April 29, 2009 5:35 pm

Sonia’s daughter steps up to Gandhi legacy

When voters go to the polls in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency on Thursday in India’s parliamentary elections, many will be voting for her daughter as much as for the Italian-born president of the ruling Congress party.

Mrs Gandhi, the 62-year-old widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the slain prime minister, is expected to win the Rae Bareli seat in Uttar Pradesh state hands down.

The constituency – the site of a bloody confrontation between farmers and the British in 1921 – has been held by the ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for much of India’s six decades of independence.

Now 37-year-old Priyanka Vadra, campaigning on behalf of her mother, is turning heads.

The grassroots electoral bastion of India’s best-known family is near impregnable. Apart from their name, the Gandhis over the years have brought roads, colleges, a telecoms factory and, most recently, a rail coachworks to a poor, mainly rural area.

Rival parties barely put up a fight for Rae Bareli’s 1.6m voters. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party admits it does not give any money to finance its candidate. The Bahujan Samaj party, which rules the state, says it is taking a “sportsmanlike” approach to the contest. Nonetheless, it claims that most of the factories brought to the area 30 years ago have closed and that low-caste people have few opportunities.

“Sonia Gandhi is just like a goddess. She’s a loving mother to Rae Bareli,” says Amit Mishra, a stationery shop owner and a devoted Gandhi family follower.

Her mother’s near certain victory has not stopped Priyanka from devoting days of campaigning vigour in Rae Bareli and neighbouring Amethi, her brother Rahul’s constituency, in the run-up to today’s poll. Weathering sweltering heat and dust storms, Priyanka has held centre stage at Congress party rallies. Fluency in Hindi enhances her draw. But her greatest advantage is what commentators identify as an essential quality of any Indian leader: a connection with the people.

K. L. Sharma, the family’s long-time campaign agent in Rae Bareli and Amethi, describes Priyanka as a “star campaigner”. He says her future in politics is a family decision, tiptoeing round what is an almost unspoken subject in the party. But among local activists and the Delhi elite, ambitions for the mother of two are starting to soar.

This election marks the emergence of Priyanka as a political personality. She has a winning smile, appears entirely unruffled among crowds of people and has a quick riposte. Her maturity has been displayed by her delicate criticism of her cousin, Varun Gandhi, a BJP candidate, who found himself in jail for inciting religious hatred against Muslims in a speech to a rally. Likewise, she has impressed with statements drained of any vengeance about the killer of her father, Rajiv, blown up on the campaign trail in Tamil Nadu in 1991.

Priyanka has campaigned for her mother and brother before. But this time round, though vague about her intentions and careful not to eclipse her brother Rahul who has been groomed by his mother as an earnest rebuilder of Congress and a possible future prime minister, Priyanka has considerably raised her profile.

Unusually, she has submitted to one-on-one interviews in which she candidly discussed issues surrounding her family and power and her own personal misgivings.

“I had this one moment of terror in 2004 when I peeked into her [Sonia’s] office and saw her surrounded by people exhorting her to be PM. I burst into my brother’s room and said, ‘She is going to die’,” she told one television network, referring to her mother’s weighing of whether to take the premiership or appoint Manmohan Singh after the last election.

Karan Thapar, a respected broadcast journalist, predicts the moment will come when Priyanka is called upon to make a similar choice. He believes she may be Congress’s best check on the ascendancy of Narendra Modi, the aggressive chief minister of Gujarat and a possible BJP prime minister.

For now, Sonia’s face stares out of the pamphlets in Rae Bareli, with an etching of her mother-in-law, Indira, in the background. Party workers deliberately try to draw out comparisons between the two women to maximise the Nehru-Gandhi legacy’s potency.

But increasingly Priyanka is being identified as Indira’s true inheritor, Sonia more a courageous torchbearer. Shallow comparisons with Indira’s looks – the angular nose and short-cut hair – are ready to turn into a deeper popular appeal.

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