With Priyanka Gandhi Vadra taking the political plunge, officially, the mystery and secrecy, real and carefully contrived, about her role in her party comes to an end. That much is welcome. By finally laying its “Priyanka card” out on the table, the Congress, which, like most parties, is a black box in its functioning, takes a step towards greater openness. It could also be argued that the step is really a leap. The newest member of the Gandhi family to join formal politics in India debuts in a state seen as the country’s most politically crucial battlefield, and that has a storied history as the spawning ground of some of the most transformational political movements. Within UP, she has been given charge of the part which is most in the national spotlight and poses the more severe challenge for the Congress — Priyanka will be party general secretary of Eastern UP, home to the constituencies of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and, most crucially, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By paradropping a Gandhi family member in that daunting terrain, the Congress is exhibiting a daring that it has not been known for in a long time. After all, Priyanka’s political successes will be most visible here — so will her failures.
And then, the Congress must consider the third possibility — the debut of Sonia Gandhi’s daughter and Rahul Gandhi’s sibling may make little or no difference to its fortunes in 2019. The days of Congress dominance are long over and Indian politics has travelled a long way from the days when charisma was tied closely to the dynasty. In the best version of the story, the Gandhis have served to hold the party together internally, and also helped bring in the votes. While they continue to perform the first function, sometimes more, sometimes less, they have clearly been up to the second role less and less. This has something to do with the unleashing of processes in a diverse polity that are deepening democracy, changing the electorate. There is, now, a more intense competition for the vote of a more restless, more aspirational people. Priyanka must brace for a question that the new aam voter is asking of Rahul: What have you done so far? Since you have not held any position or office, on what basis do we assess your claim to power against that of your rivals? The language of entitlement has diminishing returns today. The BJP’s attack on the Congress as a party owned by a family acknowledges, and plays upon, that reality.
The entry of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into politics is also, and despite it all, the debut of a politician who will be judged on her own terms, not just for her family legacy or baggage, including the controversies that have trailed her husband’s business dealings. She will be held answerable for the choices she makes. She must know that as her party tackles crises that will not be solved by merely invoking or flaunting a family name, she will be watched closely, unsparingly.