Forget the silly comparisons being drawn to their physical resemblance. That’s just phenotype, nasal twang included. Beyond that there is little to suggest that the latest Gandhi to join India’s political battleground is even a contender to the political inheritance of Indira Gandhi.
There’s little Priyanka Gandhi has done to prove she is in the same league. The late prime minister, India’s undisputed Iron Lady, marked her entry into politics with seriousness of intent, taking on the old guard of a moribund Congress and ramming through her vision of the party, however flawed. By 42 she was already Congress president (even that was late by the standards of her father and Priyanka’s great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru who became Congress president at 40) and soon enough a cabinet minister. Within a few years she had first become prime minister on the Syndicate’s sufferance and very quickly moved to becoming one by right.
By contrast Priyanka Gandhi’s definition of “serving people” is a bit wishy-washy. Unquestionable as a goal, in practice it has been a school-girl’s dalliance. She is associated with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and visits the impressive building close to the watering hole for journalists in the capital, but as yet her contribution is modest.
For all her much-hyped visits to her family’s constituencies in Rae Bareli and Amethi, there is nothing to show the electorate has gained anything from these visits. Nor has she revealed some brave new vision for India, which, given her relative youth, is a reasonable expectation.
A life shrouded in secrecy is the right of every Indian so long as she isn’t in the public space. Priyanka’s appeal for votes on behalf of her party, her attacks on opposition leaders, even her defence of her husband Robert Vadra’s business interests, place her squarely in the public eye. And therein the acid test has to be past performance.
A Nandan Nilekani has every right to ask for the electorate’s support given his past record of setting up and running one of India’s best companies. The same goes for Arvind Kejriwal who has proven his worth as an activist and crusader. It might be a bit of a stretch to include filmstars and sportsmen in that category, but even they have proven their worth in their chosen spheres of activity. In politics, as in almost every other endeavour, there are few flukes. Lest it be forgotten, Barack Obama, President of the US by age 48, had worked as a civil rights attorney and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, besides serving three terms as a member of the Illinois state Senate and one term as a US Senator.
Leadership in the political arena must be won, often at great personal cost. Indira Gandhi’s entry into politics was a baptism by fire coming as it did against a background of personal loss—first the death of her husband Feroze in 1960 and then of her father and mentor in 1964. As prime minister, in her initial days she encountered numerous problems such as violent tribal uprisings in the Northeast, a ruinous famine and agitation in Punjab over language and religion, along with a bruising election in 1967. She proved to be a quick and efficient learner with adversity bringing out the best in her.
Priyanka may well go on to prove herself at some point in the future but so far she has shown none of those skills or even the appetite for taking on responsibility. A few barbs at a political opponent in a fractious election are the scare that a Puffer Fish induces. Even the cheers of crowds eager to see a fresh face in a prolonged election campaign do not constitute the qualities that make for a serious politician.
Instead of trying to make an impression on this election she can begin her journey into politics now.
Defence of family cannot be a poll strategy or a substitute for a muscular structural policy for the Indian polity. At best it can be a sentimental sotto voce aside for an empty, thoughtless decadal nation-building record.
Note: This piece has been corrected from an earlier version to clarify Barack Obama’s term as Senator.
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