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Priyanka’s poisoned chalice

Updated February 05, 2019


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

PRIYANKA Gandhi carries her Nehru-Gandhi pedigree with ease. And going by her whistle-stop meetings in her mother’s parliamentary constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka over the years, she is an articulate communicator too. However, her zealous supporters in the Congress and media are likening her to her grandmother — the late former prime minister Indira Gandhi. She shouldn’t fall for that.

No less an intellectual giant than Jawaharlal Nehru groomed his daughter in politics, and also taught her critical nuances of history from prison. And we don’t really know much about Priyanka’s intellectual prowess or her ideological preferences. There are numerous other inconsistencies in the Indira analogy, including the political context that created the two women in different time zones. Besides, which face of the late Ms Gandhi does Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra wish to embrace?

As Congress president in 1959, her granny torpedoed India’s first elected Marxist government in Kerala. Within eight years of baring her fangs, however, she became prime minister by aligning with the communists to boot out the right wing from her party. Today, the right wing has regrouped. Their calibrated sloppiness may have lost the Congress the states of Goa and Manipur, where it had emerged as the leading party in state elections.

Subverting a winning alliance with Dalit leader Mayawati in Madhya Pradesh followed. And now, Priyanka Gandhi has been dispatched to India’s most politically critical state to take on an alliance of two of the most powerful anti-Modi parties. The coalition of low caste farmers of Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Dalits, with strong Muslim support, recently sent shock waves to the ruling party’s rank and file by defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidates in parliamentary seats vacated by Chief Minister Adityanath and his deputy.

Which face of the late Ms Gandhi does Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra wish to embrace?

Rahul Gandhi wants Priyanka to take charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, which is where Amethi and Rae Bareli are — her brother’s and mother’s seats. He also wants his sister to restore the Congress party’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. That would only be possible by tearing into SP and BSP’s control of over 50 per cent votes in UP where the Congress is hovering at a single-digit mark.

Indira Gandhi was surrounded by progressive advisers like A.N. Haksar and Mohan Kumaramangalam and there can’t be any doubt that they would be revolted at the thought of Nehru’s party promising to sell refined cow urine in its recent election manifesto, competing with rather than challenging the right-wing rhetoric.

Indira Gandhi was accused in her post-emergency return to have indulged Hindu gurus. Bereft of sage counsel she waded into the Golden Temple crisis on parochial advice, and she paid for the blunder with her life. Her son and Priyanka’s father became a tame witness to the pogroms of Sikhs that followed in Delhi and elsewhere, with the connivance of the police. Now Rahul has appointed a person as chief minister in Madhya Pradesh whose name figures in Sikh narratives as an instigator of mob violence to avenge Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

It is true that Priyanka’s mother tried to keep the humane, caring spirit of the party alive by presiding over a left-leaning advisory council she set up as a foil to prime minister Manmohan Singh’s free-market reforms. But she is reportedly ill and there is speculation that she may leave her Rae Bareli constituency for Priyanka to contest from.

Indira Gandhi nationalised the privately owned usurious banks and put their owners on notice. It was only when the communists parted company over the emergency that she became vulnerable to advisers who became corporate influence peddlers. Now the business tycoons have returned banks they were vacated from. They have siphoned away billions in an Indian version of a bank heist in the Wild West.

Compared to the Samajwadi Party of low caste farmers and the Bahujan Samaj Party of erstwhile Untouchables controlling crucial avenues of politics, Priyanka shines as a middle-class icon, more presentable than any of her real or contrived opponents. But there is the opposite lesson she could learn.

Sahir Ludhianvi may have described the condition of the erstwhile Uttar Pradesh rivals: Muflisi hissey lataafat ko mita deti hai/ Bhook aadaab ke saancho’n mein nahi dhal sakti (Poverty cares little for the finer inflections of life/ Hunger cannot exist in a contrived ambience of etiquette.) Indeed, the two once staged ‘dhikkaar rallies’ (fie-on-you rallies) and the other retorted with a ‘thu thu rallies’ (spit-on-you rallies). Upper caste parties may have rejoiced in the abusive contest between the hoi polloi. But the masses loved them, usually in turns.

Struggling to identify the principal quarry in the May elections is not the Congress party’s problem alone. In West Bengal, the Left Front has declared Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as much of a threat to secular democracy as the BJP. There have been reports that the communists are linking up with the Congress to defeat Mamata Banerjee who is also a key target of the BJP. The opportunism on display in West Bengal becomes even more divisive for the opposition in Kerala.

The Congress in Kerala has taken a position on the politically sensitive Sabarimala stand-off veering close to the BJP. In Kerala, the Congress is laying into the communists, but aligning in an undeclared pact with the Congress to bring down a key pillar of the opposition’s strategy against Prime Minister Modi. In Karnataka, the Congress leaders who set up an anti-BJP ministry are clamouring to undo the gains, and they have been warned in this regard by their local allies. Priyanka has been served a poisoned chalice, which she would do well to throw away. She has the choice to return as the hero of the arriving fight in May by strengthening the opposition unity, rather than disrupting it, aided and abetted by the left. Surprised?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2019