Something unusual happened to the xhausted, jaded, effete Indian National Congress the other day.
After years, somebody in the party had a
bright new idea — of fielding Priyanka
Gandhi as its Lok Sabha candidate against
Narendra Modi in Varanasi in Uttar
That would have instantly changed the
entire complexion of the current election,
electrified not just the Poorvanchal region
(eastern Uttar Pradesh) and adjoining
parts of Bihar, but the whole nation, and
qualitatively changed the character of
today’s political game.
Whatever reservations one may have
about the unhealthy, probably crippling,
effect of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on the
Congress party, there can be little dispute
that Priyanka would have been best placed
to defeat Modi, or at least given him a run
for his money.Priyanka, reports The Times
of India, was keen on fighting Modi
because she believes he is ‘bad for the country.’ Most other parties in the fray in
Varanasi, credible reports say, would have
withdrawn their candidates in her favor.
An agreement ‘in principle’ was reached
on fielding a strong common candidate in
informal discussions between the Congress
party, the Samajwadi Party and the
Bahujan Samaj Party.
This reveals the strength and pervasiveness of the hostility Modi evokes from other
parties irrespective of their ideology or
A straight contest against Priyanka would
have punctured Modi’s ‘56-inch-chest’
hubris, put him on the defensive, and curtailed his campaigning trips by forcing him
to concentrate his attention and energy on
Indeed, Priyanka would have had a far
higher chance of defeating Modi than
would her mother (who has proved a very
capable and respected leader), leave alone
her brother (who has not, despite being
offered many opportunities on a platter).
That is not because Priyanka is a proven
leader, but precisely because she is new,
fresh, politically untested and hence not yet
discredited. What little she has said of
political significance so far conveys a sense
of seriousness, lack of cynicism, some intelligence, and a degree of concern for the
She has shown sharp political instincts
during her limited interactions with sub-district-level Congress members or when
canvassing support for her family. Many
first-hand observers say her intuition and
grasp of politics is far superior to Rahul’s,
and she can communicate more effectively
with ordinary people. Even her opponents
concede she has charm and charisma.
It may not speak of acutely discriminating judgment or great maturity on the part
of the Indian electorate that it should be
taken in by factors such as physical appearance, glamor, family lineage, and other
ingredients of charisma, which make
Priyanka resemble her grandmother (
former Indian prime minister) Indira Gandhi
in the eyes of many people. It is sad to see
them being obsequious towards individuals
who exude power.
But then, 1, Safdarjang Road in Delhi,
where Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and
where her blood clots are bizarrely preserved in a glass cask, attracts many more
busloads of domestic tourists, typically
from subaltern backgrounds, than does
Rajghat, where Mahatma Gandhi’s
samadhi is situated.
For many such people, Indira Gandhi’s
‘sacrifice’ for the nation is more immediately identifiable and more a part of their living memory than the Mahatma’s. They may
be morally wrong and politically unbalanced in this morbid fascination. But that
doesn’t alter an observable fact.
Similarly, fascination for the wealth and
glamor of former princelings and rajmatas
hardly speaks to the voter’s political maturity or commitment to democracy.
Even less does the lethally aggressive
appeal or Fuehrer-style awe that Modi
invokes as the man who presided over the
2002 massacre of innocent citizens and
who has not shown an iota of remorse for it.
He is admired for being cocksure about
everything and being ruthlessly decisive.
None of this justifies the dynasty principle. Nor does it argue that Priyanka had a
natural or superior claim to a Varanasi victory, but only that by contesting against
Modi, she would have demonstrated a spirit of defiance and a willingness to take
This would have infused new energies
into the now-demoralized Congress party
and rejuvenated its rank-and-file at a time
when some of its senior leaders are running
away from electoral battle. The overall
result would have been positive for the
Congress even if she had lost.
In politics, putting up a spirited fight is
sometimes more important than victory or
defeat — as shown by the hard work put in
by Sonia Gandhi to rejuvenate the
Congress party in several states in the
1990s, paving its return to national power
in 2004. Nobody in the party is willing to
do that today.
