“Sanjivani hai Congress ki (She is like Sanjivani—the mythical magic herb—for the Congress). People see Indira Gandhi when they look at Priyanka. She comes across as a more mature politician than Rahul Gandhi. The manner in which she talks to people, she is able to establish a connect with the people which is missing in Rahul," said Kapoor, 30.
She is not the only one with such views in this holy eastern Uttar Pradesh town, whose lawmaker in New Delhi is none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Congress has found the new Indira Gandhi, her face is disturbing all political parties. Congress is going to benefit from her arrival in the political stage. She is being compared to Indira Gandhi; people feel their leader has come back," said Manish Shukla, a 31-year-old tax lawyer. He believes two controversial issues —demonetization and the way the goods and services tax was rolled out—will work against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the coming general elections.
This gushing first response is a cause for elation in the Congress but it also brings concern—not just for the BJP but, ironically, the Congress party too. While the injection of a high-profile personality in the campaign could galvanize the Congress cadres and make it that much harder for the BJP, the popular enthusiasm could also pose a distraction for the leadership of Congress party president Rahul Gandhi.
The Priyanka mystique
Even though the appointment comes at a time when the Congress under Rahul Gandhi is on an unprecedented high after vanquishing the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the popularity of Priyanka and curiosity among voters is growing —and that’s even before she holds a public meeting in Uttar Pradesh. The first public meeting of Priyanka is expected to be in Lucknow on 10 February when she launches the Congress’s Uttar Pradesh campaign along with her brother Rahul Gandhi.
“The Congress has worked for the people but the problem is Rahul Gandhi doesn’t connect with the voters, not many people take Rahul Gandhi seriously. Priyanka is different, she inspires hope," said 18-year-old Tripti Verma, a first year commerce student at BHU.
“Priyanka Gandhi is the saviour of Congress, people believe that she can inspire because she resembles her grandmother and has the political acumen and personality to take on Modi. Not only Congress (supporters), Priyanka comes as a beacon of hope for all those voters who are not with the BJP. She is the saviour, the one leader who can fight against the BJP nationally," said Ajay Kumar Yadav, assistant professor at BHU.
Expectations are running high in a party that has been reduced to a fringe player at the moment—managing to win only in Rae Bareli and Amethi in the 16th general election. This is exactly why regional heavyweights, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), left the Congress out of a state-level alliance.
The state unit of the Congress party believe that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s appointment could script a revival for the party.
“We feel that the self-belief of common Congress workers is back after the decision. Priyanka Gandhi will focus only on eastern UP; this kind of focussed attention was missing for long. In 2009 general elections Congress had won 21 seats, out of which 13 seats were from east Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is coming to eastern Uttar Pradesh because she knows that Congress has a good chance of repeating its 2009 Lok Sabha polls performance. We want her to not just campaign but also contest elections from Varanasi," said Ajay Rai, the Congress leader who contested against Modi in the 2014 general elections.
Make eastern Uttar Pradesh a prestige contest between the Congress and BJP, local Congress leaders believe, can upset PM Modi’s national campaign.
“The longer Modi stays in Varanasi, it will be better for us," said Raghvendra Chaubey, general secretary of the Youth Congress.
However, the arrival of another member of the Gandhi clan poses the risk of splitting the opposition vote.
The Modi factor
“The single biggest achievement of Modi is that he has successfully managed to change the agenda of the elections, both national and assembly. Earlier people were only talking about electricity, water and security but now there is discussion about jobs and rural distress. ," said Anil Kumar Gupta, a 36-year-old general store owner at Assi Ghat.
There is a section of voters who feel Modi’s charisma and the work done by state and central BJP governments will eclipse Gandhi Vadra’s appeal. They speak about the public works undertaken by Modi in Varanasi, particularly construction of roads, cleaning of the Ghats or banks of Ganga, and improvements in the power situation and law and order.
UP is important for the BJP as the party and its allies won 73 out of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats. The gamble to get Modi contest from Varanasi paid off for the BJP as it ended up dominating the region.
“There is no competition. The PM’s popularity and the work done by the government will be the key for us. These people have nothing else so they want to showcase caste, religion and personality," said Mahesh Chand Srivastava, the zonal in-charge of BJP who looks after 14 Lok Sabha seats in Kashi region. Srivastava emphasized that Modi visited Varanasi at least 25 times in the last four-and-a-half-years.
Political analysts believe that the growing popularity or curiosity among voters for Priyanka Gandhi could potentially draw away a section of the upper caste voters from the BJP.