Priyanka Vadra has finally been formally anointed in the Congress Party albeit only as a General Secretary for Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Once she is in the race, opposition comments have started. Understandably the Congress cadres are going overboard and drawing parallels between Priyanka Vadra and Indira Gandhi. Mrs. Vadra will occupy the same room as her famous grandmother Mrs. Indira Gandhi, in the Congress office in Lucknow, in the hope of invoking the achievements of the past as a mirror of what to expect in the future.
Let us try and understand whether Mrs. Gandhi is relevant in today’s context, particularly with the younger Indians and the millennials or for that matter, even the older generation of Indians who would have lived through the years of her rule.
I remember the period when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister very clearly.
In 1971, when she engineered the formation of Bangladesh and created two nations out of Pakistan, I remember her with a lot of pride, primarily because my father was in the army and I had the opportunity to see thousands of Pakistani Prisoners of War in camps in Prayagraj, earlier Allahabad. We had lived through the 1971 war, switching off all lights at night and getting used to the sounds of the air raid sirens. The sight of thousands of Pakistani soldiers in their sand-coloured uniforms behind barbed wire fences was a source of pride for our soldiers and our country.
When I was in Delhi University during the period 1974 to 1977, I saw the other side of her during the 21 months of emergency.
I clearly remember how scared we used to be sitting in the Delhi University Special buses, not uttering a sound, not talking to friends, just in case someone was listening to us and would report back to the authorities. The eerie silence in these buses still rings in my ears.
Stories of opposition leaders and young college students being picked up at night from their homes and put in jail would circulate all over, through whispered comments. Possible vasectomy of able-bodied young men was a frightening scenario that all of us used to worry about. The censored press was only extolling the incredible achievements of the Prime Minister and her son Sanjay Gandhi during the emergency. As a young student, the only visible positives were that there were no power blackouts and the buses ran on time!
As young students, we craved an India where we would be free to speak once again.
This is the Indira Gandhi that I remember.
I wonder how relevant she is today or how relevant are her dictatorial methodologies today. It is also worth exploring whether Indira Gandhi is remembered or even understood by the youth of today. Does anyone remember all her excesses? Are her achievements and excesses relevant in a nation that has moved on and stopped looking at the past?
Her famous election slogan of “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty) only remained a slogan since no action was ever taken to implement its spirit and poverty has continued to this day. Rahul Gandhi has turned to the same slogan with his Minimum Income Guarantee without any idea of how this will be implemented or what it will cost (someone has estimated that this could cost upto 5% of GDP annually). He knows that it is very easy to make promises and later, either interpret it according to his convenience or deny that he actually said it.
The world has changed considerably in the last 50 years. From a bipolar world where we had to choose between the two ideologies of USA or USSR or remain nonaligned on paper and lean towards one of the two blocs. The USSR has imploded into several independent nations, and USA under Trump is focusing all its energies within its own borders. Nationalists are being voted to power and each leader is expected to carve out a space for his nation rather than ally with some bloc. People are tired and fed up of the promises made by politicians and they want a change.
India has changed dramatically since Indira Gandhi. There is much greater prosperity and significantly more job opportunities for the young. The Indian millennials now think of themselves as citizens of the world and not as citizens from a socialist country closely allied to the Soviet Union, who must keep seeking Government favours to move forward in life.
The Congress Party too has changed in the last 50 years. It is a weak shadow of what it used to be. It has destroyed all its advantages and learned to rely on coalition partners. The leadership is weak and indifferent and while the party cadres may, out of reverence, be required to pay allegiance to their leaders of the past it is doubtful whether they have any understanding or identification with such leaders. The Congress party, other than Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, have not really had any iconic leader they can look up to. Rajiv Gandhi got an enviable sympathy mandate after the assassination of his mother but was not able to utilise this very significant mandate.
The heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi wasted the first two parliamentary terms when his government was in power and virtually did nothing significant other than tear up some ordinances which resulted in a major embarrassment to his own government. In the current Lok Sabha, he did nothing till he was formally anointed the Congress President.
It is also worth examining what Rahul Gandhi has done for his parliamentary constituency Amethi or the parliamentary constituency of his mother Rae Bareli. There is very little for him to show in terms of what he has achieved for the people. It is very likely that the Congress will lose both the seats in the coming elections.
Once Rahul Gandhi was firmly in the saddle, with no specific agenda or game plan, he started to abuse the Prime Minister at every possible opportunity. Realising he was making no headway, he stoked up the Rafale controversy not backed by any proof, by his own admission. He has run out of ideas and probably believes that his sister, Mrs. Priyanka Vadra will be the game changer and will bail him out of the difficult situation he is in.
What can Priyanka Gandhi really do in the last few months before the elections? She is the last runner in a relay race where the first three runners have left her trailing and are now looking towards her to bring out an incredible burst of speed to beat the front runners who are near nearing the finishing line! The baton has been handed over to her.
Is it possible that she has been set up to take the fall after the elections so that the Crown Prince is not affected and can continue to muddle along for another 5 years with his tattered reputation covered up by his sister?
Can grand mother Indira Gandhi help Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra win these elections? Will her name and photographs fire up the voters to cast their precious vote in favour of the Congress Party? Will her name help Rahul Gandhi to establish a semblance of credibility as the leader of the Congress party?
Has the Congress fired its brahamastra which will leave a trail of destruction while destroying the opposition? Or is this a simple Diwali havai that has been fired to momentarily light up a dark sky?
Only time will tell.