In the present case, the Congress decided
not to field Priyanka for entirely parochial
and dishonorable reasons. She might have
eclipsed her brother; her possible defeat
would have destroyed the Gandhi family’s
‘halo’ and she’s vulnerable to criticism
because of her husband Robert Vadra, who
stands implicated in various shady deals.
Priyanka claims that the decision not to
contest was solely hers — not the family’s or
This is open to doubt. What is beyond
question is that she lost a precious opportunity to distance herself publicly from
Vadra and other past baggage and emerge
as an independent person and political figure in her own right.
She will now confine herself to playing a
subordinate role managing her mother’s
and brother’s campaigns, thus further
tightening the family’s increasingly dysfunctional and corrosive hold over the
Congress. That would be a setback for the
party even if Sonia Gandhi and Rahul
Gandhi win from Rae Bareli and Amethi,
as seems likely.
The Congress party’s chances now look
gloomier than ever before. Unless something dramatic happens, its tally could fall
below the lowest-ever mark, 114 seats in
But this doesn’t automatically translate
into a proportionate gain for the Bharatiya
Janata Party and the National Democratic
Alliance in our multi-polar, highly region-
alized polity — no matter what the polls
There are three main reasons for this.
First, several ground reports by experienced journalists suggest there is no ‘Modi
wave’, especially in Uttar Pradesh and
Bihar, but only a ‘Modi effect’ with relatively strong youth support in urban centers,
which thins out in the rural and semi-rural
If there were indeed a wave, Modi’s campaign would not have to stoop to communal appeals (as evidenced by Amit Shah’s
venomous speeches, banned and then
unbanned by the Election Commission,
along with Azam Khan’s toxic canvassing),
and low-level personal attacks.
A wave unites people across castes, communities and regions. Yet the emphasis in
the Modi campaign isn’t on uniting but on
polarizing voters, stoking communal prejudice and capitalizing on hatred.
Second, numerous cracks are becoming
evident in the BJP’s ranks and its relations
with existing and potential partners.
Recent statements by veterans Lal Krishna
Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma
Swaraj bear testimony to this. As does the
raucous anti-Joshi protest by Modi supporters in Kanpur.
The entire BJP leadership barring little-known national general secretary
Dharmendra Pradhan is in the dark about
plans for Modi’s campaign rallies, scores of
which have been held across the country.
The party’s best-known faces are consciously excluded from these. This is bound
to cause inner-party heartburn and discontent. Even sabotage isn’t excluded in many
seats in the Hindi belt.
More important, both J Jayalalithaa and
Mamata Banerjee, expected to emerge as
major regional players from Tamil Nadu
and West Bengal, have distanced themselves from Modi for a non-Congress-non-BJP ‘federal front’. Jayalalithaa has turned
especially vocal in criticizing the ‘Gujarat
In Andhra Pradesh, tensions are growing
between the Telugu Desam Party and the
BJP over ticket distribution and the importance being given to Nara Chandrababu
Naidu by equating him with Na-Mo
(Naidu+Modi) in the joint campaign.
Telangana BJP leaders resent the alliance
with the TDP, seen as a Seema Andhra
Third, it won’t be easy for the BJP to take
away votes from powerful cadre-based parties in UP like the Bahujan Samaj Party and
Samajwadi Party, which have built tightly
knit social coalitions. As the campaign
warms up, these parties are making their
impact felt — the BSP, by fielding the highest number of Muslim candidates among
all parties (19), and the Samajwadi Party,
by making special appeals to diverse groups
besides its established Yadav-Muslim combination.
If the BJP is to win 45-to-50 seats in UP
— necessary to reach a national total of
about 200 — it would have to double its
state vote-share to about 35 percent, way
above the 27-28 percent it won in the
1990s, when it crossed the 50-seat mark.
That’s do-able. But it’s a tall order.
Praful Bidwai is a well-known
THE BIG BLUNDER
commentator based in New Delhi.
PAWAN KUMAR/REU TERS
Priyanka Gandhi would have had better chances of a win, not because she is a proven leader, but because
she is new, fresh, politically untested and hence not yet discredited.
Praful Bidwai believes a
straight contest against
Priyanka Gandhi would
have put Narendra Modi
on the defensive and forced
him to concentrate on