In his first year as the president of the party, Congress president Rahul Gandhi held out the olive branch to the older leadership. Ahmed Patel, Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath and some others have come to occupy key positions in the last 12-13 months of Rahul Gandhi's tenure. On Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi reached out to the younger leadership that had been a tad unhappy with leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot losing the leadership races in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, respectively.
The biggest surprise was the Congress president appointing his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the party general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi appointed Scindia as party general secretary for western UP. Senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, until now the party in-charge for UP, has been shifted as in-charge for Haryana.
K C Venugopal, another younger leader, replaces Gehlot as the party’s general secretary (organisation). Rahul Gandhi has come to trust Venugopal’s organizational skills in the last couple of years, and he played a key role in the Karnataka Assembly polls.
Appointing Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Scindia to manage UP indicates the seriousness with which the Congress party is treating its chances in the state. It also suggests that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra could succeed UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi as the party’s candidate from Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat. Last year, Sonia Gandhi had indicated that her desire to retire from electoral politics.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is not part of the alliance of Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal. However, these parties have decided not to field any candidates in the Congress president’s Amethi Lok Sabha constituency as also Rae Bareli, currently held by Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress game plan is to consolidate its upper caste support base in central and eastern UP region. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has never contested an election, but she has managed the party’s election campaigns in the past, quite overtly in family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, and behind the scenes during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and 2012 Assembly polls in the state.
According to sources, the Congress president believes the Congress would need its upper caste support base, particularly that of Brahmins, back in the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar if it has to regain its old glory. It is upbeat after significant sections of upper castes voted for the party during the recent Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In his first year as the party president, Rahul Gandhi had allayed the misgivings of the older leadership that he might marginalize them. Ahmed Patel was appointed the treasurer of the party, Azad held key positions, while P Chidambaram heads the manifesto drafting committee. Nath became the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and Gehlot the chief minister of Rajasthan. The appointments helped the Congress put up a good fight in the Gujarat Assembly polls, while it managed to form a coalition government in Karnataka and won the recent Assembly polls in the Hindi heartland.
However, Wednesday’s appointments, particularly of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, could be characterized as the Congress dynasty sounding the war bugle – that it would throw all it has into the battle against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s appointment also indicates that the Congress president could be looking at a certain division of labour between himself and his sister if the Congress were to form the government at the Centre - possibly he looking after the affairs of the government and his sister taking care of the party organisation. Party workers in Uttar Pradesh consider Priyanka Gandhi Vadra a charismatic and effective campaigner.
The Congress dynasty is known to take the battle into the enemy camp when in a tight corner, whether Indira Gandhi contesting the Chikmaglur Lok Sabha bypoll in 1978 or Sonia Gandhi contesting from Bellary in 1999. On both occasions, the Congress was out of power at the Centre and their respective wins marked somewhat of a revival of the party.
The question within the Congress is now whether Varun Feroze Gandhi, the first cousin of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, crosses over to join forces with them before the Lok Sabha polls. Varun Feroze Gandhi is currently a BJP Lok Sabha member from Sultanpur in UP.