Priyanka Gandhi's tortured memories

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of India's ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, adjusts her flower garlands as she campaigns for her mother during an election meeting at Rae Bareli in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on April 22, 2014.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of India's ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, adjusts her flower garlands as she campaigns for her mother during an election meeting at Rae Bareli in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on April 22, 2014.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The kids were fighting, as children often do.

Then, an airplane captain in white shirt and dark trousers appears at the car door, handsome face smiling benignly at his scrapping kids, Rahul and Priyanka. A quiet word and the pair were subdued and the Ambassador car drove off, the children now busy fawning over the father, Rajiv Gandhi.

Some weeks later, as New Delhi's Junior Modern School on Humayun Road celebrates Sports Day, Rajiv and his wife Sonia turn up in T-shirts and jeans to mingle unobtrusively with children and fellow parents. Then, gamely joining the potato-sack race, Rajiv tumbles over. In a trice, portly Sports Minister Buta Singh, chief guest at the function, leaps to be by his side, fawning over Indira Gandhi's older son who waves him away, embarrassed at the special attention. What a fool the politician, showing his obsequiousness so plainly!

Dad and Mom, dinner over as a joint family in the household they shared with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, driving the short distance to India Gate where the kids - and parents - would be treated to popsicles while Sonia relished ice-cream on a stick.

For the pre-teen Priyanka, now 42, life would have seemed so fun, and so full of promise.

The scenes are from 1980 and early 1981 and surely, these and similar other moments must have played through the younger Gandhi sibling's mind a thousand times, and even more now as she determinedly trudges the dusty hinterland of Uttar Pradesh state to rally support for her mother and brother against a tide of public opinion that has swung so sharply against the Congress Party they inherited and lead.

Then the bad times begin and the memories start to get painful.

Uncle Sanjay, her father's politically active younger brother, dies in a plane crash in June 1980 and Grandma turns to her father, forcing him to leave his Indian Airlines job to "help Mummy." Sonia weeps, knowing her placid and carefully arranged domestic life is soon to turn topsy-turvy.

And of course it does, starting in the household itself.

Mrs Gandhi's move to turn to Rajiv upsets Maneka, Sanjay's widow, who had stood by Mrs Gandhi during her bad times and now assumed the Gandhi political legacy would come to her. There are tensions in the joint family, shouting matches and then, the spunky Aunt is bounced out of the house by Grandma. With her goes Priyanka's toddler cousin, Varun Feroze, the boy in the family who carries the name of Indira's husband, and is loved by one and all.

Outside the home, Mrs Gandhi is facing Sikh separatism in Punjab state, partly fanned by her own Home Minister who is in a political battle with the Akali Dal group that governs Punjab. Forced to send in troops to oust the rebels from the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, Mrs Gandhi draws outrage from the Sikh community, even those who had no sympathy for militancy.

One day, the car carrying Rahul and Priyanka to school is bumped by another vehicle. Mrs Gandhi, fearful it was an attack on her grandchildren or at least a warning, gathers the kids and takes them on a short holiday to Kashmir, seeking peace amid the maples, evergreens and pine of the Valley. Short weeks later, on Oct 31, 1984, Grandma is cut down by bullets fired by her own Sikh bodyguards and it is Mom Sonia who rushes the mortally wounded prime minister to hospital.

In less than seven years, her own father, who had succeeded Mrs Gandhi as prime minister, would be killed too, blown up while campaigning in Tamil Nadu by a woman suicide bomber despatched by the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. So massive was the blast that Rajiv was recognised only by his running shoes. Rajiv's body was accompanied to New Delhi by his school chum, Suman Dubey, who remains a father figure to the Gandhi kids and the most trusted counsellor of his widow, Sonia.

