Priyanka Vadra’s embrace of the enemy has gripped the imagination of the nation like nothing else in recent days and catapulted her right back into the public eye.
The Times of India first reported on Vadra’s private conversation with Nalini Sriharan, one of the five accused in the assassination of her father and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi; Vadra has since said that the meeting was an attempt at reaching closure with the nightmares of her past.
The meeting and the matter-of-fact way in which Vadra responded to the report has confirmed the widely-held view that she is a complete natural in the hurly-burly of Indian politics. Rajiv Gandhi, in an interview in the 1980s, compared her to his mother and a former prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.
And despite her current preoccupation with home and hearth, Vadra is also believed to be her brother, Rahul Gandhi’s, closest political adviser.
In October 1999, Vadra disobeyed her mother’s instruction to limit her election campaigning to the family borough of Amethi and ventured out into nearby Rae Bareli — because “Uncle” Arun Nehru, who had shifted loyalty to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was contesting the seat.
At Bachchrawan village, according to news reports of the time, Vadra stunned her audience by accusing Arun Nehru of being a modern-day Brutus. He was in my father’s cabinet, she is reported to have said, but stabbed him in the back. Spitting fire and brimstone, she is reported to have demanded : Will you vote for such a man?
In the shadow of India’s success in the Kargil war in October 1999, the BJP — and with it, Arun Nehru — was expected to sweep the elections. Nehru, it was said, was even going to defeat old Gandhi loyalist, Capt. Satish Sharma.
Vadra’s revenge ensured that Nehru came a lowly fifth, barely holding on to his deposit. As she told The Indian Express later, she had disobeyed her mother’s instructions of not speaking ill of anyone in public, because she “wanted to cook his (Nehru’s) goose.”
Clearly, hell hath no fury like a daughter scorned, especially one who lost both her father and her grandmother to the assassin’s bullet.
Both revenge and reconciliation are familiar metaphors in the Indian imagination, and psychologists often speak of the intense and complicated relationship between aggressor and victim, even if they’ve never met one another in real life.
That is also why Vadra’s attempt to come to terms with her past by meeting Nalini is the stuff of a political potboiler.
Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination may have scarred his family in ways few outsiders can possibly imagine, but the truth is, 18 years later, it continues to shape India’s domestic and foreign politics.
When LTTE leader Thamilselvan was killed in an attack mounted by the Sri Lankan air force some months ago, Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) strongman M. Karunanidhi wrote an ode in his memory, saying his death would only spur the battle for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka.
Predictably, J. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK(All India Anna DMK) was the first off the block to criticise Karunanidhi. Considering the DMK is a key constituent of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance that is currently in power at the centre — the regional party was equally key in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance that was in power until 2004 — Vadra’s meeting with Nalini could set the cat among the pigeons in Tamil Nadu.
National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan has pointed out that LTTE outfits in Sri Lanka continue to get help from supporters in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Meanwhile, the India-Sri Lanka relationship, in many ways, is still held hostage to the Rajiv Gandhi era. Gandhi’s decision to send the Indian peace-keeping force to Sri Lanka in 1987 and its humiliating return in 1990 has meant that New Delhi still refuses to officially aid Colombo with weapons.
Indian defence forces continues to chafe at this, pointing out that hundreds of officers of the Pakistan Air Force are posted in key places in Sri Lanka, only because India refuses to change its mind. They add that this policy could have enormous consequences for India’s relations as well as negatively impact its influence in the neighbourhood.
The Priyanka Vadra-Nalini Sriharan story still has one incomplete strand. And that is the fate of Nalini’s 13-year-old daughter, born to her in the same Vellore jail in which she met Vadra last month.
It turns out that the young girl was packed off to live with her grandparents in Sri Lanka when she was five years old. Now, though, she wants citizenship, on the grounds that she was born in India.
Will Delhi refuse or agree?
Maybe the meeting between the mother and the daughter could answer that.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org