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Hide that smile & watch ’em howl
- THE PRIYANKA CHEMISTRY : How she works the crowds

At the Rae Bareli district magistrate’s office, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra whispered into husband Robert’s ear one moment. The next she listened attentively to what family friend Satish Sharma was telling her. In between, she flashed a smile at the cameras that hungrily fed on her face.

A photographer shouted: “Priyanka just keep looking at the camera.”

Suddenly, she dropped down on her haunches, disappearing in the crowd that had gathered to see Sonia Gandhi file her nomination for Rae Bareli last Tuesday.

A roar of complaints rose from the photographers and her face floated up again, naughty and radiant.

Young, pretty, Priyanka was playing a prank and more. She was playing the media, playing the crowds — and they loved the show. Such a show at poll time they hadn’t seen before.

It’s a show the Congress is putting its bottom vote on.

From next week, the one-member Priyanka Travelling Theatre Group will reach out to the people with two skits: Are members of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s family foreigners' And, was it fair to slap the Bofors kickback allegation on the late Rajiv Gandhi'

Sources in 10 Janpath said angry at remarks made by BJP leaders Narendra Modi, Vinay Katiyar and Pramod Mahajan about her mother and the family, Priyanka has decided to seek the people’s verdict.

Besides, in the family she’s the only one who can address crowds without referring to a prepared text. Family sources said in recent days, Sonia, Rahul and Robert have been advising caution, but Priyanka believes it’s time for some plain-speaking.

She had done some in 1999 when Arun Nehru, once a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi, took on Satish Sharma as a BJP candidate in Rae Bareli.

Mujhe aap se ek shikayat hai. Mere pita ke mantri mandal mein rehte hue jisne gaddari ki, bhai ki peeth mein chhura mara, jawab dijiye, aise aadmi ko aapne yahan ghusne kaise diya' Unki yahan aane ki himmat kaise hui (I have a complaint. A man who was a traitor in my father’s cabinet, who stabbed him in the back, answer me, how did you let this man in here' How did he have the guts to come here)'” she asked voters.

For whatever this emotional appeal was worth, Arun Nehru was defeated. It was important for Congress supporters, however, that this one member of the family could speak this way.

Which was why they were disappointed — and it showed, somewhat embarrassingly, in front of Rahul — when she told an Amethi crowd: “From now on, bhaiyya will look after you.”

“Does that mean you won’t be visiting us any more'” someone from the group of villagers who were walking with the brother-sister duo asked, innocently.

“No, no. I did not mean that. From now on, my brother will visit more than me. I will certainly come,” she said quickly.

It was thus two months ago as twilight was briskly sinking into evening Priyanka gave a hint of Rahul contesting from Amethi.

When she returned earlier this week with Rahul who filed his nomination papers, it was Priyanka again who opened the door of the car to lean out and wave as her brother was struck by stage fright with the crowd around them dancing and bursting crackers.

“Priyanka-Rahul Gandhi, Bharat ki ek andhi,” they shouted, comparing them to a sandstorm.

India, at election time, is often a festival that takes some getting used to.

Rahul is a stranger to all this, and he admits it, too. On the way to Rae Bareli, while Priyanka was talking to people, Rahul stood silently by. Suddenly, he tells a group of elders: “Chachaji mujhe ashirvaad dijiye (Uncle, bless me).”

“I know people have assumptions about me. I admit that I was a private person but I will grow,” he said.

If he is humble, Priyanka announces to the crowd which draws her attention to the sniper fire on the family: “The more they attack you, the better is the future of the Congress.”

It is for this future the 30-year mother of two will tour two dozen constituencies in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere to talk to people. She has been preparing herself for some time — consulting with academics, policy planners and spin doctors — to be able to answer questions.

The Congress is hoping that Priyanka will make an impact in 70-80 borderline constituencies. She had better because opinion polls are predicting a score of 100 or even less for the party.

Asked in Rae Bareli why she was not in the race herself, Priyanka said: “I have two small children to look after.”

Maybe, a 120-year-old party, too.

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