Whatever you say about the Gandhi clan, their vanity, lack of intellectual depth, or propensity to fall for flattery, it is indisputable that a streak of public service runs in their veins. So too a concern for the dispossessed and the people who lead marginal existences. Hence the attacks on Modi's Gujarat model of development, tilted towards building economic sinews on a capitalist path. This is also why that Priyanka, when wrongly informed last week that opposition frontrunner Narendra Modi had described her as "like a daughter to me" had dismissively said she could only be Rajiv's daughter - "My father died for his country."

The Gandhi women particularly, are made of stern stuff. In her time, Mrs Gandhi was hailed as the Empress of India by Western media. Some hailed her as an incarnation of the Goddess Durga, embodying power and invincibility.  Except for a faint resemblance in hair-style with her grandmother, Priyanka's looks go more on her benign father.

But the fighting spirit comes from Grandma and this was first evident in 1991, when barely out of her teens Priyanka campaigned against in Amethi against Arun Nehru, a Gandhi cousin who had sought to usurp her father's seat. It proved a success. Arun Nehru was defeated and Gandhi friend and flying associate, Capt. Satish Sharma, won through in Amethi, establishing Priyanka as a political draw.

Capt Sharma yielded the Amethi seat to Rahul in 2004 and since then, Priyanka's focus has been on ensuring that Amethi and nearby Rae Bareli, her mother's constituency, have been safe for Congress, helping mother and brother campaign across the nation.

Her best performance came in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections where Congress won 7 of the 10 assembly segments from Amethi and Rae Bareli. But that solid performance can no longer be taken for granted; by the next polls this had slipped. For instance, in the 2012 state elections Congress lost in three of the five assembly segments in Amethi.

Likewise, while she has defended her husband Robert Vadra's business dealings, it is not certain whether this comes from deep conviction that he is blameless or from a wifely instinct to defend the family against attack. In her time Indira Gandhi's husband, Feroze Ghandy, gave plenty of trouble to his father-in-law, Jawaharlal Nehru. But Mr Ghandy, an MP, did so by exposing possible corruption in the Nehru Cabinet.

Mr Vadra, a man who came into her life in her teens after they reportedly met on the dance floor of a discotheque, is not exactly in the same league. Mr Vadra is loud, a lounge lizard who rides around on powerful motorcycles and a fitness freak who thinks nothing of walking into the gym at the India Habitat Centre, across the road from his Lodi Estate home, and without caring to ask anyone around, inserting his music into the stereo system and tuning up the volume.

He is also known to be in fast company with the owners of DLF, one of India's biggest real estate firms and he owns a massive apartment in the DLF built Aralias in the suburb of Gurgaon. Mr Vadra spends a lot of his time there and is not always accompanied by his wife. His neighbours say that when he parties at the Aralias, DLF Golf & Country Club, over whose verdant greens his apartment overlooks, oblige by keeping the floodlights on until the festivities is over.

Mr Vadra's life has been troubled too. A brother committed suicide, a sister died in a car crash and his father was found dead in a cheap motel some years ago. His mother Maureen is listed as a partner in his many business ventures, many of which have shown astounding success in recent years.

Whether in public life or privately, Priyanka has much to think about.

In 2008, she travelled to Vellore Central Prison in Tamil Nadu to meet Nalini Sriharan, one of the women who plotted her father's assassination for Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers. Nalini, sentenced to death, had her punishment reduced to life imprisonment on a plea from Sonia Gandhi.

"Visiting Nalini was my way of coming to terms with the violence and loss that I have suffered," Priyanka explained later. "I do not believe in anger, violence and hatred and I do not let these things overpower my life."

Most people think of Priyanka as gregarious, outgoing, a natural politician. In truth she is a private person, sometimes showing up quietly in New Delhi's Santushti Shopping Arcade or Khan Market to look for cotton clothes. Sometimes she flies down her children Raihan and Miraya to Singapore, where the family can move around with minimum security. Her big intellectual interest is Buddhism.

Ask her for a description of herself and she will say: 'I am a recluse'.

Surprised? velloor@sph.com.sg