current government, is complemented by his sister’s channelling of a strongwoman legacy.
Freshness of Start, Priyanka’s Biggest Asset
Today’s roadshow in Lucknow signals that the ghost of Indira Gandhi lingers and that it remains a popular ghost. One poster reportedly depicted Priyanka as Goddess Durga, the same imagery that was used for her grandmother.
Clearly, as much as people yearn for strong leaders, they also long for a glimpse of the maternal, and Priyanka is now just about the right age to project a mix of defensive aggression.
Her taking on a more visible role also means that Rahul Gandhi is not seen as an isolated figure, fighting a lonely battle.
She represents hope and new beginnings. Now she is in the arena and the gloves are off. Quickly, she will have to learn to play to win and to take her share of blows for the team.
At this moment, Priyanka Gandhi’s biggest asset is the freshness of her start. Her popularity hasn’t been sorely tested. She has not yet faced electoral losses nor had to defend her decisions in public.
What her party needs, though, even more than it needs an aggressive campaign, is the assurance that she is in for the long haul. That she is not here just to campaign during elections, that its investment in her as another prominent leader is going to pay off.
What the Indian people need from her is to transform into one of the leaders who can right the balance between the assumption of political power and the implementation of a humane vision.
(Annie Zaidi is a playwright, short filmmaker, writer and documentary filmmaker. She tweets at @anniezaidi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)