Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra emerges from the shadows7 min read . Updated: 10 Jan 2014, 11:35 AM IST
Gandhi-Vadra is coming up as political manager of Rahul Gandhi and heir to Sonia in Congress ahead of elections
New Delhi: India got the first glimpse of her as the grieving, teenaged granddaughter of Indira Gandhi consoling her cousin Varun after the 1984 assassination of the prime minister. What comes to mind when one thinks of the adult Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who turns 42 on 12 January, are images of her accompanying her mother Sonia Gandhi or her husband Robert Vadra and their two children.
Now, Gandhi-Vadra, as part of a desperate strategy by the cornered Congress party, may be readying for a fresh makeover: transition to politics as the political manager of Rahul Gandhi, party vice-president and heir to Sonia Gandhi, the president, ahead of general elections expected in April-May.
At once, she will be the daughter, sister, wife, mother and of course, the politician, who will have to balance her own very popular persona in a manner that would complement Rahul Gandhi’s efforts and not overshadow him.
More importantly, she would also have to shield her brother from any bad press that is likely when political opponents revive allegations of graft they have levelled against her husband in some land deals.
Those who have worked closely with her believe that she has it in her to pull off the multi-tasking that would be required of her.
“Political, pragmatic and street smart and shrewd"—that is how a Congress leader who has worked closely with Priyanka described the last member in the Gandhi family yet to be tested in an election. The person didn’t want to be named.
So far, the daughter of Sonia Gandhi and the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi has been the very popular face of the family—with a strong resemblance to her grandmother, one of India’s most powerful politicians ever—who somehow always remained in the shadows, leaving the limelight to her mother and brother.
On the ground, when she is touring Amethi or Rae Bareli, the constituencies of her brother and mother respectively, Gandhi-Vadra, always clad in cotton saris or churidar kurtas, reminds the villagers of her grandmother. And she also drops reminders about how she and her brother accompanied their father, under whose leadership the Congress party won a record 415 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, on the campaign trail.
The buzz now is that Gandhi-Vadra is stepping out of the shadows. Inclement circumstances, as the Gandhis prepare to deal with an unprecedented anti-Congress wave, are prompting her move to the national stage. According to two Congress leaders, she has started playing an active role in preparing the party strategy ahead of the polls, identifying the key campaigners and chalking out the election campaign for Rahul Gandhi, who took over as the vice-president of the party in January 2013.
To Congress politicians who have worked closely with her, Gandhi-Vadra is, unlike her brother, master of her own counsel and hence quicker to respond once she is convinced of the merits of a decision. To friends and acquaintances, she comes across as a pleasant, friendly person with no airs, passionate about children and photography. Her love for photography, which she inherited from her late father, led to her authoring a pictorial book on the tiger.
“Children seem to be a weakness for Priyanka. It was she who took the initiative in transforming the basement of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation’s office in Delhi into a beautiful children’s library. Children from various schools across Delhi visit it and spend the full day there," said a person familiar with the family on condition of anonymity.
Gandhi-Vadra is also a regular visitor to an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity in New Delhi’s Jangpura area and carries gifts for the children there—including donations of the gifts she receives during Diwali.
A person who was her batchmate in a six-month photography course conducted by the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi remembered how the Gandhi scion took extra care to avoid being singled out for special treatment.
“She used to work in the dark room also, just like any of us, although she did not have to. She used to behave just normally, always punctual and regular in attending the classes. But I think she was little reserved in her conversations," the person said.
People who know the Vadra family say that her family, especially her children, Rehan, 13 and Miraya, 11, have always been her priority.
“She loves to cook for them, read stories for them and takes them out for holidays in the wildlife sanctuaries. She bakes well and enjoy feeding her dishes to people who visit her at her 35, Lodhi Estate residence," said the person familiar with the family.
Gandhi-Vadra is spiritual, interested in Buddhism, and does yoga, but is not a gym regular like her husband.
Politically, a Congress leader opined, she is shrewder than her mother and brother. Declining to compare the brother and sister, another Congress leader who works closely with the family in their constituencies said, “She has a very good connect with the workers. When it comes to the development works or any works in the constituencies, she closely follows them up. She mingles with workers with ease. If you give her an idea or a work, you don’t need to explain or push for it, she will follow it up if she thinks it is good. She takes care of her team well, she takes special care to make them feel comfortable, intervenes if they have any issues in their families."
And unlike her brother, she is not media-shy, giving an interview to NDTV news channel even before entering politics officially.
She has an “extraordinary sense" of what the media would focus on, a Congress MP said. “She would deliberately give moments for the photographers to catch and those photos (would) always find a place in page 1 of the next day’s newspapers," the MP said.
Congress leaders and people who work closely with both Rahul Gandhi and Gandhi-Vadra say they were surprised at “the connect" between the siblings. “Although there are lot of differences in their nature, the brother and sister complement each other," the same leader quoted above said.
A close relative was more candid. “Priyanka is essentially more ruthless than her brother. She believes in total loyalty and punishment when disobeyed," the relative said. “As in her speech against Arun Nehru in Rae Bareli in 1999."
Arun Nehru, a cousin of Rajiv Gandhi who served as a minister in his cabinet before the two men became estranged, later joined his political rival V.P. Singh. In 1999, when the Bharatiya Janata Party fielded Nehru as its candidate from Rae Bareli, Gandhi-Vadra campaigned against him and sought to target him as a traitor. Yet, when Nehru died in last July, it was Priyanka’s 13-year-old son Rehan who lit his funeral pyre.
The same relative added: “Priyanka is more people-centric, a better communicator but very short tempered and snaps easily when disobeyed. She has more charisma but (is) not a risk-taker in any way. She has a shorter-term vision than her brother but (is a) better hands-on manager of situations."
Officially, the Congress does not want to overplay the transition Gandhi-Vadra is attempting. Party spokespersons maintain that her attending a top-level meeting held at Rahul Gandhi’s residence earlier this week was just to discuss the campaign in Amethi and Rae Bareli. However, at least two ministers in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet admitted that Gandhi-Vadra’s intervention in key decisions had “significantly gone up" in the last two months.
Rasheed Kidwai, author of Sonia, A Biography and 24 Akbar Road (the address of Congress headquarters), notes that Sonia Gandhi too had ruled out entering politics before she eventually accepted the role of Congress president.
“The circumstances might have made Priyanka also to change ‘never’ to ‘maybe’. But its clear that it will not be either Rahul or Priyanka. It will be Rahul and Priyanka. The Congress also feels that there is a threat to the Nehruvian idea of India, which the family cannot let happen. By the election time, Priyanka will be taking a more pro-active role and may be the head of the campaign as Congress still has dearth of leaders who can pull crowds, to campaign," Kidwai said.
But it is unlikely that Gandhi-Vadra would be able to reverse the anti-Congress mood by playing the role of a campaigner or star attraction, said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a political analyst and a psephologist who works closely with the BJP.
“If the party moves Rahul Gandhi aside and announces Priyanka as its prime ministerial candidate, it will just add a new element to the campaign, nothing more. The general mood is against the Congress and Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi are at the centre of it and Priyanka is (just) a part of it," Rao said.