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Congress Plans to put Priyanka where Rahul is
MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 17th May 2014

here is a considerable body of middle and senior-rung Congress functionaries who are loyalists of Priyanka Vadra-Gandhi, people who have been quiet for the decade since Congress president Sonia Gandhi chose son Rahul over her daughter to be her political heir and the prospective replacement for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

After the rout of the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, these individuals are meeting with each other with increasing frequency in order to craft a road map for their chosen leader to emerge as the effective head of the Congress, in a context where Sonia Gandhi may make this her last stint as the Member of Parliament from Rae Bareli. "The plan is for Rahul to shift to Soniaji's constituency in the next poll, as this is safer, and for Priyanka to contest from Amethi in 2019," said a family loyalist who saw the Lok Sabha elections that year as a "winning proposition" for the Congress, "provided Modi was unable to satisfy voters who have such huge expectations of him". He expected the NDA to be replaced with a coalition government that would be led by the Congress.

Priyanka Vadra-Gandhi, according to a senior office-bearer of the Congress, reached out a few days ago to Minister of State Rajiv Shukla to "arrange a meeting of regional satraps of the party, including Chief Ministers, with her". Before doing so, Shukla is reported to have contacted political secretary to Congress president Ahmed Patel, who is reported to have called up Priyanka, presumably to enquire why he himself was not chosen as the channel to organise such a high-powered get-together. After that call, plans for the meeting were dropped, but not before Priyanka "rang up Rajiv Shukla and berated him for his indiscretion in talking to Ahmed Patel about her request".

Unlike Rahul Gandhi, who needs long stretches of time out of the country in order to recover from the hurly-burly of politics, and who left India on a sojourn abroad just after campaigning ended on 10 May, returning only after a controversy erupted over his absence from the farewell dinner for the PM, "Priyanka can be very hardworking, and she is not at all uneasy with the dust and dirt of politics in this country", according to an admirer who would like to see her as "the Prime Minister of a coalition government in 2019". Unrealistic as this may sound in the aftermath of a crushing victory by the BJP, Congress functionaries close to Priyanka Vadra-Gandhi say that she has told her closest aides "to draw up plans for doing well in the 2017 Assembly elections in UP, followed by a strong showing in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections". These individuals expect that after a cooling-off period of 18 months, during which the expectation is that Narendra Modi will fail to meet the sky-high expectations of his voters, the situation "will be favourable for Priyanka to take the centre stage of opposition politics in the country", according to a key adviser.

According to these sources, "Priyanka would like to show that she will fight back hard if they (i.e. Team Modi) target her husband Robert Vadra". Hence the aggressive attack on the BJP and specifically on incoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after both focused on specific business transactions of Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law. According to her supporters, Priyanka regards her tactic as successful, as "after her counter-attack, the references to her husband became much less". Team Priyanka wants to "re-create the magic of Indira Gandhi in Priyanka, so as to revive memories of Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter". The plan is to enter the political ring after disenchantment sets in with Modi, as Team Priyanka is sure will happen, given the scale of the problems facing the new PM. "She wants to establish contact first with key leaders in her own party, and then reach out to possible allies in the 2019 elections. The game plan is to speed up activity in 2016, in time for the UP Assembly polls the next year and the Lok Sabha polls two years later." According to a senior leader, "Priyanka has asked us to ensure in whatever way we can that Modi becomes a one-term PM."

And what of Rahul Gandhi? While outwardly respectful of Sonia Gandhi's choice as heir to her position as Congress supremo, the evolving Team Priyanka believes that their candidate is better suited to "both attract the voters as well as deliver on strong opposition and good government". They say that the "ideal situation" would be "Priyanka as PM and Rahul as Congress president" or even vice-versa, "as Priyanka is very close to her brother and would be happy to see him get the job".

To those sceptical of Priyanka Vadra-Gandhi's chances of wresting power back from a Modi-fied BJP in 2019, Team Priyanka points to Indira Gandhi after the 1977. "In 18 months after the defeat, she (Indira) was back in the reckoning, and in a further 18 months, back in power. This is what you will see with Priyanka," a confident, if somewhat optimistic adviser to the sister of the Congress' heir apparent told this correspondent.

Clearly, Priyanka Vadra-Gandhi is determined to ensure that the battle against Narendra Modi continues and is won, even after the 16 May Congress rout at the hands of the hard-driving follower of Sardar Patel.

 
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