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Is Robert Vadra a liability for Priyanka's political career?

Given the national anger over her husband's dubious land deals, protecting Robert Vadra can only harm Priyanka's political ambitions

Shantanu Bhattacharji  |  New Delhi 

With the political rhetoric of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls getting shriller, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, joined the battle last week amid a growing demand for her to succeed her brother Rahul Gandhi as the party’s election campaign. Priyanka is often compared to her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to whom she bears a striking resemblance. At present, the Congress is worried that the Robert Vadra issue adds to the scam-tainted image of the Grand Old Party.

“Robert Vadra was never a political resource for the Congress; he, however, did take part in the election campaign in the past as an appendage to the Gandhi dynasty. But, with the latest revelation of the alleged land deals, it will affect the party's prospect in the election because it will substantiate the Opposition charges of corruption of the Congress-led UPA II government. In that sense, it will be a powerful argument in the Opposition armoury to further embarrass the Congress party,” observes Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor of political science at University of Delhi.

Of late, Priyanka has come out all guns blazing against Narendra Modi and said she would not stay quiet. Inclement political circumstances, as the Gandhis prepare to deal with an unprecedented anti-Congress wave, are prompting her move to the national stage. However, it seems that Priyanka is fast losing the battle of perception over Vadra at present.

Imaging: Ajay Mohanty

“Robert Vadra's alleged land dealings and corruption charges against him will adversely impact Priyanka's political career. There is national anger and disgust over his misdeeds and corruption; and protecting him can certainly harm Priyanka's own political ambitions. Certainly, Priyanka will be a loser politically if she defends him as the Congress party itself is enmeshed in this mess,” says Asha Sarangi, associate professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

It is no exaggeration to say that Rahul Gandhi has proved a political disappointment. Priyanka appears to be a more natural leader than her brother, but a more high-profile role holds dangers for her at present. Now, Vadra has turned into an albatross around Priyanka’s neck. Have the controversies surrounding Vadra compelled Priyanka to curtail her game plan to play a more active role in politics? Has Vadra been unnecessarily dragged into the electoral debate? What Priyanka needs is the support of her mother as well as her brother Rahul Gandhi, which appears to be at best ambiguous. The verdict at the moment must be: Priyanka is effective to counter Narendra Modi but totally ineffective the moment the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate raises questions over the alleged RSVP (Rahul, Sonia, Vadra, Priyanka) model of governance.

“Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has entered the political arena strongly on behalf of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and she has seen as a potential threat to the saffron party. This is an attempt to repeat Sonia Gandhi’s last-minute entry into the election campaign in January 1999. However, conditions are very different today. Both in 1999 and today, it is too little, too late,” said Prem Shankar Jha, an independent political analyst and an eminent writer.

Priyanka is well aware that the BJP’s all-out assault on the tactless Vadra is a proxy attack on the entire structure of dynastic politics that has become the support of the Congress. The pertinent question is: Why did the BJP choose to attack a non-political person like Vadra in the last lap of elections?

“Modi versus Priyanka is the BJP-versus-Congress political battle, on the one hand; and their speculative victory or defeat respectively in this election. Modi is identified with communal politics and Priyanka with selective secularism or minority welfarism of the Congress Party. If the former is seen as a threat to national security and secularism, the latter is seen more as a saviour of the Gandhi dynasty. Therefore, the fight is also over non-dynastic and dynastic rule in this country,” said Sarangi.

It also appears that the Congress believes in the adage that public memory is short. In a well thought-out strategy, senior Congress leaders seem to be playing safe in the belief that unless Vadra does something silly again, as he did in the past — such as a display of his intellectual arrogance on Facebook (read mango people comment) — the issue would die a natural death.

“Public memory tends to be ephemeral. The opposition may score brownie points because of this revelation in this election; but, in the long run, I am not sure whether these revelations will have any impact on Priyanka's political career. Contrarily, Priyanka's defence of Vadra may also act in her favour especially for the village women who, being nurtured in a patriarchal environment, tend to view this as obvious to a patibrata patni showing her unstinting commitment to her husband regardless of the ferocity of allegations,” argues Chakrabarty.

Is it BJP’s masterstroke to confine Priyanka to Amethi and Rai Bareli and puncture her Varanasi plans? The BJP assault has highlighted what heavy baggage Damaad Shree will be for Priyanka, if she ever seeks to take on a larger political role. Is Modi’s belligerent attack on Vadra a tactical move to camouflage his alleged wrong land dealings with Adani Group in Gujarat?

“Attacking Vadra does not look like an attempt to draw attention away from his land deals with Gujarati industrialists. There can be no industry without land, so allotting land to Gujarati industrialists a normal functioning of the government. Modi attacked Vadra’s land deals as being speculative. This is different giving land even at favourable prices to favoured industrial groups,” said Jha.

There are enough scandals involving leaders irrespective of the political spectrum, including the dealings of another first damaad , Ranjan Bhattacharya, married to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster-daughter. At this stage, perhaps a comparative study of the sons-in-law of India’s politicians is called for.

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First Published: Wed, April 30 2014. 17:10 IST