Priyanka hits the road to cries of 'Indira Gandhi's back'

India's Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, which is dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP.
India's Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, which is dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Her brother's banking on her to win India's most populous state

LUCKNOW (Uttar Pradesh) • Ms Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the latest entrant into politics from India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has made her debut with a roadshow drawing thousands in the country's most populous state, months before a general election due by May.

Mr Rahul Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, pulled a surprise last month by appointing his younger sister a party general secretary. She will be its face in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the highest number of lawmakers to the Lower House of Parliament and is dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But a string of BJP defeats in state elections late last year as well as rising discontent over a weak farm economy and lacklustre job growth have weakened Mr Modi's position, which an increasingly aggressive Congress is looking to capitalise on.

Ms Gandhi, who is usually referred to by just her first name Priyanka, bears a striking resemblance to her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, and is known as a speaker able to connect with voters.

Congress hopes that the eyeballs the 47-year-old is able to attract will turn into votes. "It's like Indira Gandhi has come back," said Mr Fuzail Ahmed Khan, 45, a Congress supporter. "The state's farmers want Rahul Gandhi to be prime minister, Priyanka to be chief minister."

The late Mrs Indira Gandhi, known as the "Iron Lady", was criticised for suspending civil liberties for nearly two years starting in 1975. The Hindu nationalist BJP calls Priyanka's appointment an extension of Congress' "dynastic politics".

Posters of Priyanka lined the streets of the state capital, Lucknow, and hundreds of Congress supporters, accompanied by drummers, chanted her name as she emerged from the airport with her brother.

The siblings waved to supporters from atop a bus and then later from an SUV during the drive from the airport to their state office.

Mr Rahul Gandhi grabbed a microphone at a stopover and said Priyan-ka and lawmaker Jyotiraditya Scin-dia's appointments as state party leaders were aimed at beyond the general election and bringing Congress into power in Uttar Pradesh.

"If there is a heart of the country, it is Uttar Pradesh," he said to loud cheers, adding that "the aim is to form a government in the state. We'll bring a government of youth, poor and peasants".

 
 

But it will not be easy for the brother-sister combination in Uttar Pradesh, a poor state of 220 million people where two regional caste-based parties now compete for power with the BJP and Congress is only a marginal player.

The BJP won 73 of the 80 seats in the state in the last general election. BJP president Amit Shah said last week that the party would win 74 seats there this year.

Although Priyanka has helped manage elections for her brother and her mother, former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, she has never held an official party post until now.

"I hope that we can together start a new kind of politics," she said in an audio message shared by Congress, but she did not make a speech in Lucknow amid fears, political analysts say, that she could overshadow her brother.

Since the announcement of Priyanka's entry into politics, India's financial crime-fighting agency Enforcement Directorate has questioned her husband, Mr Robert Vadra, in a case relating to alleged ownership of £1.9 million (S$3.3 million) of undisclosed assets abroad. His lawyer and Congress have dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

Priyanka, who drew more than 78,000 followers soon after joining Twitter on Monday and even before posting a single tweet, will spend three days in Lucknow meeting workers from over 40 constituencies. From 21 seats in the 2009 general election in Uttar Pradesh, Congress' tally fell to just two in 2014.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2019, with the headline 'Priyanka hits the road to cries of 'Indira Gandhi's back''. Print Edition | Subscribe