Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been a mystery. She elicits attention because of her last name (now her middle name) and struts with a striking resemblance to her grandmother, the unforgettable Indira Gandhi. Insiders maintain that she is a force to reckon with, yet, she has always chosen to linger in the shadows. Occasionally, when she has assumed centre-stage, the audience has been left quite mesmerised. In 1999, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee wave was sweeping across the country, she had struck lightning with one bold statement and arrested saffron domination in Uttar Pradesh. Referring to the betrayal by her father's estranged cousin, BJP's Arun Nehru, Priyanka had rhetorically asked, "Kya aap uss aadmi ko vote denge jissne mere pita ke peeth pe chhura bhonka hai?" (Will you vote for the man who stabbed my father on his back?) – Amethi and Rae Bareli were hers after defeat just a year back in 1998. Despite confirmed political acumen, older sister Priyanka was never the face of Congress. Several reasons underpinned this choice – some personal, others political. Priyanka refrained from assuming public office though she actively discussed administrative matters with her mother and brother. As Rahul was the chosen Gandhi scion, Priyanka took a backseat – fearing that her natural appeal would foreshadow her brother's hard-earned repute. What Rahul Gandhi has today earned in over a decade of toiling through India's political contours, Priyanka had already gained with her striking resemblance to the legacy of Indira Gandhi – not just in how she chose to dress her hair, but in her ways of thinking, her approach to the world, how she addressed the audience and her promise of being different from another ordinary person. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is admired even today possibly because of this immense promise and potential that has never been tested enough to fail. Now, the announcement of her active entry into national politics just ahead of the 2019 polls, that too from the sensitive region of eastern Uttar Pradesh, is being hailed as a masterstroke by Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Indeed, it is a masterstroke, given how Congress was sidelined only a few days back by the SP-BSP alliance that decided to take on the ruling BJP without its assistance. Many had thought that Congress would lay low in UP, given how the field was set for a direct clash between BJP and SP-BSP, all of whom boast of massive cadres and strong vote-banks. But, by appointing Priyanka and Jyotiraditya Scindia as general secretaries for eastern and western Uttar Pradesh respectively, Rahul Gandhi has quite clearly declared war.
Priyanka comes with a special trump card. Being greatly liked by both the masses and party cadres, she could sabotage the chances of both BJP and SP-BSP. Eastern UP is home to PM Modi's Varanasi as well as CM Yogi's Gorakhpur; alongside, it also witnesses a confluence of mixed caste groups including upper-caste Hindus, Muslims, Thakurs, Dalits, etc. While BJP consolidated upper-caste Hindu votes, SP-BSP targeted Muslims and Dalits – Priyanka, and essentially Congress in its hey-days, carries influence over both these sections. She could very well shuffle the well-drawn caste lines by consolidating their votes under one, uniform wing. Political parties, over the years, have cleverly capitalised on caste divisions – making them appear more tangible than they really are. This is particularly true for regional and religious-based outfits whose consolidation has been based on the elimination of those 'not belonging to my colour/creed'. Congress, as the historic answer to India's freedom struggle, was beyond these lines (not that it hasn't succumbed to these petty politics in its recent, local avatars). Priyanka, who is perceived as belonging to the traditional school of thought that had housed the lineage of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, could dismantle these carefully-drawn caste lines, which BJP, BSP, SP have all been exploiting over the years. If successful, she would not only change Congress' fortune at a most opportune time in Indian politics but also dismantle years of caste subjugation that have been perpetuated by wily political players. After securing his deserved position as party president and performing credibly in the elections across Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, Rahul's decision to appoint sister Priyanka as general secretary could go a long way in revitalising Congress – particularly after it has been practically wiped off the face of the Indian Parliament in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Now that Priyanka has announced her ascent, she must be prepared to get her hands dirty. Taking a cue from Mayawati but never forgetting the Gandhi in her, elder sister Priyanka will have to carefully tread the lines between 'behen' and 'aapa' to win the hearts of eastern UP – irrespective of Brahmin, Thakur, Muslim or Dalit.