Priyanka Gandhi draws crowds in robust campaigning ahead of next election phase

Wearing a dark red sari, Mrs Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is showered with rose petals as her bus makes its way through New Delhi, on May 8. Her presence in these elections is seen as an attempt to bulk up the Congress party's campaign.
Wearing a dark red sari, Mrs Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is showered with rose petals as her bus makes its way through New Delhi, on May 8. Her presence in these elections is seen as an attempt to bulk up the Congress party's campaign.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Atop a small bus flanked by security personnel, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra waves to crowds gathered on a narrow and potholed road in Seelampur in the capital city.

People are hanging out of their balconies to catch a glimpse of Mrs Vadra. Wearing a dark red sari, she is showered with red rose petals by Congress workers as the roadshow in support of Delhi candidates, including Sheila Dikshit, inches slowly through the crowds on Wednesday (May 8).

"I am a Delhi girl," she calls from a microphone. "He (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) has only come to Delhi five years ago. I have been here for 47 years."

Dozens of Congress supporters chant slogans as she tears into the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), attacking Mr Modi on his failure to create employment and his introduction of a complex Goods and Services Tax.

The cavalcade leaves behind a carpet of sweet-scented rose petals in its wake, as well as a heavy traffic jam.

Mrs Vadra, 47, is the younger sister of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, 48, and part of the Nehru-Gandhi family, a powerful political dynasty which has given India three prime ministers. For Congress supporters, the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family continues to hold magic.

One of them, Ashraf, 36, stood for over an hour to catch a glimpse of Mrs Vadra.

 

"There is a new energy to the Congress campaign. She is a new face in politics. It feels good," he said.

Not everyone agrees, in a sign of the tough battle the Congress faces in these elections. A little further Ms Saloni Singh, 18, a first-time voter had come out of her house to watch the procession, merely out curiosity, she said.

"I wanted to see her. Nothing else. My family supports the BJP," she said, dismissively.

The next phase of voting in India's elections is on May 12.

The presence of Mrs Vadra in these elections is seen as an attempt to bulk up the Congress party's campaign and energise the cadre, many of whom have demanded her entry into politics. She is often compared to her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, India's first woman prime minister.

Over the last decade, Mrs Vadra had campaigned in the constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi for her mother, Sonia, and brother, respectively.

She officially entered politics as general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh in January.

Analysts said there was no doubt she grabbed headlines, but it remained to be seen if the large crowds would translate into votes for the Congress.

 
 
 
 

The Congress suffers from a weak organisational structure. In crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, it has also been accused of dividing opposition votes, even undercutting regional parties that too are fighting the BJP.

"In Indian politics, there is a tradition of charismatic leadership, whether its Modi or Indira Gandhi. There is a difference (since Mrs Vadra joined the campaign). There is mobilisation. People are coming to see and hear her. She has charisma and she connects with people," said Professor Satish Rai, who taught political science at Kashi Vidyapeeth, a university in Varanasi.

"But the Congress organisation is weak in Uttar Pradesh and is overall weak compared to the BJP. Strengthening the organisation will not happen in a day or two."

Over the course of the campaign, Mrs Vadra, who is under constant scrutiny by the Indian media, has held marathon meetings to understand eastern Uttar Pradesh and choose candidates, a boat campaign and even a snake during an interaction with snake charmers.

It was highly anticipated that the Congress would field Mrs Vadra in the holy town of Varanasi to contest against Mr Modi, the sitting MP.

But the Congress decided against fielding her even though she had hinted she was open to it.

"I think it (her impact) has been a very mixed bag. It was expected she would make qualitative difference in campaign. She drew crowds. But she backed out from Varanasi, which had a demoralising effect (on the cadre). It was pitched as a climbdown. In politics, perception matters," said author and journalist Rasheed Kidwai.

"She came into politics as some kind of person with a magic wand. But there is no clarity on objective and game plan. She has campaigned selectively. Maybe the calculations is that she should not overshadow Rahul."

Still Mrs Vadra has had fighting words about her role in the campaign.

"If Priyanka Gandhi gets scared, she will sit at home and not do politics," she told reporters last week in Amethi, her brother's constituency.

"I am in politics for good and will be there."