My nationalism is to address farm distress and lack of jobs: Priyanka Gandhi

She talks a lot about her own children. She tells me she has finally made an entry into politics with due “permission” from them

By Sonia Sarkar in Rae Bareli
  • Published 5.05.19, 1:47 PM
  • Updated 5.05.19, 1:47 PM
  • 5 mins read
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In between answering questions, Priyanka turns back to see if I am comfortable at the back with three other people, is my car following me and so on. Telegraph file photo

Rae Bareli is burning, it is 42 degrees. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s face is flushed red. A stream of sweat trickles down her chin. As she opens a bottle of refreshment for a sip, a man comes running towards her, accuses her men of snatching away his phone. She remains calm, sends two of her staffers to look into the matter. “Just see there is no violence,” she tells them. Her programme is disrupted for a while. But that doesn’t take away the quintessential smile from her face. “You can’t take yourself too seriously, you have to learn to laugh at yourself a bit,” she tells me, turning her head to speak to me; I am seated behind her in the car.

The man in question is from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and possibly looking to disrupt her programme. “These things look trivial but they get blown up,” says Priyanka as she finishes the fourth meeting of the day at Gurha. Last week, a video clip of her from Amethi went viral. The clip shows her listening on as local children chant “Chowkidar chor hai”, but when they start to chant something abusive about the Prime Minister she reprimands gently, “Achchhe bachche bano.” She has been served a notice by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights for involving children in her election campaign. “I am a mother. I never teach anything bad to my children; why would I ever teach anything bad to any child?”

The 47-year-old talks a lot about her own children. She tells me she has finally made an entry into politics with due “permission” from them. “Rahul and I didn’t have a normal childhood. We witnessed so much violence. We couldn’t go to school after the age of 12 [they were home-schooled because of the security threats]. But I wanted my children to have a normal childhood. They are grown up now. I am here with my children’s permission,” she laughs.

Her children — Raihan and Miraya — didn’t have to witness violence up close, but they had to witness the vilification of their father, Robert Vadra. He has been accused of money laundering and has been summoned by the Enforcement Directorate many times in the last five years. “What has been conducted against my husband is a full-blown political vendetta. Obviously, it has consequences in terms of creating stress for the children and for all of us,” says Priyanka. She pauses and adds, “But it is part of politics and we will deal with it.” As we speak, she fiddles with the pink stripes of her green cotton saree which is a little crushed now.

This interview is done in three parts on the same day. The last bit happens in her car. In between answering questions, she turns back to see if I am comfortable at the back with three other people, is my car following me and so on. At her first meeting of the day at Amawan in Rae Bareli, she had told the crowd, “Sonia Gandhi has a lot of love for the people of Rae Bareli and she has worked hard for them.”

Not everyone in the crowd agreed though. Rae Bareli remains a backward district and villagers complain about lack of clean drinking water and poor power supply. Priyanka, however, lists out a range of small and big projects her mother has undertaken as an MP over the past 15 years — construction of roads, construction of classrooms, installation of taps. She accuses the BJP of impeding some of her mother’s dream projects. “The All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Rae Bareli set up by the UPA is running an outdoor-patient unit only, no expansion has been done by the BJP,” she says.

Priyanka rolls out a fresh set of promises to villagers — Congress will give Rs 72,000 payouts for the poorest in the country under the Nyuntam Aay Yojana scheme, otherwise known as NYAY; it will fill four lakh central government vacancies before March 2020; there will be a separate kisan budget every year. She could well be repeating herself but she is a good orator, weaves stories of other villages, draws parallels to the lives of the people here. But is this newly-appointed Congress general secretary of Uttar Pradesh (east) going to disappear again after elections? “Now I am not going to disappear anywhere,” she asserts.

But she is yet to take a plunge into electoral politics. There was speculation that she might engage in a face-off with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi. But ultimately Congress fielded five-time MLA Ajai Rai from the seat; Rai had performed poorly in the 2014 election. And now BJP is saying Priyanka is scared of Modi. “I am not scared of anyone,” she retorts and adds, “Initially, we were all sort of saying, why shouldn’t somebody fight from Varanasi? The media built it up to be a more serious thing than it was.” According to her, the party didn’t want her to be restricted to one constituency. “Here I am responsible for 41 constituencies. I believe if I am doing party work I should stick to doing party work,” she says.

Priyanka thinks on her feet, her responses are sharp and she never dodges any question. Will she fight the by-elections at Amethi if her brother Rahul Gandhi has to choose between Wayanad and Amethi? “We haven’t really discussed what would be the course of action if Rahul has to vacate one seat,” she says. It seems her sole target is to strengthen the party’s presence in the state before the 2022 Assembly elections. “We have to be very strong in the state for which I have to do lot of travelling,” she says.

But there remain issues both personal and political. Many say Priyanka’s charm doesn’t extend beyond Rae Bareli and Amethi, the family pocketboroughs. Analysts say Congress would have fared better electorally if there was an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But then, there is evident dissonance between the Congress and the SP-BSP alliance.

At a rally in eastern UP’s Barabanki, Rahul Gandhi recently said that Modi can suppress Mayawati-Akhilesh but he is not afraid of Modi. So what message is Rahul trying to convey, I ask Priyanka. “The message is very clear — he is saying he is not afraid,” she replies. “Perhaps they are [SP and BSP] and that is why they didn’t form an alliance with us. Forming an alliance would have meant the BJP would have stood no chance in UP.” It is too early to say if the BJP can be defeated; I point out that the BJP’s hyper-nationalism has resonated with the people. Priyanka says, “We are all desh bhakts. But it is important to address farmers’ distress and gross unemployment. That’s my nationalism.”

Even if she doesn’t believe in the BJP’s brand of nationalism, would it be fair to say Priyanka (and Rahul) have been forced into temple runs by the BJP? She was recently seen sporting a red tilak on her forehead and offering prayers to a banyan tree. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in fact, accused Congress leaders of being “chunavi Hindus”. Her reaction to that? “I have been visiting temples for the past 20 years.”

I prepare to get off the car, her team wants Priyanka to have lunch. I ask her about those videos that show her playing with snakes in Rae Bareli. Was that a photo-op, a trick Modi is said to resort to in order to go viral on social media. Priyanka says, “Somebody stopped me on the side of the road, took me into his village. He happened to be a snake charmer, so he took out his baskets full of snakes. Do you think all that was orchestrated? I am sorry, I am not an actor.”

Did she mean there is someone else out there on the campaign trail who could be called one? But I had no time to ask her that.