Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the daughter of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, joined the election trail last week amid a growing clamour for her to succeed her brother as the party’s campaign leader.
Mrs Gandhi Vadra, known to Congress workers as “PGV”, last week took on the mantle of leadership when she toured her mother Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli constituency to shore up the “family vote”, and supported Rahul Gandhi, her brother, in Amethi at the weekend.
Disenchantment among voters and demoralisation among Congress workers over its lacklustre campaign has increased, while Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party, has generated growing excitement with commanding campaign speeches throughout India.
Mr Modi has repeatedly insulted Mr Gandhi as a “shehzada”, meaning pampered prince, but he has declined to respond despite suggestions his party could lose around 100 of its 218 parliamentary seats. His party workers fear he doesn’t have the stomach for the fight and are turning to his feisty sister who has, they say, the spirit of her grandmother, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi’s memory is revered for India’s victory over Pakistan in their 1971 war.
Mrs Gandhi Vadra entered the fray earlier this month with a series of attacks on Mr Modi and other BJP leaders, which immediately boosted party morale and cast her as the “Gandhi with guts”. Party insiders say she wants to lead Congress, but will not act until her brother renounces his own leadership ambitions.
One influential figure, who asked not to be named, contrasted her “natural communication skills” and ability to “connect with ordinary people” with her brother’s “awkward, aloof” style.
Tarun Gogoi, a senior Congress leader and Assam chief minister, last week called for Mrs Gandhi Vadra to play a “greater role in party affairs”. At Shora Gangaganj in her mother’s Rae Bareli constituency, poor women in bare feet waited in fierce midday heat last week to see Mrs Gandhi Vadra. She arrived with heavy security and a phalanx of Sports Utility Vehicles and was greeted with weak chants of “Long live Priyanka Gandhi.”
Rae Bareli and Amethi have returned members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or retainers as MPs in almost all general elections. Party insiders said they believe both Sonia Gandhi and her son will win their contests, but with reduced margins amid a growing revolt over the failure to improve basic local living conditions.
Mrs Gandhi Vadra focused instead on her own concerns at public criticism of her husband, the multi-millionaire businessman Robert Vadra, who is accused of exploiting poor farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan. He denies the allegations. “I feel sad when people in politics insult me and my husband but I have taken a lesson from Indira. The more people insult you, the stronger you come out. The more you insult me the more I will fight,” she said.
Mr Vadra has raised eyebrows among Congress traditionalists by posing for magazine photographs in tight, plunging vests, pink trousers and a lycra body stocking while jogging.
Looking prim in a burgundy sari and short hair combed into a side parting, Mrs Gandhi Vadra told the villagers she had drawn strength from her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, to cope with the allegations against her husband.
“I feel sad when people in politics insult me and my husband but I have taken a lesson from Indira. The more people insult you, the stronger you come out, the more you insult me the more I will fight”, she said, her voice breaking.
At the next stop, in Harchandpur, she complained that “politics has become dirty,” while in Khiro, a tiny market town, there were signs of revolt.
“Sonia Gandhi will win, but I won’t vote for her. The Gandhis have done nothing for us. There’s no electricity, no water. Others will vote for her because she is a national leader,” said farmer Arvind Singh, 63.
“I voted for her last time but I won’t vote Congress now. Everything here is third class and our lives have not got better,” said Lal Babu, a 62 year old kitchen utensils trader.
Vir Sanghvi, a leading political commentator, said Mrs Gandhi-Vadra had long been acknowledged as a shrewd advisor who had drafted her mother’s speeches. Now is now being drawn further into the Congress leadership to defend her husband. “There is a lot of anger,” he said.
Swapan Dasgupta, a senior conservative columnist, said Mrs Vadra Gandhi is a more natural leader than her brother, but a more high-profile role holds dangers for her.
“She’s extremely imperious, her entire manner is structured around the Gandhi family, it all centres on her. There is a feeling that Rahul does not have what it takes to organise an effective Congress fightback and Congress members feel Priyanka is much better”, he said.
But as leader, she and her husband would come under even greater scrutiny than the questions she complained about to her poor village audiences last week.