Priyanka Gandhi speaking in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. Photo: The Times of India
Priyanka Gandhi speaking in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. Photo: The Times of India

Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of the United Progressive Alliance’s chairperson Sonia Gandhi and sister of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, is under the spotlight as the Congress party gears up for the 2019 general elections. Priyanka, who is yet to step into active politics, may be set to contest Rae Bareli, the Uttar Pradesh constituency currently occupied by her mother, who has health problems.

Priyanka is presently a pillar of strength to both Rahul and Sonia. She conducts a backroom role for the party and actively nurtures both the Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies in Uttar Pradesh while her mother and brother are busy with their national responsibilities. She even campaigns for the party during elections.

But as Congress completed its 138th year on December 28, an old question came up once again: Will Priyanka finally take the plunge into active politics and stand in the Rae Bareli parliamentary constituency in the 2019 federal elections?

With Rahul having established himself as a competent politician after bringing the party back to life and to recent success in three key states of the Hindi heartland, people now wonder whether his self-effacing sister will at last embark on her own political journey, starting with the 2019 polls.

However, such speculation comes at a time when none of the political parties have yet announced their candidates’ list for the 2019 polls. Observers say the Rae Bareli contest would be a two-party struggle between Congress and the BJP.

Not yet decided

Rahul is all set to seek re-election to the Lok Sabha from Amethi seat, where Smriti Irani from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to challenge him. However as yet, no candidate from either party has been confirmed for the Rae Bareli seat.

Because of health problems, Sonia has not been to Rae Bareli often during her current term as its elected MP. Her last visit to the constituency was in April and before that she went there in mid-2016. Neither did she campaign in Rae Bareli during the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections after she had a serious health issue during a roadshow.

If she finally opts out of the contest, daughter Priyanka would be widely tipped as her suitable replacement.

It has also emerged that Priyanka is in the process of writing a book entitled “Against Outrage”. She is said to have received an advance of 10 million rupees (US$143,000) for the book, whose manuscript is reportedly due to be submitted in March 2019, just ahead of the general elections. It will be printed in English, Hindi and all Indian regional languages. Meanwhile, the timing of her initiation into electoral politics continues to remain uncertain.

Congress legislator and Rahul’s confidante Deepak Singh said, “People want Priyanka to contest from Rae Bareli. But the decision has to be taken by herself and the party leadership.”

Congress hopes Priyanka’s entry into the electoral fray will give the party a much-needed boost in Uttar Pradesh. The party would also seek to capitalize on its victories in neighboring Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh before next year’s general elections.

In the present Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), Congress has only two members elected from Uttar Pradesh, which is India’s most populous and politically significant state, and which holds the key to central government as it has the highest number of constituencies. Congress was wiped out in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 general elections in which the BJP won 73 of the 80 seats.

At present, the state lacks a real Congress presence, unlike in other northern states. However, after winning the three neighboring states, the party hopes for big gains in Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 polls. To prove itself as a national party, the Congress is likely to contest alone in the Lok Sabha, as in the past, and will also go solo in Uttar Pradesh.

“There is an anti-BJP wave across the country due to erred policies, communal ideology, and poor performance. If Congress manages to cash in on anti-incumbency (sentiment) and increases its tally by 20, it would be a great achievement for the party,” Political commentator Shailendra Singh says.

BJP overtures

The Congress versus BJP struggle will be further enhanced in Rae Bareli due to the yet-to-be-announced regional alliance of Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lokdal in Uttar Pradesh. However the alliance is unlikely to field candidates in both the Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies, according to their leaders.

While Congress hopes to win Rae Bareli for the fifth time in a row, the BJP is doing everything it can to defeat its political rival in a seat that Congress considers its own. Rae Bareli is known as a Nehru-Gandhi family borough as former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also served the seat. But the BJP has been targeting the Gandhis for “lop-sided development” in the constituency.

Top BJP leaders have held multiple rallies in Rae Bareli this year. While chief Amit Shah came in April to raise the slogan “Congress-free Rae Bareli”, finance minister Arun Jaitley chose the “backward” district for his work as an MP in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament).

This led to speculation that Jaitley might challenge Sonia Gandhi in the 2019 elections.

Undeterred by the BJP’s overtures and criticism, Congress party legislator Deepak Singh exudes confidence. “Sonia or Priyanka, whoever will contest, will win the seat with a record margin. People of the constituency are aware of the work done by Gandhis and that it is the BJP which has blocked development there.”

A senior BJP leader admits, “Poor response to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting in Rae Bareli last week has alerted the BJP. It is unlikely that the party would field any big leader from here.”

Seat mathematics

The Rae Bareli seat has been with Congress party since independence in 1947, with the exception of 1977 (when it was won by the Janta Party), and the 1996 and 1998 elections, won by the BJP.

When Sonia first contested the seat in 2004, she won with a vote share of 58.75%. In 2006 after having resigned following the office-of-profit controversy, she was re-elected in by-elections with a vote share of 72%. She maintained the lead with a vote share of 72.23 per cent in 2009.

She easily secured the seat again in 2014 by defeating the BJP and taking 63.8% of the votes, winning with a margin of 350,000 votes.

Since then, the BJP has sought to make inroads. It poached Congress Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) Dinesh Singh into its fold and later won six out of 10 Assembly seats—two in Rae Bareli and four in Amethi in the 2017 state polls.

A Congress leader, however, points out that Parliament and Assembly elections are different ball games altogether. “Congress (has been) out of power in Uttar Pradesh (for) 25 years. Hence, in Assembly elections people prefer to vote for the party which is in position to form the government.”

He also points out: “The Assembly seats which the BJP won here in 2017 were anyway not with the Congress. It was Samajwadi Party, which had won eight of the 10 Assembly seats, three in Amethi and all five in Rae Bareli in 2012.”

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