Priyanka’s exclusion from Uttar Pradesh poll list shows that the party can’t do without her mother’s steadying abilities
The Congress’ first list for the Lok Sabha election, which incidentally had key seats in Uttar Pradesh, was conspicuous by the absence of one name that was expected to be an elixir for its moribund state unit, that of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. She was expected to relieve her ailing mother and Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi from the family seat of Rae Bareli, having led the war room there in past elections. Considering that Rahul Gandhi continues from Amethi and senior Congress leaders like Salman Khursheed, who had lost in 2014, are retaining their seats, the party seems keen on status quo. It would rather not break the mould or allow the whiff of confidence brought in by young Turks under new chief Rahul Gandhi to aerate the rank and file. Obviously, observers are wondering why the Congress is underplaying its charismatic trumpcard, one who could really steal the optics from a resurgent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and even match speech for speech? Or is it that the Congress is not unleashing her simply because 2019 is a political muddle post Pulwama and Balakot airstrikes, and with a nationalist swell in the heartland, it is advantage Modi for now? Is it that the party is grooming her for 2024, letting Rahul consolidate his presidentship first? Or is it that the Congress wants to revive its own tally ground up than play second fiddle to the federal front? Undoubtedly, Priyanka has successfully managed past elections at the booth level for both family seats but perhaps as general secretary of eastern UP, one that includes Modi’s Varanasi seat and one that will be a litmus test of her organisational and vote transference skills, she needs to be seen as a serious game-changer more than a poster child. Had she contested, she would have had to pay more attention to Rae Bareli and spread herself thinly. For now she seems to have adopted a deep-rooted and precise local strategy than deal with the weight of expectation that always follows her.
Looking deeper, the Congress has to deal with challenges of realpolitik. Sonia Gandhi is still the bridge for both the Opposition and the generational divide within the party. Knowing that it cannot claim some relevance for itself unless it synergises with regional parties, it needs Sonia to push through strategic alliances and rescue a flagging mahagathbandhan. She has the better experience of being an adhesive. Many alliance partners and potential ones prefer to deal with her directly, given past associations, than new president Rahul. This was evident during the Karnataka alliance with HD Kumaraswamy last year. Even Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has gone on record saying that she was more comfortable with Sonia. The Congress has not been able to crack a sharing formula with the SP-BSP in Uttar Pradesh or the AAP in Delhi under the new dispensation. The federal front, comprising strong regional leaders seasoned for decades, is yet to soften towards Rahul, who may have come a long way but is still not seen as an equal to regional heavyweights. Besides, within the party, Sonia is the only reassurance and voice of reason for the old guard, who see their continuity through hers. It was only due to her insistence that the chief ministerial posts in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh went to seniors Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath, much to the chagrin of the new brigade. Had Priyanka Gandhi been fielded from Rae Bareli, it would have meant that the brother-sister duo would call the shots henceforth and relegate them to the last row. Rahul himself may not be happy about these inner frictions but at this stage of the party’s tenuous recovery graph, he cannot risk their hostility either. Besides, Sonia being in the electoral fray also means a huge cushion for him in Amethi, where the BJP has launched a strident campaign and announced a slew of development projects, promising a tough fight. Amethi needs to feel the matriarch is with them and her son in the fight. The Congress is in transition in unsettling times and Sonia, for some time, will be indispensable as captain steadying the ship.
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