Priyanka and the inheritance of power

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 04, 2019 17:12 hrs
priyanka

The decades since independence have largely followed the centuries that preceded it.

The throne passes on from generation to generation, with guardians installed between the death of a ruler and the coming of age of the next.

And so it has been with the Congress at the centre, and families of politicians in various states.

Priyanka Gandhi, who had refrained from active participation in politics after a brief foray nearly two decades ago, was on January 23 appointed the All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary for East Uttar Pradesh.

Once home of several Congress bastions, this region has been sliced up between various parties now. Priyanka Gandhi, who bears both a powerful name and an apparent resemblance to her grandmother Indira, has been chosen as key strategist for parliamentary constituencies which include Varanasi, that of prime minister Narendra Modi, and Gorakhpur, which saw the rise of Yogi Adityanath, current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

After successful visits to Amethi and Rae Bareilly, there is a good chance Priyanka Gandhi will take the lead in campaigning during the run-up to elections.

Before she has had the chance to start, the BJP appears anxious and its leaders have already shoved their feet into their mouths.

Subramanian Swamy told news agency ANI that Priyanka Gandhi suffered from bipolar disorder, “beat up people” and had “a violent character”, and that she could “lose her balance” and therefore it would be “inappropriate” for her to enter public life.

BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya referred to the Congress fielding “chocolatey” faces for the Lok Sabha elections. When he received flak for a “sexist” comment against Priyanka Gandhi, he arguably made it all the worse by claiming he was referring to “actresses”, and not Priyanka Gandhi.

I find myself concerned not so much by the reactions of politicians as those of that section of the public that deems itself liberal and progressive.

Our newspapers and web portals have carried several columns on sexism and Priyanka Gandhi, on Priyanka Gandhi’s significance to feminism in politics, on the “strong women” of the Congress (all of whom belong to the same family), and on her purported political astuteness and universal appeal.

With a brother and husband who provide the media with gaffes fairly regularly, Priyanka Gandhi only has to stay silent to appear astute by comparison.

But one can hardly speak of feminism and the space for women when the woman in question was born into power.

Not long ago, the media was speaking about woman-power in the context of Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, and Mamata Banerjee, all of whom entered politics in their youth and worked their way to their positions. Perhaps not coincidentally, all of them were single.

It becomes problematic when the “woman question” is confused with a political order that is already in place.

Jawaharlal Nehru assumed the prime ministership of a newly independent India, and it was amidst some controversy that his daughter Indira Gandhi took over as the leader of the Congress party after his death. Her death saw her sole surviving son, Rajiv Gandhi, assume the mantle. At the time of his death, his children were barely out of their teens. Sonia Gandhi, his wife, who had never been active in politics until his death, suddenly took centre stage. Though she turned down the prime ministership when it was within her reach, she retained leadership of the party through both its terms.

After the Congress’ election debacle in 2014, it was clear the party needed a new face.

In 2017, after a painfully sycophantic speech by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, took over as the President of the Congress. In his time in office, he hasn’t proved particularly popular, and his declarations to the media have not helped his cause.

Right when it seemed there was a fair chance this generation of the Nehru-Gandhi clan would not produce a prime minister – the other politically active grandchild of Indira Gandhi, Varun Gandhi, is in the BJP and seems a fair way from prime ministership – 47-year-old Priyanka Gandhi has entered the fray.

There is something to be said for inherited power – children of political families are groomed practically from birth – but the euphoria over Priyanka Gandhi’s “rise” to power seems misplaced.

It is not clear whether the Congress will field the sibling duo for 2019, and India has had unlikelier prime ministers than Rahul Gandhi. His sister, by dint of her silence alone, seems to have a better chance at the title. And she may well be a good choice for the role. But her inheritance must be acknowledged, and perhaps the gushing ought to wait till she has proved her mettle.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends

The hooligans in our homes

Why the Ambanis should rule India

Five statues the government should build


Killing Nature: Where science and religion colludeWhy bother saving the tiger? 

Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com