Wed, 17 Jul 2019

Can Priyanka Gandhi Vadra Help Dent Modi's Popularity

Voice of America
19 Mar 2019, 15:18 GMT+10

NEW DELHI - Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the latest high-profile member of India's famous Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to enter the political arena, has embarked on an unusual three-day boat rally to launch the Congress Party's campaign in the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh. But questions have been raised about whether she can boost the fortunes of the party that was decimated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

Vadra, the charismatic 47-year-old sister of the Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi, has grabbed national attention since her formal plunge into politics two months ago.

The party that ruled India for five decades since its independence hit rock bottom in 2014, winning just 44 out of 543 elected parliamentary seats. But as a new general election looms, it is mounting an aggressive battle to regain its position at the heart of Indian politics.

Recent victories in three states that were bastions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have given it momentum. And Vadra, appointed as the Congress Party's general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh, hopes to build on that momentum to woo back voters, although she will not run be a candidate herself.

With crowd-drawing appeal and a striking resemblance to her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, who ruled India for 17 years, Vadra is taking the battle into the prime minister's turf. Her 140-kilometer (87-mile) boat journey that is winding its way down the Ganges River in Uttar Pradesh will end Wednesday in Modi's constituency, Varanasi. Last week, she addressed a rally in his home state, Gujarat.

Uttar Pradesh is a politically significant state that elects 80 members of parliament and is the home of Congress Party bastions; her brother Rahul Gandhi and mother Sonia Gandhi both run in the state. But the party was virtually wiped out in 2014 when the state handed an almost complete victory to the BJP.

Taking a cue from the Hindu nationalist party, Vadra offered prayers Monday at a temple before embarking on the river that Hindus consider holy. She called the Ganges a 'symbol of truth and equality.' Some see her river rally as a challenge to Modi, who in 2014 had said that he had been called by 'Maa Ganga' to run in Varanasi an appeal to the BJP's core Hindu constituency.

Addressing meetings at villages on the river's bank during her boat ride, Vadra repeated the charge that the Congress Party hopes will win back voters to its fold: Modi has failed to provide jobs for young people. She promised that her party would address the issues facing the poor.

Some analysts say her entry into the political arena will help the Congress Party mount a credible challenge to Modi, who has always pitched himself as a strong, decisive leader.

'She has inherent charisma, personality, she has shown certain amount of spark, she is in the same strong leader mold which was her grandmother's, which is of Modi,' said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst in New Delhi.

Vadra has demonstrated a natural political flair when she had campaigned on behalf of her brother and mother in previous elections, and is widely viewed as connecting with voters more easily than her brother.

'Make-or-break' election

Others doubt whether her entry so close to elections will have an impact. The five-week-long voting period begins April 11 and the Congress Party is already struggling to wrest the initiative from the BJP as Modi pitches himself as a strong leader able to deal with recent intense friction between India and Pakistan.

'Priyanka always grabbed the headlines, but I doubt on the ground whether she will make that much of a difference,' said independent political analyst Ajoy Bose. 'People will talk about her, but I don't see the Congress being transformed because of her.'

Bose says this is a 'make-or-break' election for the party, which needs to dramatically improve on its 44 seats in parliament. 'It is very important for the Congress to get back into three figures for them to have a future in Indian politics,' he said.

The BJP, meanwhile, will try to turn Vadra's entry into politics against her party, having long mocked Congress for 'dynastic politics' because its leaders have always come from the Nehru-Gandhi family. It has often contrasted the 'entitled' Rahul Gandhi and his sister with Modi, the son of an ordinary tea-seller who made it to the top on his own merit. The great grandson of India's first prime minister, Rahul is the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead Congress. His mother handed leadership of the party to him in 2017.

BJP leaders say Vadra's entry is only proof that Rahul Gandhi has not been able to make a mark. Whether she can lift the fortunes of the party remains to be seen.

'She definitely is the X factor; what is the value of X we don't know,' Mukhopadhyay said.

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