Earlier this week when Priyanka Gandhi Vadra spent three days in Uttar Pradesh, drumming up support for the Congress in the 10 Assembly segments across the two parliamentary constituencies held by her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi, there was the predictable speculation in the media: was the Gandhi-Nehru — acknowledged in the party as the most charismatic living member in the family — about to join active politics?
It wasn't just the glamour quotient at work: Ms. Vadra triggered off some of the speculation herself when she was asked by journalists if she was planning to campaign outside the family stronghold, something she does in every election. “I have not decided yet... So far I am here in Amethi and Rae Bareli and my brother and I will talk to each other and decide on it,” she said, stressing, “I'll do anything for my brother, whatever is required of me. I'll do whatever he requires me to do.”
Pressed on whether she would join active politics if Mr. Gandhi asked her to, she was deliberately ambivalent: “He knows to what extent he can require me.”
Since then, while the Congress confirmed that Ms. Vadra would be back for a second foray into Rae Bareli and Amethi, closer to the elections there next month, all that senior U.P. leaders have been willing to say is the extent of her engagement will be decided by the family, as the campaign progresses.
Indeed, ever since Ms. Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the party in 1998, there has been a constant comparison made of the political skills of her two children — with Ms. Vadra getting a higher rating among party workers than her brother, her senior by two years. She is seen as a “natural,” one who has inherited not just her grandmother's leadership qualities and charisma but also her looks. Last year, when she exchanged her fashionable crop for a softer Indira Gandhi hairstyle, the resemblance became even more apparent, and people read it as a sign that her joining politics was imminent. But nothing happened.
In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, she single-handedly took on the BJP candidate — and uncle — Arun Nehru, who was contesting against the Congress's Satish Sharma in Rae Bareli, accusing him of treachery. Mr. Sharma won and Ms. Vadra was widely credited with that victory. But the “family” decided that it was Mr. Gandhi rather than his sister who would play the stellar role, and it has been that way ever since.
But what is also known is that the siblings are in close touch on campaign tactics, and Ms. Vadra has always favoured a more aggressive style than the one Mr. Gandhi generally adopts. Also, when she campaigns in the family pocket borough, she does not shy away from using the family name or recalling the role of her family in the politics of the country, which goes down very well there. Mr. Gandhi's approach, which is less feudal, surprisingly does not fare as well in that area, say local Congress workers.
Given her greater appeal, therefore, if Ms. Vadra were to actively campaign across the State, it would raise the stakes for the Congress even more than has already been raised by the party's current high profile, high voltage campaign.
Currently, though the Congress' propaganda is that it will form the next government in U.P., the reality is that its best case scenario is that it will win enough seats to be part of a government headed by Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party. While bringing Ms. Vadra more actively into the campaign would certainly give a fillip to the party, if it fails to enhance the party's numbers sufficiently, the Congress' Brahmastra would have been used and would have failed. Would the party — and the family — then want to risk that or save Ms. Vadra for a later, more important, date? Meanwhile, the electorate — and the media — can keep speculating on the family's plans.