Uttar Pradesh, Nov.15: As Uttar Pradesh prepares for assembly polls next year, Congress’s Priyanka Gandhi is back at the frontline to revive her appeal as a CM face and a leader who could win voters over. She is expected to play on her identity of a woman, and her grandmother’s look-alike and an alternative to her brother.
Priyanka Gandhi has a lot on her hands. The Indian National Congress (INC) has seen the gamut of problems facing a weakening party. Congress MLAs defecting and internal squabbling in Punjab are only two flashpoints. Criticism about the lack of competent leadership from the Group of 23 members has only added fire to the Congress becoming a ‘dynasty.’ The national party’s fringe-presence in States like Tamil Nadu is not helping its fight against the BJP.
In this context, Priyanka Gandhi, touted as the Grand Old Party’s saviour, must turn over a new leaf for the jaded party. For this purpose, Gandhi’s weapons of choice have been electoral identities, besides banking on anti-BJP insurgency and alliances. These identities come with a customisable package for different kinds of voters. They can swing between nostalgia for loyal Congress voters to empowerment for the young woman voter. Gandhi began working on these identities early in 2019.
‘One among you’
When she first took over in 2019 as the Congress general secretary for Uttar Pradesh, she had a slack party in her hands. Ground-level workers were weary after the party’s crushing defeat in 2017 assembly polls. So, it came as a pleasant surprise to them when Priyanka Gandhi, the ‘high command’, called them in for a late-night meeting in Feb. 2019. The meeting went on till 5.30 a.m. Later, the workers confessed that they “never got a chance to speak to the Congress high command like today”, according to The Print. In response to this, Gandhi replied that she was one among them, only a local worker.
In that meeting, Priyanka Gandhi made BJP’s anti-Congress dynasty plank a double-edged sword. By identifying as one of the local workers, she turned the argument on its head. Since then, Gandhi has continued to consciously forge and cement this localized identity.
Her visits to Hathras, Sonbadhra and more recently, Lakhimpur Kheri, have all been a means to this end. Braving attempts by the police to stop her, Priyanka Gandhi cut a virtuous figure when she visited the victims in these areas amid huge media attention. These visits were fuelled by her unrestrained, fiery messages on social media against the government and in support of the families.
While every politician attempts to fit into this localized identity, for Priyanka Gandhi, it is a necessity to fully embody it.
Woman Power pitches
Then, Gandhi leverages the identity of a woman. She announced a slew of proposals for women and girls, including free bicycles for girls, e-scooters for women graduates, and smartphones for girls who passed class 12. Besides these, one proposal stood out. It was that 40% of the party’s UP Assembly tickets will be reserved for women.
With Uttar Pradesh sending out 80 lawmakers, 40% does seem like a good number. It may seem like a good plan, considering the potential of women voters to swing results. However, the Congress’s proposal is hardly novel.
Last year, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar announced an assembly poll promise of 50% panchayat seats for women. That is 10% over what Priyanka Gandhi promises. TMC’s Derek O’Brien announced the same 40% reservation in West Bengal earlier, too. While the success rates of these proposals across regions may be debated, the concept itself is not new. What is interesting is how this proposal lends itself to the identity of a woman politician.
At a press conference in Lucknow, Gandhi had her script down. It spotlighted two things. First was her visit to Hathras, Sonbadhra and Lakhimpur Kheri. Secondly, it signalled that she was a woman who understood and heard other women’s voices. Besides the trips, she also spoke about girls she met at other times.
This decision is for “the woman in Chandoli who dreams of becoming a pilot,” she said. The decision is for the “victims” of the Unnao case and the Hathras case, the girl from Lakhimpur Kheri who dreams of becoming the prime minister, and all the women in UP who want to change their State, she said.
This woman-centric rhetoric is built into the structure of her campaign itself. The phrase ‘Ladki hu Lad Sakti Hu’ (I am a girl and I can fight) flashes on Gandhi’s campaign posters. Gandhi’s social media is sprinkled with the hashtag #womenpower.
In one, she hugs women police officers. In another, she talks through her car’s window to a woman and her family. Then, there is a video of a young girl who calls for other girls to “fight.” Gandhi captions the post ‘Message from a young friend.’
While the electoral effectiveness of this messaging is debatable, they make up the scaffolding for Gandhi’s public persona. Every politician has to indulge in some form of identity-building. However, Priyanka Gandhi also has to keep a sinking ship afloat. So, she has to cherry-pick her identities, and find a sweet spot between her legacy and her individual life.