The Modi-Priyanka battle that never was

It was on April 26 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi filed his nomination in Varanasi parliamentary constituency, where polling will be held in the last phase of India’s parliamentary elections on May 19. On the same day, the Congress Party, Modi’s principal challenger across India, made the announcement that its candidate against him will be Ajai Rai, bringing off a tame end to four weeks of intense speculations about the possibility of Priyanka Vadra Gandhi being pitted against the Indian PM. Had the Modi-Priyanka electoral face-off materialized, it could have provided a mouth-watering curtain-down to the marathon polling process that began on April 11.

It was after all Priyanka who sparked the speculations on March 28 when the Congress workers called upon her to fight the election from Rae Bareli, the traditional stronghold of the Gandhi dynasty in India’s electorally most crucial state Uttar Pradesh, and pat came her reply “why not Varanasi?”  Only a few days before April 26, she had said in reply to questions from journalists that she was willing to face the Prime Minister in the electoral battle if her brother and Congress President Rahul Gandhi asked to do so. Added to the buzz about Priyanka’s candidacy in Varanasi was none other than her husband Robert Vadra’s remark in the media that his wife would be a strong candidate against Modi. A few days later, Rahul, on being asked by reporters if his sister would be fielded against Modi, remarked “it’s good to keep up the suspense.” 

Suspense is a potent tool often used in political cat-and-mouse game. But not always! Comments by Rahul, Priyanka and Robert Vadra helped to build up frenzy about the possibility of a Modi-Priyanka standoff in Varanasi.

Political circles in India have remained rife with speculations about Priyanka contesting the elections ever since she was drafted into the party and given the onerous responsibility of General Secretary in charge of eastern part of Uttar Pradesh.  That is but natural given that many in the Congress regard Priyanka as more charismatic than Rahul with an ability to quickly connect with the people much like Indira Gandhi.  

The opinion in the Congress was divided on whether Priyanka should be put up as a candidate against Modi. While one view was that it would have galvanized the Congress rank and file in Uttar Pradesh where the party has been organizationally moribund since long and has been relegated to the sidelines by the BJP and Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combined.  The other opinion within the party was that whether it would have been worthwhile to Priyanka should take the risk of contesting against Modi because defeating the latter in Varanasi would have been impossible, more so when she has a chance to contest from a safer seat to make a successful electoral debut.

No doubt contesting against Modi would have confined Priyanka almost entirely in Varanasi preventing her from what she is doing now—campaigning for the party across India. Some analysts believe that had Priyanka contested against Modi and given a tough fight, even a defeat would have helped her political career. But the question is: does Priyanka require such quick access to political capital given the family she belongs to? When she took the formal plunge in politics in January this year, it must have been a very well calculated move with a long future in view. Pitting her in such a tough battle would have been politically unwise.

There are reports in a section of the Indian media that Rahul and Sonia Gandhi did not want Priyanka’s electoral career to begin with a loss and Priyana acceded to their decision. After all, Priyanka has a chance to have a much easier electoral outing from Amethi from where her brother is in fray as an additional constituency provided Rahul wins it and then decides to vacate it and retain Wayanand seat.

But the announcement of the Congress candidate for Varanasi Ajai Rai was possibly a political blunder—the day of Modi filing the nomination, a day after a massive road show was held. By all accounts, the crowd at the road show was something never seen since the 1970s when Jai Prakash Narain had organized a rally soon after the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi or in early 1990s by V P Singh. The people’s response to the April 26 road show by Modi surpassed even the one he had held in Varanasi five years ago when he had contested the parliamentary poll for the first time.” The response to Modi by the people of Kashi (Varanasi) was spontaneous and huge,” assesses veteran political analyst Neerja Chowdhury in a newspaper article.

The Modi road show was not meant to send a signal to Varanasi voters but to electors across Uttar Pradesh which is electorally the most crucial state with the highest number of seats (80) and where the BJP appears to find the going tough against the powerful social coalition of non-Dalit and backward Yadav Hindu castes and Muslims of Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. It should not be forgotten that in the last parliamentary polls in 2014 and in Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections in 2017, it was an unprecedented consolidation of Hindu votes cutting across caste divides that contributed to the BJP’s remarkable victories. However, that consolidation does not seem to be happening in this year’s national polls posing a major challenge to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

A fall-out of the anti-climax to the speculations about Priyanka-Modi contest is that it has left the Congress workers in UP sorely disappointed and given the the Bharatiya Janata Party a chance to attack Priyanka. Soon after the Congress announced that its candidate against Modi in Varanasi would be Ajai Rai who had finished a distant third in the previous poll in Varanasi five years ago, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his blog that Priyanka “quietly chickened out of the contest” in Varanasi and the “myths” about her “stand eroded.” What has also not helped the Congress is that discordant voices emerged from the party as to why Priyanka did not contest from Varanasi. While the party spokesman said the decision not to field Priyanka in Varanasi was that of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, the Gandhi family’s close friend Sam Pitroda insisted it was Priyanka’s.

Arunabha Bhattacharya is a contributor based in India