New Delhi: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra chaired a meeting of top Congress leaders on Tuesday to help fine-tune the party’s campaign strategy for the upcoming general election, signalling that she is preparing to take on a larger role in politics.
Senior leaders who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that her role would be gradually expanded.
Not only does the move consolidate the hold of the Gandhi family on the Congress, it also highlights the absence of any rethink regarding leadership despite the drubbing the party received in elections to state assemblies in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh last year. It also lost the election in Chhattisgarh, albeit narrowly.
Although it is highly unlikely that Gandhi Vadra will contest the Lok Sabha election, expected to take place in April and May, at least two senior Congress leaders said she will take on a “larger role” in scripting the party’s campaign strategy.
The meeting was held at the home of her brother and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, but he was not present. Gandhi Vadra holds no official position in the party.
Attended by senior Congress leaders Ahmed Patel, political adviser to party president Sonia Gandhi, and Janardan Dwivedi, Tuesday’s meeting was called to devise strategies that would counter the two major challenges—price rise and corruption—the ruling party is facing in the run-up to the general election.
The top leadership feel that the party’s poll debacle was partly caused by resentment among women voters over the high price of cooking gas.
In order to address the situation, Congress party leaders have been urging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to increase the number of subsidized cooking gas cylinders available to households from nine to 12.
“There is also a demand from chief ministers that the subsidy for the cooking gas cylinders should be de-linked from Aadhaar cards so that everyone can be benefited,” said a party leader on condition of anonymity. At a Congress chief ministers’ conference last month, Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy had sought Rahul Gandhi’s intervention in the matter.
A senior Congress leader who did not want to be identified said, “Priyanka has always played a crucial role when it comes to electioneering, campaign and the management of Rae Bareli and Amethi (the constituencies of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, respectively).”
“It’s natural for her to take a more active role in party affairs when the party is going through critical times. There have been clear signals that she will expand her role beyond Amethi and Rae Bareli.”
Another Congress leader added that Gandhi Vadra has been “keenly following” developments in the party over the last year and has “given inputs as well as feedback” to both the Congress president and vice-president.
Tuesday’s meeting comes ahead of the 17 January All India Congress Committee conclave, during which the party is expected to nominate Rahul Gandhi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Top Congress leaders have been engaged in discussions on how to overcome the anti-incumbency wave against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
UPA, which returned to power with an impressive majority in 2009, has been mired in a series of controversies, including serious corruption charges against some of its leaders. The popularity of the government has also been dented by its failure to contain inflation and manage the economy.
The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, the new chief minister of Delhi, as a major political force poses another challenge to the ruling party.
N. Bhaskara Rao, a New Delhi-based political analyst, said it is “natural” for Gandhi Vadra to play a more active role within the party. “It is in response to larger public expectations. There is a feeling that Rahul Gandhi has not evoked as much response as was expected. Sonia Gandhi’s poor health also forces Priyanka to give more backing to Rahul.”
“Reports that the AAP is going to contest in many Lok Sabha seats, including Amethi, may have forced her to be more active,” he said.
But some Congress leaders say Gandhi Vadra may not be the best bet for the party in 2014, unlike in the past. They fear that a larger role for her will revive allegations of irregularities in land deals involving her businessman-husband Robert Vadra. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has already raised the matter in Parliament. Kejriwal too has raised the issue of Vadra’s land dealings.
“Priyanka will have this baggage (of the allegations against her husband)—we will have to see how she is going to cope with it,” Rao agreed.
Congress general secretary Dwivedi said there is nothing “surprising” about Gandhi Vadra chairing Tuesday’s meeting.
“Priyanka Gandhi is a member of an important political family. She may not have been visible, but has been active in the party’s works in Amethi and Rae Bareli,” Dwivedi said. “She has political views and she was in constant touch with party workers. If she had shared her views with any senior leaders, what’s surprising in it?”