The way forward for Priyanka Gandhi
The capacity of the Congress to formulate its political message is limited to the projection of Priyanka Gandhi as its leader. She must use this opportunity to formulate a political message for the Congress, of the Congress, and by the Congress, and this is the way forward for the party.
It has emerged that Priyanka Gandhi is shifting her base to Lucknow, which indicates promising events for the Congress party. If Congress had deployed Rahul Gandhi solely in Uttar Pradesh since 2004, the story would have been different. If Priyanka commits herself to Uttar Pradesh alone for the next two decades, she can create history for the party that has already become historic in the annals of the state’s politics.
It is my opinion, however, that Priyanka should have chosen Prayagraj as her new home instead of Lucknow. Prayagraj, still popularly known as Allahabad, was home to her ancestors, who sacrificed a life of wealth and ease for India’s freedom. Those sacrifices gave immense legitimacy to the Nehru family in national politics. However, the Nehrus were able to influence the freedom movement due to the ideological zeal they inspired among the elites and the masses alike. Their ideology was the passionate narrative of how independent India would look and what benefits people would enjoy in free India. It was a neat composition of the idea of India by the Congress under the leadership of Nehru, Patel and Gandhi that created real momentum for the freedom movement.
The constant erosion of public memories of the freedom movement, as well as minimising the challenges faced by India after independence contributed to the demise of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh. It was a tragedy of Congress’ own making, as much as it was a deliberate strategy of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. If Priyanka Gandhi wants to revive the fortunes of the Congress in U.P., she must revive people’s positive memories of India’s freedom movement and the state’s iconic contribution to it. It will not win her the state immediately, but it can create a base of goodwill for the future.
Priyanka is often compared with her grandmother Indira Gandhi by her admirers. They may continue to project her as Indira’s 21st-century avatar. However, the real challenge for her is to make her followers accept the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. The counter-ideology of Congress, i.e. of Hindutva, had earlier mounted massive attacks on Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Today, however, they have been forced to accept these leaders as icons, at least in public. However, Nehru continued to be the lone target of merciless attacks by Hindutva campaigners.
The Hindutva brigade has been able to manage its contradictions of internal hate and public admiration of Gandhi and Ambedkar by mudding Nehru’s policies and character. The demolition of Nehru in public memory is almost complete and only a fringe intelligentsia remain his defenders. Priyanka must turn this tide to keep Congress hopes alive. Winning an election is secondary to political survival. Will Priyanka ask all Congress office-bearers and supporters to have a framed photo of Nehru in their homes? Something like that needs to be done and it needs to become a talking point in all the villages, towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh that Congress is not afraid of owning up Nehru. Congress supporters should have the ideological strength to defend and celebrate Nehru. This act would not be merely symbolic but a lot more substantive.
Once upon a time, not long ago, the poorer sections of society in our country used to hang portraits of freedom fighters - including that of Nehru - alongside photos of gods and goddesses. With the waning of this spirit, Congress fortunes also declined across the country. It was Nehru’s co-existence with other freedom fighters, and all the freedom fighters’ co-habitation with gods and goddesses on the walls of the downtrodden that kept Congress going, even during the very turbulent periods that followed after India’s independence. Can Priyanka ensure the co-existence of stalwart Congress leaders of the past with Nehru? Why can’t the sons of Uttar Pradesh like Lal Bahadur Shastri, Babu Jagjivan Ram and Maulana Abul Kalaam Azaad be the poster boys of the Congress along with Nehru, Patel and Gandhi?
Nehru was the heart of post-independent Congress, but he was not the life and soul of the grand old party. Similarly, Priyanka can be the heart of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh; however, to assume that she alone can hand down a defeat to the BJP is a benevolent fantasy. She needs many more Ajay Kumar Lallus to fight on the streets and go to jail if required. Priyanka should instruct the Congress leaders to read The Discovery of India and familiarise themselves with the words of Nehru. In fact, the Congress leaders in U.P. should make it a point to carry the Hindi edition of the book with them all the time. BJP leaders do not have a similar book of equivalence written by any of their leaders that defines and celebrates Indian culture and the birth of a nation as elegantly and precisely as scripted by Jawaharlal Nehru. Priyanka should make it a point to talk about the story of The Discovery of India or to quote from the book in each of her public addresses. This, however, is not sufficient to make a difference.
Priyanka Gandhi needs to connect herself with the historical development and decline of the Congress Party during the 62 years before India’s freedom, and the 75 years after our independence. She should stake claims to all her party’s achievements, but in the same vein, she must also own up to their mistakes, failures, and shortcomings. Ironically, today, the ruling party’s leaders celebrate all of India’s achievements but blame the Congress party for India’s failures.
It is now Priyanka’s job to build and popularize a new vision for India in the 21st century. Uttar Pradesh’s heart beats along with the rest of India. Rather, it is Uttar Pradesh that sets the political tone for the rest of the country. When Uttar Pradesh was overwhelmingly with the Congress party, Nehru and Indira Gandhi had no challenges in the rest of the country. When Uttar Pradesh’s politics became localized, the country’s politics was also fragmented. When Uttar Pradesh decided to side with Narendra Modi, the whole country also leaned towards him.
Every election is an opportunity for an unknown leader to emerge, and for an insignificant party to strengthen its base, to increase its influence, and to spread its political message. Without a comprehensive political message, which includes a desire to take the opponents’ politics by the horns, there can be no upward trajectory for any party or leader. The capacity of the Congress to formulate its political message is limited to the projection of Priyanka Gandhi as its leader. She must use this opportunity to formulate a political message for the Congress, of the Congress, and by the Congress, and this is the way forward for the party.